Mom never liked toys. Despite a house full of children, our home was never cluttered with toys. No race cars or Tonka trucks splayed across the family room floor. No Barbie dolls or doll accessories lost in sofas. No board games hidden under beds. Cooking, cleaning and otherwise maintaining a household of 11 was enough for Mom.

When relatives asked for Christmas gift ideas, she’d say, “Clothes. They need clothes.” And so my grandmother would dutifully sew nine pairs of pajamas each Christmas. When birthday parties rolled around, she’d tell our friends’ mothers, “They really don’t need any toys. Some hair ribbons or colorful socks would be just fine. Maybe a book.” Our friends were mortified at the thought of giving us practical gifts, but our mothers knew they needed to band together. So they did. And when it came time for Mom to bestow gifts upon us, they, too, were practical.

One Christmas she gave us all winter outerwear. Another year it was books. One year we all got pants—jeans, dress pants, even a pair of school uniform pants for my oldest brother, who seemed to wear through them faster than anybody else.

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When, on the rare occasion, a toy managed to get into the house—usually from a godparent or babysitter who wasn’t aware of Mom’s distaste for toys—Mom quickly discovered it. And, if we didn’t put it away every time we played with it, it was gone. That’s how we lost our Lincoln Logs.

This didn’t really bother us much. We made our own fun or had friends who had toys. We built tents in the basement with blankets and chairs. We read books. Sometimes we played on the front steps with our friends’ dolls. Other times, we rode bikes or played kickball in the vacant lot next to our house.

We knew enough to put the can of Lincoln Logs out of sight, but didn’t always pick up all the logs. Thus, in less than a month’s time, the can was half empty. Each time Mom found a Lincoln Log on the sofa, under the table or behind a chair, she tossed it. Every so often we searched the trash looking for lost Lincoln Logs and other toys that may have been left out, but we usually weren’t stealthy enough to retrieve it under Mom’s watchful eye. Within a few months, all of the logs were gone; Mom had thrown them all away, one by one, as she discovered them on the floor as she vacuumed, on the table as she wiped it, in the dog’s dish as she filled it. Eventually, the can was gone, too.

This didn’t really bother us much. We made our own fun or had friends who had toys. We built tents in the basement with blankets and chairs. We read books. Sometimes we played on the front steps with our friends’ dolls. Other times, we rode bikes or played kickball in the vacant lot next to our house.

Outdoor toys were OK with Mom. So were stuffed animals. Mom wanted a decluttered home, but didn’t deny us the comfort of stuffed animals. One of my favorite pastimes was playing with Red Horsey and Grey Horsey, which my younger sister Myra received after her eye surgery. Myra and I had hours of fun with them when we were supposed to be asleep. She graciously loaned me the grey one—the bigger, more tattered but equally loved of the two—to play with each night.

From our twin beds we created Grey Horsey’s house and Red Horsey’s house, a neighborhood, school and playground. The horseys were neighbors sometimes. Other times they were married. Regardless, there were always lots of imaginary horsey children. When we got tired, we would trot them off to our respective beds and fall asleep holding them. When Myra went back for another eye surgery, which she did repeatedly in her younger years, I usually just hugged Grey Horsey and Red Horsey at night; it wasn’t fun playing without her.

My own children were inundated with toys. They had balls and dolls and cars and board games and computer games. They received toys every Christmas and birthday and a few celebrations in between—mostly as gifts from others but many from me as well. The kids enjoyed these toys for a while, but most of them were put aside as building snowmen, climbing trees, playing hopscotch, painting pictures, riding bikes and running through the sprinkler grabbed hold of their imaginations and lured them into the bigger world of play.

Maybe Mom’s policy was a good one after all. Maybe on their next birthday, I’ll focus more on sparking my grandchildren’s imagination with gifts of “Adventures with Grandma” rather than mounds of toys and wait to see what happens. Then again, I may break down and give them a set of Lincoln Logs.

— Beth Voigt

Beth Voigt is a writer from Summit Hill.

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