The Weirdest, Most Wonderful Toy

I't was the last thing I expected to find under the tree that Christmas morning. I looked up from my shiny green-painted wooden box with legs and saw my siblings staring at theirs with identical "Huh?" expressions no doubt mirroring my own.

"Dad made a stool for each of you," Mom said. "Wasn't that sweet of him? I'll bet you'll find lots of uses for them."

"Thank you, Dad," we all chorused dutifully, and grabbed for the next present.

Later that day, when my neighbor and I were done comparing our new dolls, she nudged the little fir bench with her foot. "I've never known anyone who got a stool for Christmas." I just shrugged at the vast mysteriousness of grownups. Even at the ripe old age of 8, I thought it was the weirdest Christmas present ever.

A few days later, my four-year-old sister nestled her new baby doll into the underside of her step stool. "Look," she said. "Upside down, it's a cradle!"

Sure enough, the short benches were the perfect size and shape for cozy doll beds. Soon my plastic baby was cuddled in her own green wooden bassinet.

My brother, who had itchy traveler's feet even at age 6, was the one who discovered the benches were actually the crow's-nests of sea-faring ships. "Avast ye, matey!" we shouted on long, rainy afternoons. All three of us perched atop our mastheads, curling our fingers into binoculars, the better to peer into the savage storm and spot pirate ships.

When we tired of fighting buccaneers, a bench set on end became a cash register. One "shopper" bought canned goods and boxes of cereal borrowed from the kitchen while the storeowner added them all up: "Forty-eleven cents. Ching! Ching!"

A stool might become a puppet stage, or a stuffed-animal skating rink. On its side, it was a cave, the perfect spot for a teddy bear's long winter's nap.

A blanket saddled a green wooden beast for a bucking bronco ride. Standing on an upended bench boosted us a tremendous 18 inches or so into the stratosphere, giving us a totally new perspective: "I'm soooo tall! Everything looks tiny!"

Games, puzzles, and other toys from Christmas were broken, lost, or boring by the time spring sprang us outdoors. There, the stools held their own. They were perfect for clambering onto the gray elephants marching across the back of our property. (Some said they were actually boulders, but we knew better.)

Eating peanut-butter sandwiches off our individual table-benches made us feel incredibly classy. "Waiter!" we'd call to the nearest hollyhock. "Bring another order of fries, please, and lots of ketchup!" We put our patient and long-suffering dog, Sparky, into the upside-down stools and pushed him across the grass. An avid lizard lover, I spent many a summer afternoon watching blue-bellies contained in the green walls of my bench.

Inevitably, I became a teenager. I tucked my green bench way back in my closet behind my color-coordinated mohair sweaters and pleated plaid skirts. And forgot about it. But years later, scouting for an old dresser to paint for my new baby, I stumbled upon it and reclaimed it. The stool was the next-best thing to the ladder we didn't own for painting the tops of doorways or reaching far into a kitchen cupboard's top shelf.

In due time, I watched my boys turn the old stool into their own space ship or submarine or the "real, true" Batmobile.

Eventually, we accumulated stepladders for painting and a kitchen stool for reaching high shelves. The boys became interested in bikes and football, and then in music and girls. The bench was lost in the garage, behind the tools, lawn mower, and recycling bins. I forgot about it, again - this time for a decade or more.

BUT the other day, as I crawled on the floor with my 14-month-old grandson, looking for something fun for us to do, I remembered the weirdest Christmas present ever.

"Liam," I said. "Look!"

His eyebrows caterpillared to meet above his nose as he watched me wipe the dust off the paint-spattered, green-in-patches stool. His expression said clearly that this was the last thing he expected his Gran Shan to be excited about.

"Your great-grandpa made it for me ... and for your daddy ... and for you," I told him. "And you know what? I'll bet you'll find lots of uses for it!"

But by then, he already was.

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