When Grace, my daughter, was a little girl, we played a lot of made-up games — her made-up games. “Let’s play Orphans,” she would say, and we would pretend to scrub floors and stir imaginary cauldrons of soup and complain bitterly to each other about how badly we were being treated at the orphanage. Or she’d announce, “Today let’s be farmers,” and we’d fill imaginary baskets with imaginary vegetables we picked on the playroom rug as we talked about how the animals were getting along, about the chance of rain, about the other farmers in the neighborhood.
Or we’d take turns making up TV commercials, complete with jingles, about imaginary products. We kept each other amused by inventing ever more outlandish products. Or we’d audition each other for shows we made up — or we pretended to be actors or singers preparing for auditions, helping each other choose a song, making up short monologues to perform and practicing them, offering each other tips.
By the time Grace turned 8, she had a best friend named Kristin. She had other friends too — Anna and Hannah from the block, a couple of girls from her class she sometimes brought home after school. Still, I can’t recall a day that we didn’t play together. After her friends went home, or she came home from their houses. Right before bed. On weekends, in the morning when we first got up. In the backyard after dinner on summer nights.
The summer after she turned 8, I remember, she thought up a game one evening in the backyard after dinner when she was in the swing and I was sitting in a rocking patio chair, drinking a glass of wine. We’d been talking, idly, not playing anything at all, when she said, “I know — let’s play ‘Trivia in the Swing.’”
“All right,” I said. “Tell me how it goes.” I was accustomed to her making up games, naming them on the spot, expecting me to jump right in and play them with her. I was always willing to jump right in and play them with her.
As it turned out, Trivia in the Swing had nothing to do with trivia (it didn’t have anything to do with the swing, either) — and after that first night, we would often play it over dinner, when it was just the two of us, or when we were alone together in the car. She didn’t know what “trivia” meant, but she liked the sound of it and had heard it in the context of “trivia questions” — she assumed it had something to do with questions and answers, and the game she invented was all about questions and answers. Hard questions, hard answers. (Eventually we renamed the game “Hard Questions in the Swing” — even though, as I say, after that first time, there was no usually no swinging involved.)
The way it went was this:
She’d ask me, say, if I had to choose between publishing another book and keeping her as my daughter, which would I choose?
I’d choose her, I would tell her.
But you’d be sad?
Yes, very sad.
If the choice didn’t make you sad, it was agreed, it wasn’t a good Hard Question in the Swing.
I was supposed to ask her hard questions too, though I tried not to ask any that would make her too sad, too conflicted. I never asked which parent she would choose if she could only keep one of us, or which set of grandparents; I never asked her to pick just one — or three, or five — of her stuffed animals, all of which she adored. But I asked her, “If you could pick three people in your life now — not counting relatives — you could continue to know for the rest of your life, who would you choose?”
A good “Hard Question in the Swing” had to take a long time to answer, and this one did, once she got past Kristin.
Still, she didn’t think I was brutal enough. She wanted to be asked hard questions, she would insist. And I knew, really, that that was why she invented the game: not to ask but to answer hard questions. So from time to time she coaxed me along toward asking something tougher than I would otherwise come up with on my own. Once, as we sat on our front porch — swinging, in fact, on our bench swing, sitting side by side as we played the game (she had just asked me to choose between New York City or a beach — “and once you pick one you can never have the other again”) — she suddenly confessed to a “secret wish” that she could have known me when I was her age. “I bet we would have been friends,” she said wistfully.
I knew what she was getting at.
“All right,” I said. “So…if you had to make a choice, and we could both be 8 years old and be friends but it meant that you’d have a different mother, which would you choose?”
This was a good one, I could tell. This took so long I closed my eyes and rocked us in the swing for ten minutes. I might have dozed off; it was late. In summertime I let her stay up almost as late as she wanted to.
“I’ll keep you as my mother,” she said finally. Regretfully. “That is, if you’re absolutely sure you couldn’t split yourself in half and be two people at the same time — girl and mother both?”
I was — alas — absolutely sure. I told her that.
What I didn’t tell her:
That I sometimes wished too that we were the same age, that we could have been friends. Because Grace was exactly the sort of friend I’d yearned for when I was a little girl. It would have changed my life to have had her as a friend — I was so lonely, and so sad so much of the time. The kind of games she invented — well, those were the sort of games I invented, too. But I played them alone.
Grace is 21 now (it is in fact just about exactly 13 years since we had that conversation in the porch swing — and as I write this I am sitting in exactly that same place). I find myself thinking sometimes about how much I would have liked the young woman she has become — how wonderful it would have been to know her — when I was the age she is now.
When I was her age, I was out of college and living in Manhattan, in the Village. I was trying to figure out how to be a writer, eking out a living as a freelance copyeditor. All my friends were other writers, photographers, musicians, and actors.
Last year, Grace, a theater major, spent most of the summer in New York. She was studying physical theater and practicing for her future: she supposes she will end up in New York; she wants to be a director. For a couple of months, then, she lived in the Village, subletting an apartment from the niece of one of my old Village friends — my best friend, still, in New York — not many blocks away from where my apartment had been.
And just this past June, she and were both in the city at the same time — she wanted to turn 21 in New York, instead of back in Columbus, Ohio, where there isn’t much for her anymore. I was there to help my mother in the aftermath of my father’s death, but I was also grateful to be on hand for the birthday. The day before her birthday, my mother and brother and Grace and I celebrated over brunch with friends, and that evening she and I went to the theater in the Village. In between, we decided to make a pilgrimage to my first apartment and then to hers, and also to take the walk she took every day last summer between her apartment and the Stella Adler Studio in Chelsea. I liked the idea of following the path she’d taken every morning and every evening last year. I liked having her point things out that she’d passed along the way every day, places that meant something to her.
And then we discovered that several blocks of that walk constituted the walk I took 36, 37 years ago, almost every day, to meet my then-boyfriend, Michael. We used to meet at the halfway point between our two apartments before we went on to share a sandwich at Pennyfeather’s or the Tiffany Diner (neither of us — both aspiring writers who took in freelance copyediting — ever had any money to speak of) — and I showed Grace where that was, and we stopped there. I looked around. Nothing was the same. And yet it was. All the stores and restaurants had been swapped out for other stores and restaurants, but all the buildings they were housed in were still standing there. They’d been 150 years old then. They didn’t look much older now.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” I said quietly. “It feels like time travel to me.” And I quoted — I couldn’t help it — Gabriel García Márquez, who had been one of Michael’s and my favorite writers back then (we had both just read One Hundred Years of Solitude when we met; it was one of the first things we talked about), and who is one of Grace’s favorites now. Not long ago, she had adapted some of his early stories into a play she staged herself at school, and only a few minutes before, as we walked her path that turned out to be my path too, she had mentioned that she’d just finished rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude for the third or fourth time — she wasn’t sure which, “but every time I read it, it seems different to me.”
I said, “Time passes. But not so much.”