This is what I did for fun when I was a kid: I read, I cornrowed my doll’s hair, I read some more, I annoyed the crap out of my brother, and I waited anxiously for Fridays when my dad would let me ride shotgun while he drove around town paying his bills. When we got back home, I read. Again. Going outside to play wasn’t an option.
Not that I grew up somewhere nefarious where little black kids had to negotiate dope boys or gang warfare to play in the park; I was raised in Long Island, in a nice house, on a nice street, with a really nice backyard, and I refused to play in it. There were bugs out there. And nobody wanted to play with me, anyway. I took it seriously when my parents said that I should avoid playing in the sun because it would only make me blacker. Heaven knows I didn’t want to be any blacker. At least that’s what my parents used to tell me.
Come to think of it, that was the general line of wisdom from the ’rents whenever there was discussion of doing outside activities. “You don’t want to go to the pool—you’ll get blacker.” “Why on earth would we go to the beach? You just get black there.” “Play kickball? Outside? In the sun? Don’t you know you can get black doing that?” I got so used to them coming up with excuses for why they didn’t want to accompany me to outside adventures that soon enough, staying inside became the modus operandi—a lifetime one, really.
Several decades, three kids, a dog, and a mortgage later, I still don’t do backyards, bikes, parks, or beaches too much. I sit out on the deck overlooking our expansive back yard and immediately start swatting at invisible bugs, toss the ball around with the girls, and then find at least five reasons why I need to be back in the house. Alas, enjoying nature is not natural to me.
I never really thought about why that is until last week while Nick and I were watching The Today Show and Nick was reminiscing about how he used to see the celebrity who was being featured—Kevin Bacon—out in Central Park a lot, playing with his superstar wife Kyra Sedgewick and their kid. And I remember thinking, really? A celebrity in Central Park? Just playing with his kid and stuff? I pondered this for quite some time (probably way too much time considering how much work I had on my plate, but I digress), and got to thinking about how many times I saw my parents just, like, playing. And it dawned on me that the last time I saw that was, um, well, never.
I’ve never in my (mumbles age to herself) years on this earth felt my father’s hands on the small of my back, pushing me higher and higher on the swing as the air swirled around me, kissing my face. I’ve never seen my parents curl their toes in wet, salty, beach sand or splash in the rush of seawater slamming against the shore. I’m quite sure that I’ve never seen my father’s hand in a baseball mitt, or his sneaker booting a soccer ball toward a makeshift goal, or his fingers lining up against the stitches on an oval-shaped piece of pigskin. It wasn’t natural for them.
Wild stab at it, but I’m going to guess that they didn’t like being outside because they both grew up in the South, on farms, where being outside was all about work, hardly ever play. The two, longtime factory workers when I was growing up, also worked ridiculously long hours and, to be fair, spent their free time trying to rest up for more work on the job or church. Not much else.
Thank God—and my sporty husband—that the great outdoors is much beloved by my girls, even if their mother is a total lame. They think nothing of tumbling out of the garage, tennis rackets, soccer balls, basketballs, bikes, sidewalk chalk, jump ropes, and hoola hoops spilling from their arms, for the great driveway/backyard/front yard adventure. They erect humongous chalk cities—replete with cafes and movie theaters and gas stations and malls—on the concrete, and perform Olympic-worthy somersaults and back flips on the trampoline, and duel to the end in front of the soccer goal, sometimes with their bare feet digging into the dirt and grass while our dog, Teddy, looks on lazily.
Sometimes, they hang upside down on their humongous Rainbow swing set, talking about everything and nothing. They dig in the dirt and make seven-course mud dinners and pile rocks and study bugs, even as they scurry across their little fingers. Neither finds any of this gross. I do. But I don’t try to steal their joy. I just watch them from afar, wondering if I would have been a different, more outdoorsy girl if I had neighbors like them to drag me outside (a few of mine were forbidden by their mothers from playing with “the niggers,” another post, for another day, promise), or parents who just, like, made the time, a few minutes or so to enjoy the backyard they’d worked so hard to have.
My daddy lives in Virginia now, on the land he tended when he was a young boy helping his father with his burgeoning wood business. My father tends to his grass like a mother does her newborn; the greatest of care is extended to practically every blade. He’s always been a stickler about his lawn, my daddy. Except now, he encourages his grandbabies to run circles on it and cartwheel across it and dance in the rain of his sprinkler until they are drenched and giggled out and all shriveled up. Occasionally, my girls talk their papa into taking them to the local park, where the walking trail stretches so far you can walk from Virginia to North Carolina without leaving its bountiful borders. He walks with them slowly, steadily, tossing bread toward the ducks and geese, and pointing out the beauty of the great outdoors. He doesn’t point his face to the sun—you can get blacker that way—but he doesn’t stop my daughters from doing it. I don’t judge him. I understand. And I promise myself to try to do a little better.
By Denene Millner