“Can we play inside?”
The question comes from Luca, staring up at me with his big brown eyes on the front steps. I’ve known him since he was born, just a couple months after Isaac. Until recently, he and his older sister, Olivia, lived just three houses down the street, and they and my two kids have spent countless hours playing together. He is adorable, as is his sister; I am exceedingly fond of them both.
And he is not setting foot inside my house.
I never feel more like a mother — some kind of quintessential, universal, mother — than I do when I tell my kids and neighbours’ kids that they have to play outside. They always ask to come in, at our house and at their house, and the answer at both houses is almost inevitably “No.” Kicked out onto the street, the four kids run back and forth between houses, make up games, play hide-and-seek, squabble and make up, find new friends. The yards, the sidewalk, the back lanes, the entire block seem barely big enough to contain and absorb their noise, their boundless energy.
“But it’s cold!” they’ll protest.
“Put on your jacket, then,” I’ll say, pointing to the pile of outerwear discarded in a heap on the front lawn. They never do. They’re not really cold.
“But we’re hungry!” they say, and I will hand out a bowl of popcorn, or some fruit, or popsicles, and they will devour it and continue. I know full well they have already pulled the same stunt down the street.
“But I have to pee!” they say, and I relent, one at a time, and remind them to take off their shoes and flush the toilet and wash their hands.
“But there’s nothing to do!” they say. “Please, please can’t we go inside?”
“Nope,” I say cheerily, and close the door.
Inside, the house is too small to contain four children amped up on each other. They run from room to room, floor to floor, leaving a trail of shoes and toys and crumbs and jackets in their wake, dumping out games and Lego and Pokémon cards and promising that they will clean it up “Later!” — but later never comes. Inside, doors slam and voices reach fever pitch and someone eventually gets shut out of someone else’s room and we are called in to mediate disputes.
Outside, though, they plug in Olivia’s old CD player and dance and DJ. They collect all the leaves on our front lawn and gather them into a pile — and then begin to ransack the neighbours’ yards for leaves to add to the pile. This turns into a business: “We’re going to clear ALL the leaves from ALL the yards on the WHOLE BLOCK, for ONE DOLLAR!” Isaac runs in to tell me, breathlessly, Rowan close on his heels: “For the animal shelter!” And for a couple of hours, they pile red and yellow maple leaves into the discarded baby pool I had carefully placed by the side of the house, ferrying leaves across the street. The neighbours, a couple whose children are now in their 20s, hand each child a loonie, and there is much excitement and jumping in leaf piles. They are breathless and rosy-cheeked and happy. They have leaves in their hair. And then Olivia and Luca are taken home for supper, and we go inside for our soup and the kids sit and eat and eat and eat and laugh and talk about how much fun they had.
Eventually, it will be too cold to stay outside for hours. They’ll bundle up in snowsuits and brave it for as long as they can, but we will have to relent at some point, have to have four children come in and put mittens on radiators and drink hot chocolate and ransack the house.
But until that day comes, I don’t care how adorable they are — they stay outside.