One of the coolest things about my 4-year-old nephew, which I suppose is something that applies to all children, is his unwavering devotion to the things he loves. Namely, Cars 2 and Thomas the Tank Engine.
Especially Thomas, though. The engines that work and reside at the Island of Sodor are like crack to the kid. He simply can’t get enough.
He owns all of the trains and plays with them constantly, setting up their wooden tracks, but often going “off-road” with them all throughout the living room. There are many, many engines that reside in the Thomas the Tank Engine universe, and as such, he has many, many toys.
They are thirty-dollar pieces of wood with wheels on the bottom and a face painted on the front to complete the anthropomorphic process. Aside from the fact that some are painted different colors, they all look exactly the same. The only way to tell them apart is by turning them over to read the name of the train, which is written on the underside.
Unless, of course, you are my nephew.
If you are my nephew, then you are able to tell them apart in an instant, as if they are as different as mommy and daddy. If he were blindfolded, I’d imagine that he would still be able to identify them by touch or even by their scent.
* * *
A few weeks ago, I went up to Connecticut to babysit my nephews. As fate would have it, that particular day was the day that a maniac decided to shoot tiny children at Sandy Hook, a school that was only minutes away from my sister’s house.
My sister called me while I was on my way. She was shaken. Besides the fact that it was so close to home, she had connections at Sandy Hook. Parents, children, teachers who had just gone through something unthinkable.
But above all that, she was shaken like all other parents were shaken that day, with the thought that it could have been her child. Her boy, there in the morning, then suddenly not there.
* * *
“Uncle Mike, can we watch Blue Mountain Mystery?!” my nephew asked in a tone of pure excitement that suggested he would die if the answer was somehow “No.” Blue Mountain Mystery, I would come to learn, was his new favorite Thomas movie — a tale of secrecy, deception, and intrigue.
“Of course we can watch Blue Mountain Mystery!” I told him, loving him more than usual on this particular day.
I spent the first fifteen minutes of Blue Mountain Mystery scrolling through my phone, trying to find out the details of what exactly happened that day. When I had arrived at their house earlier that afternoon, we picked up my nephew from school. And once he was in the house, we turned off the TVs and computers, not wanting to expose him to any of that scary, scary stuff. I already knew most of the details about what had happened, but this was my first opportunity to try to find out why it happened — something that people are still trying to find out.
“Uncle Mike, look,” he kept saying as he pointed to the screen. “The bridge is gonna fall!”
On cue, a bridge collapsed on the screen.
“Oh wowww,” I said, going back to my phone.
“Look,” he said, nudging me and pointing to the television. “Luke is going to push that engine into the sea.”
“Uh huh… I see that,” I said, watching as a train fell off of a boat and into the ocean. I wondered if my nephew was just trying to share the experience with me, or if he was more nefariously trying to systematically spoil every major plot twist of Blue Mountain Mystery for me.
It was around this point that I put my phone away. It had told me too many sad things that had happened that day. Children, just a year or two older than the boy sitting next to me, dead.
I watched the movie a little bit, but most of my attention was devoted to my nephew.
I just sat there and watched him take in this movie that he loved. He watched with an unflinching smile that sometimes turned into a giggle. Curled up on the couch without any socks, his toes would involuntarily curl and stretch at exciting moments in the movie. He had seen it dozens of times before, yet his attention never waned and his smile was never infiltrated by signs of boredom. The only times his gaze left the movie were when he stole glances at me to make sure that I was still paying attention.
I was envious of his complete devotion towards this movie. Where else do you see such pure love, but in children?
The day that this love begins to dissipate is a sad day.
As children begin to grow up, or rather, as children begin to conform to the society of adults, their childhood loves are prodded at: “Ewww, you still watch Barney?” a snot-nosed classmate will ask them. “Only babies sleep with stuffed animals,” their parents inform them.
With each one of these jabs, children learn how to take a punch.
The easiest way to take a punch is by pretending it doesn’t hurt. And the best way to make it not hurt is by cutting emotional ties to it — by making yourself numb to the thing that used to bring you unflinching joy.
By pushing it aside as “baby stuff.”
It is a disturbing revelation for kids, this idea that something you have loved so much — something that completely captivated you and has been the focal point of your existence for your entire life (so far) — isn’t something that you can hold on to forever.
It’s sad, really.
And totally unfair.
* * *
My sister, brother-in-law, and nephews visited my parents over the holidays, and I stopped by on one of my nights off. After dinner, we all sat down to watch (wait for it…) BLUE MOUNTAIN MYSTERY!!!!
My nephew was the one who suggested it, believe it or not.
“Grandpa look!” he said to my dad as he pointed at the screen. “The bridge is about to fall!”
My dad looked up from his laptop and said, “Mmm-hmm. Wow.”
“I wonder what it would be like if my son grew up and never quite let go of Thomas,” my brother-in-law said to me.
We laughed and laughed as we narrated scenes of a thirty-year-old man, still living at home with his parents, as he dealt with the burden of an unyielding love for Thomas the Tank Engine:
“WHY CAN’T YOU JUST ACCEPT MY LOVE FOR THOMAS!?!?!” my thirty-year-old nephew screams at my sixty-year-old sister and brother-in-law. He runs to his room and slams the door, the force of which knocks his “Diesel Engines Keep Out” door plaque to the floor. Soon, his Thomas pillowcase will become wet with tears.
Maybe it’s for the best that kids outgrow their childhood loves and look further afield for new hobbies and interests. Has the era begun when we scrap Thomas The Tank Engine and watch Arabic kid song videos on YouTube to develop our education? Has the fun of childhood gone?
But in the meantime, while we still have the chance, we should probably close our laptops, turn off our phones, and watch in gleeful horror as a keystone from Blondin’ Bridge comes tumbling down.