A croquet ace meets her (miniature) match

During brunch on the deck I eyed the croquet set our host had set out at one end of his small level lawn. I had played a lot of croquet as a girl and was always eager for a chance to try my stuff against another serious player.

So I began seeking an opponent. No one was interested or available - no one, that is, except for Lachlan, a 5-year-old, and his little sister, Mairi Jo, who came up to my knees.

"OK," I agreed, the teacher in me coming out. "I'll show you how to play." I pounded one of the brightly ringed stakes into the ground. Lachlan was eager to help. While he finished off that stake with his mallet, I installed the other one and got the wickets.

"Two go here," I explained, bending over to push the wickets into the earth. "And two here, and..."

Lachlan and Mairi Jo were not very interested in learning about the prescribed position of the wickets; they were already busy discovering what happened when their mallets made solid contact with the balls.

Finally the course was ready. I showed the children the colored rings on the stakes and explained that we would take turns according to the colors of our mallets and balls. Lachlan swapped his yellow set for the blue one so that he would be first.

Pretty coordinated for a 5-year-old, he made it through two wickets and halfway to the third on his first turn. He beamed triumphantly. Mairi Jo bent her plump, pink limbs into the task of advancing her ball. It rested several feet short of her brother's, and she danced around it, swinging her mallet and her long blond hair.

"Now it's my turn," I announced, hoping to keep the children - if not from fidgeting, then at least from hitting their balls again before I'd finished. By hitting Lachlan's ball, I made it a quarter of the way around the course.

The children were patient and took turns nicely for about five minutes. Then Lachlan's exuberance poured over the dam. He began hitting his ball again and again, his quick, slender legs scurrying along purposefully.

"Lachlan," I objected, "it's Mairi Jo's turn." He didn't slow him down a bit.

"But I want to win!" he said. While I helped Mairi Jo aim her ball toward the next wicket, Lachlan chased his ball around the course, hit the stake, and gleefully announced that he'd won.

I tried to explain that that wasn't really winning, but he didn't buy it. So I turned to Mairi Jo and gave her my undivided attention. She lapped it up.

But Lachlan would not be written off. He began going around the course again, hitting his ball between ours, and almost whacking my ankle with his mallet. This time he saw no reason why he should be limited to using his mallet to move his ball. He began picking up the ball and placing it conveniently in front of the wickets. Then he began moving the wickets. These gestures didn't escape his sister's notice. Lachlan, with a new sense of freedom, was reinventing the game.

I stood by, confused and at a loss as to how to get this game back on track.

"Let's not use these 'pellets,' " Lachlan said, tossing his mallet aside. "We don't need these pellets! And let's have two balls."

He hefted two of the hardwood balls in his small hands. "Here, you can have two balls," he said generously.

At this point I knew I was losing, and stood by watching it happen. What would he do next?

Lachlan put one ball in the grass and threw the other one at it. Crack! Crack! Crack! went his balls in rapid succession all over the lawn. I repositioned the "borrowed" wickets, losing track of Mairi Jo in the process. Suddenly, from the far end of the court, her sweet voice rose in celebration.

'I won!" she cried, throwing her arms into the air. (She had just hit the stake.) Her joy was contagious. I threw out my last hope of maintaining order and joined in the fun. "Yea, Mairi Jo!" I shouted. The little girl's dimples looked more charming than ever. Lachlan's brown eyes flashed with new creative spirit.

"OK. Here's what you do," he said, assuming full control in the wake of my obvious defeat. "Come down here. Now we're going to throw these balls out and then rescue them!"

Partly because this was beginning to be entertaining and partly because I felt helpless to do otherwise, I let the children to lead me through a series of innovative variations on croquet. By the time they had tired of the game, mallets, balls, and wickets were in total disarray. Not only had I failed to teach Lachlan and Mairi Jo the official version, I'd failed to bring out their patience, orderliness, and self-discipline.

As if to reassure me, Lachlan helped me pick up all the balls, "pellets," and wickets, without my asking. Grunting and pulling with all his might, he even removed the stakes. Then he placed all the pieces in the bag, zipped it up, and dashed off, leaving me with a whiff of his spontaneous joy. I exhaled a sigh of relief and then chuckled. Lachlan wasn't disorderly at all. He was just too quick for me. I had met my match.

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