This is a memoir that definitely falls under Piquant. The dollhouse in the photo came to live with us when my daughter was a child. My brother still has “the barn.” Thankfully, no one owns the Engine.
The Little Engine That Should
This story is of a little toy engine that made constant noise. Colorful gears spun inside the clear plastic shoebox-sized shell while bells and music swirled in the air. With the flip of a child friendly lever, multiple toots and whistles mixed with the cacophony. Left unattended by our children, the little engine chugged across the kitchen merrily, until in frustration and anger it got thrown against the wall, never to annoy me again. I can’t remember the circumstances that lead to my break with sanity, but I’m sure I was trying to get something done – there was always something that should be done. It’s taken me years to realize that “should” is an evil scourge. A shame word wielded with the occasional “need to” or “must” by clerics, mothers, and myself in an attempt to keep the world free from procrastination, at least in my lifetime.
When I was a girl, I idolized my father, following him around like a puppy as he changed a light bulb on a ten foot ladder or cleaned the ashes from the fireplace. Before he became co-owner of a thriving wholesale heating and air conditioning business, Dad worked as a plant manager for a plastics company in the small southern Michigan town where I grew up. Over the years he was a city councilman, sat on boards for urban renewal, purchased bonds for city development, and always belonged to several civic groups.
When summertime rolled around, Dad raised a huge garden across the street in the neighbor’s empty lot. My brother and I were never asked to pull a single weed. I always thought he didn’t want us underfoot, but looking back maybe he needed the space to hoe some frustrations. However, come August my brother and I sat at a table next to the curb in front of the house and sold fresh sweet corn for 50 cents a dozen to passing motorists.
Yes, the American work ethic runs deep in our family. My soft-spoken mom was basically the quintessential stay-at-home mother in the1950’s. Whistling as she cleaned woodwork or sewed drapes, she served on the P.T.A., worked as a part-time newspaper reporter from home, and was den mother or campfire leader every year until she procured her real-estate license.
Prior to WWII and marriage to Mom, Dad spent time during his youth as a carpenter’s apprentice. Armed with these skills and in his “spare time,” Dad constructed a toy barn for my brother. It stood three feet square and painted red, it came complete with two 12 inch barn doors on the front that slid open by a clever wheeled mechanism fixed to a steel rail. The green plywood roof peaked at the height of a kindergartener and swung open on hinges that allowed us to hide inside or just reach in and play with the barnyard animals, tractors, and accompanying farm implements. I have no concept how long it took Dad to construct the barn, but I remember the raging “S.O.B.’s” accompanying the fruit of his labor.
With a lot of begging Dad slowly created, on the same grand scale as brother’s barn, my white Victorian doll house. Perfection worked under a single incandescent bulb at his work station in the basement and finished well past my doll years. Never one to compete, my brother left while I played in his barn and absorbed the vocabulary of any self-respecting sailor.
Now, as I threw the little train across the room, I hurled anger and perfectionism at our children. My bullying scared the kids, but horrified me, as I saw my reflection in their tearful eyes. I tried to replace the bazillion batteries, tightened the belts and screws, but the nuisance toy had been stilled. Feeling guilty, I vowed to make amends. I should replace the noisy Christmas gift given by their aunt and uncle, but at the store, I couldn’t bring myself to spend $30 to replace that God-awful thing.
With amends in mind, I joined a church and threw myself into religious perfection in much the same way my dad attended civic meetings. Trying to quiet the savage beast that seemed able to burst forth at the slightest provocation, I slowly learned something over the years – children are a gift.
Nowadays, I smile at my grandson and recall Mom’s sage observation. “Thirty years from now who will remember” a C on his report card, or if he cleaned his room last Saturday? He looks at me and wiggles his eyebrows up and down, Groucho-style. He doesn’t care I’ve gained ten pounds or that lunch came from a box from the freezer; he just wants me to play with him. Like God – he loves me just the way I am.
Perfectionism is an ugly taskmaster that self-righteously loves to swear and throw things. Breaking that creepy little engine was a gift for which I should always be grateful. I’m sorry, Kids, it took me this long to make amends.
Dianne Atkins says
I completely LOVED this story !!!!!!
I wish I could write this eloquently.
Chris Baldauf says
Thank you, Di!