Adults over-think pretend. Or, at least, I do. I think of it like this: The pretender selects a person, animal, mythical beast, machine or inanimate object to embody. He or she will move (or not move) as his or her fantasy subject moves (or doesn’t move). The pretender will make the sounds their subject makes (or doesn’t make). Using the subject’s primary occupation – a profession, perhaps, or magical activity, or pursuit of smaller prey animals – a narrative is constructed, which the pretender acts out using any necessary props. Additional characters may be added and can be played by peers or nearby parents, or by the sole pretender him or herself. The length and structure of the narrative depend on the fruitfulness of the material and on the stamina of the pretender. The story is limited only by the pretender’s imagination, so the more far-fetched, the better.
For the Grey, pretend is this: stirring the air in an empty pot with a yellow plastic spoon. Or shining a flashlight on the ceiling and calling its circle of light the moon. Or lying on the couch with his eyes open, snoring. Or waving a sock at me and saying, “It’s a spider! It’s a spider!”
One of his favorite pretend scenarios is “going to Alice’s.” For you non-Homer folk, that’s a local bar and restaurant. He pronounces Alice’s “Assa-whiz,” which is an improvement over what it used to be, which was “Auschwitz.” I’m not sure why he latched onto Alice’s as the place to be – maybe because every time we drive by we say, “There’s Alice’s, where Uncle Dan works!”, or maybe because his grandparents have dinner there a lot – but it is tied for number one as his preferred location. (His other favorite is the store.) “Bye! I’m going to Assa-whiz!” he announces, and then he pushes his yellow plastic grocery cart into the bedroom and parks it between my side of the bed and the window. This is Assa-whiz. Once he has arrived he stands next to his cart for a moment, looking thrilled to be there, and then the game is over. He can repeat it several times before he moves on to the next amusement.
Much of the Grey’s pretend consists of pushing his toy cars and trucks while he talks to them about what’s going on. “Hey look, a car! Down the hill, up the hill, down the hill… oh no, what happened? There’s a rock! Want to go in the cart? Okay! Where did it go? Oh where, oh where?” Sometimes his patter includes things I have said to him. He enjoys the power of scolding his toys and telling them what to do. It’s not exactly flattering to hear instructions you gave without thinking two days ago repeated verbatim by a scornful two-year-old. Am I really that micro-managing? But I don’t mind too much. It can be the only indication I get that he was listening to me at all. So when he tells his stuffed monkey dressed in floral pajamas, “No! Don’t go in the street! Or cars will bump you!” I consider it a small victory.
Perhaps his sweetest pretend scenario is “putting Mama to bed.” He gets me to lie down, then drags a blanket over me and brings me stuffed animals to snuggle. He asks if I’d like to sing a song, so I do. Sometimes he sings along. Then he creeps out of the room and closes the door behind him. He still sleeps with his pacifier, which he insists must be blue, so after a pause he shouts from outside the bedroom, “Want a blue ‘fier?”
The Grey’s version of pretend turns out to be more mundane than mine, and yet it is somehow infinitely more magical. His ambitions are easily achieved. The limitations of his size, age, and experience disappear. Watching him when he is absorbed in his play, I can see his brain and imagination working so clearly, there may as well be light shining out of his ears. He just gives his thoughts a little push and they are off, spinning and twirling and whirring, cranking out achingly human enchantment.