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Childhood Revisited: How playing–and losing–a simple drawing game with my kids during the lockdown became a metaphor for life

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Looking back, I fear I may have cheated my sisters.

For certain, I cheated my children.

And it all came crashing back to me last night.

It always started with trying to fill some idle time.

When I was a kid, my two younger sisters and I created a game we called “5-3-1.” One of us would pick something to draw, usually something simple: a snowman, an eye, a house.

The three of us would draw it, and then we would ceremoniously and with great fanfare award each other a crumpled up little ball of paper that either had the 5 (your drawings are museum-worthy), the 3 (not bad), or the 1 (you poor, poor child).

It would not be an exaggeration to say that my sisters gave me the five, every drawing, every time. Trust me, I am no Picasso, but they, at two and four years younger, were even worse.

When my kids were little, I taught them the game that my sisters and I had played. I guess I was never that mother who subscribed to the “let the kids win” policy. Not a chance; that five was mine, every drawing, every time.

Which brings me to the current day. Like so many of us, staying home during this pandemic has led me into the depths of my closets. Yesterday I was cleaning out the games closet, and came across several “how to draw” books. 

“Oh, oh…let’s play 5-3-1,” I said to my 26-year old daughter who now lives in California but has been sheltering with us here in New Jersey for the last month. 

Because he didn’t want to draw, my husband offered to be the judge; we will fold up our artwork and present it to him. It will be completely impartial.

This, of course, will not be a true friendly game of 5-3-1, but a take-no-prisoners-mine-is-better-than-yours duel.

We look at the book to find something to draw. We plot. We cover our papers from each other, lest we inadvertently spill some secret-sauce technique magic.

It is time to fold them up and submit them to His Honor. We mixed them up well so he has no idea of who drew what.

I outline in my head little “yup, I got the five acceptance speech.” You know, all “Just keep at it, you can do better next time, honey.”

I would be lying if I said that I was thrilled for her when my husband awarded my daughter’s drawing “the five” in the first round. But I looked at her drawing, and it really was better than mine. Not by leaps and bounds, but enough.

And, much to my surprise–and delight–it was not a soul-crushing blow to my ego when she eventually won the game.

I thought about my feeling about playing 5-3-1, the silly little game, as a metaphor for life.

We want our children to be safe, to be happy, to be smart, to be healthy, and to have everything we had and more. From the time they were little, we fought for them. As they grew, we taught them how to self-advocate. If something or someone harmed them, we hurt. 

We always wanted them to have the best life possible; we want them to surpass us in happiness, in prosperity, and in their skill levels and successes. 

So we pass the baton and get excited when our kids draw better than we do, beat us on the tennis court, go to a better school, or have a more rewarding career. 

Throughout, we worry about them, then worry some more. Today, those worries encompass a much broader spectrum, particularly for our adult children who are living somewhere else during COVID-19. We grill them on their whereabouts. Are they staying in? Are they getting exercise? Do they have good masks? Are there roommates being as careful as they are? 

When they prevail, we win too.

When the drawing game was over and it was time to clean up, I looked at the “how to draw” books sitting on the coffee table and considered for a moment adding them to my growing donation pile.

Instead, I tuck them away, back into the depths of the game closet.

After all, there will be grandchildren someday, and I’ll need to show them how well Grandma draws. 

175 colonial rd
Summit, NJ

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