I was contemplating this a few days ago as I put a birthday care package together for little Miss Greta Pancoe, my best friend Kristin’s daughter. I bought her Lego, of course, since she’s now 5 and that is the magic age, at least according to the box, that one is officially old enough to play with the best toy in the world.
My little brother Matthew and I spent hours playing with the stuff. Like our Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs, they were hand-me-downs from our older cousins Richard and Roger. The Legos were our favorites and nearly every weekend, if not every day, we’d spread the stuff out and get to work.
First, we had to dismantle whatever we’d made the week (day?) before by pulling apart all the pieces. If there is one thing not fun about Lego, it’s this process. I’d try to dig my fingernail in to lodge the blocks apart, but usually this would just peel my nail back. My mom would give us a butter knife, but its blade was too thick to get in the seam. Finally, I’d just try to pull apart the pieces with brute strength, but this would usually mean the fused block would slip out of my hand and fling across the room.
Matthew and I just had basic Legos, meaning just the building blocks, the big green platforms, the smaller blue ones. We did have windows that opened (and, no, I never tired of opening them) and some plastic trees that I think Matthew and I chewed on at some point. But we didn’t have a Star Wars kit or any themed Lego.
No matter though, because all I wanted to build was a castle. Like, every day I would build a castle. I’d start with the green platform and build my walls on it, each layer a different color because I was fancy.
My castle never looked like anything more than a rectangular block, so I guess in the grand scheme of things, not a lot of royalty would want to live there. I mean, maybe some bland German kaiser would go for it. Or a blind queen, who’d at least have an easy time getting around.
Anyway, then I’d build furniture — chair, couch, table, that should do it — and place it inside. This was tricky because my green platform was pretty small so getting the furniture affixed without it breaking took finesse. But I’d manage it in time and then build the roof with those blue slanting pieces and cover it all up with another platform.
I didn’t realize what I dunce I was at playing Lego until I started playing it with my stepdaughter Gabrielle. I, of course, got to work on my castle. But Gabrielle? Oh no. She started making dogs and cats. Then she built them shelters and food dishes and filled them with food. Then the fish needed aquariums and the chickens needed a coop and the horses needed a barn. Her imagination was endless and, get this, she didn’t even use a platform. Talk about blowing my mind.
I finally texted Matthew a picture of what she’d made.
“Remember how you only built a gas station?” I said.
“We’re dumb,” he responded.
But I have to give Matthew credit. His gas station wasn’t just any gas station. As we got older (and the 80s started getting really pimp), we moved our Lego game to the hot tub. He’d set up his gas station on the side of the tub and we’d build stairs and a dock and put the gas pumps waterside. Then we’d take turns being the owner and the customers.
We had one speedboat (also courtesy of Richard and Roger) and, thankfully, its owners could go through a whole tank of gas in under five minutes. Then we had a fat little tugboat that, really, was a baby toy, but we overlooked that. Then sometimes we’d have big storms and the gas station would be destroyed so we’d have to rebuild. It was a tough life, but we squeaked by.
Not so for the people who lived in the creations Gabrielle and her dad built together. It took months, but together they built a grocery store, a department store, a fire station, all of which contained exquisite detail and looks like it belongs in New York City.
For little Miss Greta Pancoe, I bought her a new kind of Lego, a line called Friends that is geared to girls. I bought her the vet clinic and the summer caravan and I know Kristin and I would have drooled over this as kids. Since it is themed, I wonder if some of the wonder will be lost. Hopefully not. Hopefully what extends from simple plastic blocks will be rich memories. And she’ll arrive at the same conclusion we did.