Child’s Play

A mother recovers the ability to see a world teeming with strange magic.

Tristan Elwell

We live at Sweet Briar College and recently moved to an old brick house, hidden under a canopy of ancient trees on the edge of campus. We had been living just a few doors down, but had always admired this place on our nightly walks. When we heard the previous tenant was moving out, we indulged dreams of our children playing beneath the trees. The first day we moved in, we hung swings for each of them from the two tall poplars in our yard.

We spent that summer exploring our new grounds. Playing with my five-year-old daughter Charlotte one afternoon, we discovered an old stump in the front yard. The tree must have dropped years ago, and the stump was partially hidden by the circle of flowering grasses and perennials that once grew in its shade. Though not a proper fairy ring—which would be a circle of wild mushrooms—these plantings seemed to suggest, to me, some fantastical purpose. I asked Charlotte, “What do you think they’re hiding?”

Now, Charlotte might look at the stump and imagine it as an oven for baking mud pies, or an island in a rough sea, or a withered old tramp resting while soft grasses fan him, but whatever she sees, she knows it’s an old stump; it’s as plain as the nose on her face. So when I told her my suspicions, and suggested we check the stump for evidence of fairies, I wasn’t surprised when she looked skeptical. Many times I’ve tried to jump into a game of make-believe and unwittingly broken some rule or condition of her created world. But mom, she’ll say incredulously, school buses can’t fly, when seconds before she was flying in the family car. Her visions are both pretend and real all at once. Fairies are superfluous; in her eyes the stump is teeming with strange magic.

I’m not one to think of children as wise sages, but it does seem that they naturally have what the artist and inventor must strive to attain: the ability to see a thing as both what it is and what it might be. I must have had the same ability once, but I’ve grown older, and my sight has dimmed. What is child’s play for her is exhausting for me. I look at the stump and it takes all my concentration to summon the power to transform it into something more. Meanwhile, Charlotte is off to make a spinning wheel out of an old bike tire so she can weave flax into linen, on to the next game.

Every summer, we share our home with Endstation Theatre Company, who bring with them a creative energy that often seems magical. We look forward to their arrival—a college campus can be lonely in summer—and we enjoy seeing the troupe on our walks to the library, or in the buffet line at the dining hall. Some of them have become familiar to us by face and name. Whether rehearsing or playing Frisbee on the lawn near the dorms, Charlotte sees them as kindred spirits, and she’s impatiently waiting for a role in one of their productions.

Last year, they transformed the college’s old dairy barn, which is just a stone’s throw from our old house. They mowed down years of weeds to make way for the audience, lit the back wall of the barn so that it seemed to glow with ominous portent, raised gravestones under the walnut tree and hung a sign for “Elsinore Farm.” Charlotte and I play at this old barn almost every day, and yet when the sun set and the lights went up on the night of the first performance, it was no longer just a creaky and desolate storehouse populated by an obscene number of pigeons, old farm equipment, basketball goals, extra dorm room beds and broken benches. It was a surprisingly fine theater, a setting ripe for tragedy. She was thrilled by their efforts. Homebound with her newborn baby brother that summer, we all enjoyed those weeks that we heard Hamlet’s cries through our open windows, laughter and guitar strumming as the actors rehearsed and then performed in the evenings.

A year later, the weeds have grown in again, and all signs of the play are gone but one: Polonius’ handprint remains on one of the few panes of unbroken glass, a fond reminder of the few short weeks when the barn was both Charlotte’s playhouse and theirs. This summer, the troupe has moved into the campus’ old train station, transforming a platform and dislocated caboose, hedged by butterfly bushes in full bloom, into Ilyria, the setting for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

On opening night, Charlotte fell asleep on her blanket sometime after intermission, but as I watched the sun set on the players as it dipped behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, the occasional firefly brightening the Ilyrian evening sky, I thought I had recovered a little bit of what my daughter has in spades. The world seemed no longer inert and familiar, but charged and changing before my eyes. I know I will never see the old caboose quite the same way again.

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