Something broke in the house last night, something precious, but also something that can be repaired. Still, it made me feel weirdly sad, and also made me think about my complicated relationship with broken things.
I started to write something, but it occurred to me I already had. What appears below was published in The (Baltimore) Sun in March 1999. It was always a sad piece. It’s sadder now in many ways.
c. Baltimore Sun
The voice on the voice mail was a familiar one, my husband’s, and the message was the one he always leaves: Call me when you get a chance. Not: “Have you heard the news, call me!” — the life-shortening message he left the day the Yankees traded David Wells for Roger Clemens. Just: “Call me when you get a chance.”
I got a chance. “I broke your labyrinth,” he said, without preamble. “I’m sorry. I was dusting, and I knocked it over. I don’t think it can be fixed.”
“Oh,” I said. And then I didn’t say anything for a very long time.
We are large-boned, heedless people, my husband and I; we break things a lot. We are not like F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s Tom and Daisy — we don’t retreat into our money and we don’t expect others to clean up after us. We live with our clumsiness. We buy our wine glasses from Ikea, $5.95 for a six-pack. We know our way around a tube of Super Glue.
“She’s hard on her things,” my mother always said of me. My sister’s Barbies and Madame Alexander dolls are in pristine condition to this day. If I still had mine they would look like guests on Jerry Springer. Shoeless hillbillies with bad hair and fur-trimmed coats, but no underwear.
So it was something of a triumph that this toy, my Brio Labyrinthspel, had survived. Purchased from FAO Schwarz, circa 1969, it was a wooden box with a maze of holes, through which one guided a small metal ball. I even had the original ball — me, who could never hold onto a Barbie’s shoe.
I was a whiz at the labyrinth, as we called the game. It was the only thing I was a whiz at. At age 10, I was hopeless in all things athletic. Still am. As for Parcheesi, Monopoly and dominoes — well, let’s just say I never had the mental game.
So everyone was shocked when it turned out I had the manual dexterity to guide the little metal ball from zero to 60, and back again. It was the only thing at which I could best my sister, or my father.
I knew the surface of the board so well. I understood the game, how it was all balance, that your two hands must work together. I knew a single eyelash on the track could send the ball down one of the many holes. I knew that the parts that looked hard — the narrow path through the twin holes at No. 23, for example — were often easy. Getting past No. 3 took weeks of practice; 41-42-43 was the hardest stretch of all.
I moved on to similar toys — something called Moonshoot, in which one slowly opened two metal poles, drawing a large ball up their path. I mastered the forerunners of Rubik’s cube, little squares with colors or numbers. I also doted on a game in which one moved a tower of discs from one pole to another in the fewest possible moves.
But labyrinth was the game I kept. It sat on our coffee table, although I seldom touched it any more. When I did, I found that I did not have to practice to stay good, that I could quickly start again on my zero-to-60-to-zero path. It became the only game at which I could consistently best my husband. (Not that I’m impugning his motives, or doubting the “dusting” story.)
I am 40 years old, childless, and comfortable with those facts. Lately, I have begun to give some toys away, the durable ones that survived my ownership — my Legos, a wonderful dollhouse that came from the oh-so-’70s Creative Playthings, complete with its full set of Scandinavian-style furniture.
But I have kept far more: the “City” and “Country” mice houses, my collection of Steiff animals, a pair of windup Sumo wrestlers, a plastic double- decker bus that my father brought me from England. Why can’t I give that bus away? Sometimes I think it’s because it has the virtue of being unbreakable.
Part of being a grown-up is learning to say, “It’s just a thing.” My mother taught me that when the cat broke her Shirley Temple bowl. “It’s just a thing,” I muttered when I broke a Fiestaware egg cup. Yet my mother still mentions, every now and then, how much a Shirley Temple bowl fetches on the open market.
There are modern versions of Labyrinthspel. But they’re poor imitations of my toy. The feel is different, the ball is lighter, the path is not exactly the same. They will never do. Nor can I imagine scouring shops and online auctions for another 30-year-old version. I don’t want one just like mine. I want mine.
I inspect the pieces of my broken game. The six pieces of wood are whole, it’s just the internal mechanism that seems compromised. We could easily glue it back together, I point out.
“It won’t work, though,” my husband says.
“What’s the point of putting it back together if it can’t work?”
I haven’t the vaguest idea. But I’m already rummaging in a drawer for the Super Glue.
(Postscript: I never got it back together, but I saved the top, the maze itself. It’s on a shelf above my head.)