When the Madness was a small, fat baby, everyone said she looked just like her father. I didn’t see it. Mostly babies all just look like babies to me. But whether or not she looks like the engineer, she is most definitely his child in so many ways. Usually, the most frustrating ones.
This is a meandering story about LEGO and awful parenting, take from it what you will.
We have rather a lot of LEGO, by my standards. Many, if not most of them are remnants from the engineer’s childhood. When his parents handed off the six tons of LEGO they’d had stored in their basement, I was floored.
“My GOD you were spoiled!” I said, digging through the bricks.
He rolled his eyes. He never gets tired of my pointing out just how spoiled he was as a child. But he totally was.
I remember a small box of LEGO bricks that I would play with at my grandparents’ house. My brothers and I could definitely kill a few hours building a little house (me) or a few vehicles of unclear military origin designed for blowing up little houses (them).
The engineer had enough blocks to built SEVERAL little houses. And a whole FLEET of vaguely militaristic vehicles! And there were so many tiny people!
Well if the engineer was a bit spoiled, my kids are just wrecked now. The LEGO never stopped coming. Kit after kit after kit. So many little houses and vehicles and people.
I’ve since learned that there are two types of people, when it comes to LEGO. Artists and engineers. To me, LEGO is meant to be built and broken and rebuilt into bizarre structures for tiny people to have tiny adventures in. For the Madness and her father, LEGO means following a series of instructions to create the picture on the box. If she had access to Krazy Glue, she would use it.
I learned this the hard way. Like I learn most things. The Madness, for her birthday, chose to forgo a big party in exchange for getting a dream LEGO set. Heartlake Grand Hotel. Three stories, a revolving door, and a working (sorta) elevator. It took SO LONG to build. She was, I think, 9 that year and needed a lot of help, which her doting parents were happy to give. After that, the hotel sat in a place of honor in the living room where it took up a great deal of space and nobody played with it.
Then a little boy came over and suggested it was time to dismantle the thing to make more things. Because that’s exactly what I was thinking, I didn’t intervene as the hotel was unceremoniously demolished. I may even have clapped.
The Madness, it turns out, was gutted. Her silence during demolition was not tacit agreement, but overwhelmed horror. She was inconsolable for days. Core childhood trauma, right there. Never forget the Heartlake Hotel.
“I don’t get it,” I told the engineer. “She didn’t even play with it! What’s the point of a toy you don’t play with? I mean, you didn’t just follow the instructions when you were a kid, right?”
“I never had instructions,” he said.
“Exactly! Just, like, a box of random bricks and the vastness of your own imagination, right?”
“No,” he said, looking pained. “I mean my mom threw out the instructions. She thought they’d limit my imagination. All I wanted was to build the thing on the box. You know how hard that is without instructions?”
I try so hard not to laugh when I think about it, but that’s the most hysterically awful, well-intentioned form of engineer torture I can imagine. It’s both a thing that wouldn’t bother me at all, but also sounds like the sort of devious cruelty you’d find in one of the more specific circles of hell.
Fast forward three years. It’s the start of quarantine. Our home’s surfaces are covered with many dusty, completed LEGO sculptures that are, in my mind, a waste of tchotchke real estate. The kid brings up, for roughly the millionth time, that stupid hotel and my failure to protect it. Core childhood trauma.
“Fine,” I said, “let’s just make it again.”
Her face is a mask of disbelief.
“Seriously. You still have every instruction manual ever; find it and I’ll help you build the thing again.”
“What if we can’t find the right pieces?”
“We’ll use different pieces.”
“You can DO that!?”
“I mean…yes. I can’t promise it’ll be all white and perfect, but if you don’t mind a multi-colored hotel, I’m sure we can find the right shaped bricks.”
And we did. It took a few days, and a certain degree of improvisation. She was open to my suggested renovations (like a juice bar instead of a lobby and a wave pool on the roof) and we made it happen. It was the perfect blending of our very different personalities into a single visual metaphor. With a working elevator.
That seems like a satisfying end to a story about failing and attempting to understand a small person you built yourself. But there’s always one more attempt and failure waiting in the wings.
A week later, she got very riled up and, in a now uncharacteristic burst of “early the Madness,” actually hit me. Well, flailed an arm in anger and caught me right in the face. The look in her eyes of total horror and instantaneous regret was *almost* punishment enough. ALMOST.
I stalked the house, filled with impotent rage (because one can’t hit back, obviously. Violence begets violence). That’s when I spied the Heartlake Hotel. I took the LEGO hotel and hid it in the basement. Then, to make a point about the foolishness of acting in anger, I told her I destroyed it. Boy was she gonna learn an important lesson! I thought. Sweet, sweet psychological revenge. (Yes, I can be a giant child when my feelings are hurt.)
She looked at me, nodded sagely in understanding and said, “Yeah, I probably would have done that, too. It’s okay, mom.”
Engineers, man. They’re just completely impossible.