I stand expectantly over my daughter as she beams with excitement. She sits at the “seat of honor,” a large wooden chair covered with a thick coat of pink paint. A wrapped box is balanced on her lap.
A handful of other six-year-olds crowd around at a suffocating distance, each watching for the opportunity to thrust her own meticulously-selected present in my daughter’s direction. The other parents watch on from a few feet away, each interjecting with an explanation as her child’s gift is unwrapped.
My little girl looks up at me eagerly, and I give her a nod. Thus permitted, she rips open the Paw Patrol wrapping paper to reveal a board game underneath.
A bittersweet sucker punch takes me by surprise as the torn paper falls to the floor, and I recognize a familiar old friend.
It was my eighth birthday, and it was my favorite time: the present time. I looked through the tags on the packages until, at last, I found the one I was most eager to open — the one from my “boyfriend,” Jeff. Immediately, however, my stomach sank as I took in the size and tell-tale rectangular shape of the gift.
Too large to be a puzzle. Too small to be something more interesting. Oh, great, I thought. A board game. I carefully plucked it from the pile, pasting a smile on my face. I knew I’d need it to mask my disappointment.
“Awesome!” I gushed, cheeks alight as I opened the wrapping paper, revealing a game I’d never seen before. “The Game of Life! This is going to be fun.”
No one’s ever going to play this with me, I thought to myself.
When I got home, I opened my closet, intending to add Life to the stack of other board games — gifts from birthdays and Christmases past — which sat, untouched, in a neat pile. I hesitated, though, and pulled it back into the light.
I slid my fingernail through the plastic wrapping, slicing it from one corner to the other, unfurling it, and letting it drop to the floor. Moving to the oval-shaped rug in the center of my room, I sat and lifted the top off the box.
First I removed the spinner, of course. I gave it a good turn, and it spun round and round as if frictionless. I watched as it gradually slowed to a stop, and then I spun it again, transfixed by the simple yet satisfying motion.
Next, I removed the instructions. I read them carefully and then set about organizing the money in nice, neat piles and popping the pink and blue pegs out of their plastic molds. I chose a car (the blue one) and dutifully popped a pink peg in the driver’s seat. Into another car, I placed a blue peg. He can be Brandon. I let Brandon spin first.
After that day, I spent hours and hours playing that game on my own. I developed a system for keeping the money organized. I put the cars away in a specific order each time. I applied the occasional drop of candle wax onto the spinner to keep it turning smoothly.
Eventually, I stopped pretending to play against someone, and just pitted two versions of myself against each other. On the odd occasion one of my parents asked who was winning, the answer was always simple: “I am.”
It was like this with a lot of things. Nintendo games had to be one-player; my dogs had to play He-Man and She-Ra; I played pool against myself; I even learned how to braid my own hair from a book my mom had bought but only used once. One of my favorite books was called Card Games for One.
My parents always told me that, as an only child, I was spoiled. I did turn out to be spoiled, just not in the way they meant it.
I know single children who grew up loving their status: they were always the center of attention; they never had to compete for affection or college tuition money. I stand in awe of such people.
I, however, am not one of these people.
It’s true I didn’t have to compete with a sibling for attention. However, I also didn’t have a sibling to look up to me or look out for me, or to play with me when my parents were (emotionally, if not physically) unavailable— which they frequently were.
Instead, I stayed in the house, alone and out of my parents’ way, most of the time. I read books alone, watched television alone, and played video games alone, and after the lights went out at night I pretended my name was Penelope and I had a huge family full of siblings to love me and protect me, including (especially) a big brother named Brandon.
The neighborhood in which I lived provided no companionship, either. To the left of my house was a machine shop, and to the right lived an older couple with grown children. I loved that couple, especially the wife, but they were not peers, and that’s what I needed more than anything else.
When I was suffering psychological abuse at the hands of girls who I considered my best friends, I needed someone to comfort and stick up for me.
When I was pressured into sex before I was ready, I needed someone to counsel me.
When I started binge eating and doing drugs, I needed someone to notice and express their concern, and when my mother (and later my partners) began tap-dancing their instability all over my fragile ego, I needed to talk to someone who shared the experiences and could understand my pain.
I always describe my childhood as lonely. It was so much more than that, though. It was a desperate search to find someone — anyone — who would notice; listen; care.
As certain as I always was that I’d be a mother, I was just as certain I’d never, ever have an only child. Before the first kid was even born, we were talking about when we’d have a second. I said I wanted to be sure my child did not grow up lonely like me, and that’s part of it.
But now that I have two fully-formed little girls, I am beginning to understand the true depth of what I was missing growing up. Each day that I get a front-row seat to their displays of love and rivalry, spats and reconciliation, is a day that I get to witness the most perfect kind of love.
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Back at home, my daughter plops on the living room floor and I teach her how to use her fingernail to remove the plastic wrapping from the board game. She gives the spinner a few turns before placing the money into nice, neat piles and handing me the instructions. Together we read them, and I notice how the game has evolved in the thirty years since I first played it. We pick our cars — I get the blue one — and begin to play.
Soon, though, her sister arrives, returning from the birthday party of a school friend. “Why don’t we take a break and you can show Big Sis what you got from your friends,” I suggest.
The girls’ eyes light up and Little Sis fans out her gifts, showing off each one in turn. In addition to Life, she’s gotten a doctor’s kit, a pair of eyeglasses, a pair of crutches, and a CD player. She plugs in the CD player and pops in an audiobook.
Her sister immediately suggests that they play doctor, and they joyfully begin to construct a scene together. They have their own language when they’re playing pretend — they use familiar shticks and have a rotating cast of characters they play. It’s a sibling version of my Penelope and Brandon.
The only difference is that, rather than whispering to themselves, alone under the covers, they’re free to play in all their exuberance in broad daylight.
Nikki Kay writes fiction, poetry, personal essays about parenting, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Check out her column at Invisible Illness.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.