The clock read 3:37 a.m. at the inception of this story. My 3-year-old twin grandkids, Dennis and Sosi, were doing a sleepover. That should explain everything from here on out, but spelling out the details, especially now when Mr. Sandman refuses to lower my lids, will help salvage the night. The memory of this moment is certain to be blurred by daybreak.
My youngest granddaughter arrived earlier today in braids, hundreds of them – some circling the crown of her tiny little head, the rest cascading down her back. Resembling a Disney princess, she insisted they remain — while we swam, ate macaroni and cheese, took baths, changed into pajamas, watched "Frozen" (for the umpteenth time) and, finally, hit the sack.
At 2:30 a.m., I felt a tug on my shoulder. There she was, wide awake, with a change of heart.
She wanted the braids out, immediately. Have you ever tried removing hundreds of tiny rubber bands in the middle of the night? She stood whimpering next to the bed as my fingers unraveled each strand, until finally, her dark chocolate locks were freed. It was time to go back to sleep.
Only she couldn't. And neither could I. Her best solution was that I lay down beside her, thwarting off monsters now threatening to go "boo" in the dark. Again I obliged, too tired to negotiate otherwise. I spent the rest of the night sandwiched between two toddlers, little arms intermittently reaching across the inflatable mattress to grab hold of their human security blanket. Both of them snored while I constructed sentences in my head — about the calamity and joys of being a grandparent, happily trapped in a moment of bliss.
By mid-afternoon the next day, the pair grew antsy and edgy, missing their mom. Exhausted, I was missing her, too. And then I remembered something I thought might entertain and calm us all down.
A few weeks earlier, while cleaning out the garage, I had discovered several ancient decks of playing cards. Their varied origins included The Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, a deck titled The Bostonian View of the World (featuring Boston landmarks), Shakespearian playing cards direct from London and a double deck that accompanied my mother home from a Mediterranean cruise several decades ago. Each beautifully embellished, I had resisted throwing them away.
Seeing the cards jogged a long forgotten childhood memory — a pastime enjoyed during the long, hot Fresno summers of my youth. When dying of boredom, my sisters and I would spend hours sitting under the vents of our swamp cooler constructing houses of cards.
"Shall we build a house of cards?" I asked them.
"Yes. Yes," they replied in unison. Laughing to myself, I knew neither of them had a clue what I was talking about. Following me into the kitchen, eyes dancing with curiosity, they watched me pull open the drawer full of decks. Grabbing the cards, I instructed them to form a circle on the thick rug running through our entry hallway. Obediently, they followed my orders without making a peep. Placing a single deck on each lap, I had them watch me first. Little arms folded, wiggly fingers firmly grasping colorful cards — they didn't (dare) move.
Leaning slippery cards against each other, the first pair, a one-eyed jack and queen of hearts, rested against each other forming the first set of pretend walls. Instant success. Eyes widening, a smile here and there, I noted promising signs of interest, based solely on their stillness. They watched while I slowly and very carefully added an ace of spades, a seven of clubs and even the joker, building make-believe rooms, roofs, until the structure resembled a massive condo complex.
For the next 90 minutes, we built villages and neighborhoods. I'd never seen such concentration. When their enthusiasm waned, I ran to the pantry and returned with props. It was time to create fences using marshmallows and toothpicks, Cheerios walkways and spaghetti sidewalks.
I'd be lying here if I left out the part when my grandson started eating supplies — a sure signal it was nearing dinner time. He also eventually turned the game into a demolition derby of flying cards (the occupational hazard of ingesting handfuls of marshmallows), blowing down his sister's housing development and causing a bit of a stir. But it was fun while it lasted.
In this fast-paced world of gadgets, doodads and iPads, I guess I want my grandkids to be architects of time and imagination, to learn the joys of slowing down, working with their hands and having fun without Wi-Fi.
I want to teach them time travel — and let them visit the world where I grew up, finding amusement in erector sets, pick-up-sticks, hard-bound books and Lincoln Logs. I'm also hoping that when life gets too hurried or out of control, they'll always know they can come to my place and, with little more than a deck of cards and a few encouraging words, create cardboard moons and magical worlds.
In other words, simply be kids. My grandkids.
Even if that means one of us wakes up sleep deprived the next morning.
They are so worth it.
Armen D. Bacon is a writer and co-author of "Griefland an Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship" (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She is working on a new collection of essays titled, "My Name is Armen a Life in Column Inches." Email: email@example.com. Twitter @ArmenBacon.