The year my oldest daughter turned 4, her little sister was born, and that spring, in desperation, I let her play more or less unsupervised in the neighbors' yard. When I came up for air from the endless diaper changes and nursing sessions, I'd catch a glimpse of her through the family-room window. Sweaty, dirty, and wild-eyed, she ran behind the neighbors' pack of crazy, good-natured, and mostly unsupervised boys. Because my oldest girl is naturally cautious, every time the boys switched from backyard to front, she'd yell to me through the open window, "Can I go in the front yard?" or "Can I go in the back?" I'd holler, "Okay. Just don't leave the yard," but that was the extent of my supervision.
Because I'm the type of mother who likes to keep close tabs on the delicate little flowers in her care, this loosening of the apron strings was a bit unnerving, but it was also oddly freeing. At the end of the day, after my husband and I had put the baby down for the night, our big girl would heave her exhausted limbs into the bath and with starry eyes recount her daring adventures. As I scrubbed her dirty feet, I was reminded of my own childhood.
The quintessential "oops" baby, I was born more than a decade after my closest sibling, 21 years after my oldest. At the beginning of my life, I lived in a house full of teenagers. When I was five months old, my 19-year-old brother and his wife had their own "oops" baby, and for what turned out to be some of the best years of my young life, they all moved into our suburban house.
Soon, more nieces and nephews arrived. When all of my older siblings had left home, my parents and I moved to the country. In the freedom of woods, swamps, and ponds, my nieces and nephews and I ran wild, inventing an elaborate set of games, from the romantic (Ice Capades on the frozen pond) to the mysterious (Kids' Club, with spooky initiation rites and petty thievery).
These games were all completely, deliciously devoid of adult supervision, and what I loved about them was their lawless, Lord of the Flies aura. One of my favorites was a reckless romp we called Natives. It began one summer night when my siblings and their families had made the journey out for dinner. At dusk, the kids gathered in the back garden and split into two groups. The younger kids pretended to be a group of frightened tourists whose plane had just crashed on an isolated island. The older kids were the cannibal "natives."
We ran around hooting and yelling in the growing darkness, hiding behind trees, climbing onto the garage roof and jumping down, until all of the rattled tourists had been gathered and thrown in a cordoned-off area we called "the pot." We played this game over and over again until we could barely make out each other's faces in the darkness and swarms of mosquitoes devoured us.
Maybe it was because she was too busy to pay attention to my comings and goings, but I never had to get my mom's permission to cross the street, let alone pass from the front yard to the back. I can't imagine that I'll ever let my own daughters run wild like my harried mother let me, but I hope that someday I'll loosen up enough to stand back as they invent their own crazy games, run and yell in the gathering darkness, boost their bravery, and get their feet good and dirty. That, I've discovered, is what memories are made of.