Throughout many of his earliest years, a common refrain would echo through our apartment. “Play trains with me.” What this meant, roughly, was that you were being asked to commit to the building of a very elaborate wooden train track – a track that a mere novice should not be playing on, but there you go. Anything less would be insulting and ripped apart in an instance. So, you would get out a piece of paper, draw a rough design and, if you were me, fail miserably in the interpretation and just see where the laying of the track took you. I did this for years. Days and days and days of hearing this request. Before work. After work. On the weekends. I can’t remember a time in which I was not asked to lay down train track and then play a rousing game of “No, don’t use that one. NO! Put! It! There!” Smash. “Mama, build a new one.”

On my better days, I would oblige the request, certain that there would be a time that this would pass and I would look back on this activity fondly. On days in which I had it up to the parental here, the mere thought of attaching this piece to that could have me break out into a cold sweat. Some days, it seemed like the most boring thing ever.  Not the track building itself, which had the power to at least tax my creativity slightly. No, it was more the relentless looping around the track with a little wooden train that tended to get, shall we say, tedious after the first five minutes.

When Owl was born, my first thought was, “Oh dear. We need to buy him his own, less cool wood trains so that he never touches Penguin’s. The Lord help him if he does.” And I did just that, buying him very juvenile-looking wooden engines and box cars when compared to the new, realistic Whistler wooden trains that I had purchased for Penguin.  This worked, for the most part. A curious thing about siblings though. The most awful dregs of a toy suddenly seem appealing and even necessary to one’s very existence when in the hands of a sibling. Once Owl was actually old enough to hold a train and maneuver it around the track, we devised a simple way to let the wee child know that a given train was approved for his use by the elder child. By very fact that they were his first, Penguin saw all the trains as his, except for the Thomas trains (“face trains” as he called them, since they were too babyish). But through something that must have been an unwitting sorcery on my part, I convinced him that it would be easier for all involved if he selected a handful of trains that were just Owl’s so that he could play with the rest of the trains in peace. Owl’s trains would all be marked with a big, black “O,” therefore making it quite clear which trains were his to enjoy. I would simply need train Owl to use just these trains and there would be no more fights. Seasoned parents are free to insert side-busting laughter here.

So, it never quite worked that way. Now, on top of the daily request that a train track be built, the further request of “Make one for Owl, but make his worse,” and “Don’t let him touch my trains” and “I think he’s looking at one of my trains” and “I’m not going to play with this track if he puts his train on it so you’ll have to make me a new one” also filled the air. Punctuated randomly by wailing shrieks from Owl as he watched his train be snatched from his hand and thrown across the room for having the audacity to be on its own simple, circular track but TOOCLOSE to Penguin’s train rounding the bend.  It was – to summarize – nightmarish.

Then a funny thing happened. Only I can’t quite tell you exactly when this was. It began quietly, as these things usually do. I noticed one day that Owl has grabbed one of Penguin’s moderately favored trains.  Instantly my heart started racing. Do I take it away, ensuring a mournful cry but preventing a possible beating? Do I feign ignorance and then watch, shocked I say, as Penguin exacts his retribution? Do I attempt to distract both of them away from the trains altogether and on to a less combative, less bloodthirsty pursuit? I could see Owl eying his brother and I know in that moment we were both waiting for the gauntlet to fall. Owl, braver than I, began flaunting the acquisition and it was all I could to run screaming from the house in suspense. At an undetermined point, Penguin glanced over and took note of the train. It took a second and in those moments, I can’t be sure what he was thinking. I imagine he realized right away that it was his train. I imagine that there was a part of him that instantly began to burn with the white-hot fever of sibling possessiveness. He stopped what he was doing and Owl, though pretending to nonchalantly play along, was clearly watching him from the side of his eye, ready to run or cower as the need arose. I practically chewed my fingernails to the bone, waiting for something – anything – to happen. And then, nothing.  A gigantic nothing. Penguin continued to play and Owl, sensing victory, immediately discarded the train because it appears that this is what little brothers do to bigger brothers. Push the envelope in what can only be an appreciation of both sadism and masochism.

From that day forth, the number of trains in which Owl could play with grew exponentially. For a long time, almost any train was game, save the Whistler wooden trains. Those were the last holdout. Then one day, as with the others, those too fell and Owl was free to play with whatever he wanted. I say this in a short paragraph, but in effect, this whole experience took about a year.  During this time, Penguin pulled further and further away from playing with trains and train tracks, more interested in things like computer games and Army soldiers and tanks. One day last summer, and I strain my memory to remember but just cannot, the very last request to build a train track was made. I have not heard it since.

As with everything in parenting, that which was once torturous has become nostalgic. The laying of track, the swooping of a train around a curve and the sound of wooden car and plastic wheels against the little grooves in the wooden track is still something I can hear if I pay attention carefully to my memories. I do wish I could remember the last day we sat down to build a track, and I also wish I had advance knowledge that it would be the last time so that we could have gone out with a bang.  A show-stopping layout and all the passion I could muster as I brought the trains into the station and then back out again. I won’t lie – I’m glad to have hung up my conductor’s cap. Owl’s not very interested in trains and so we just don’t play with them much at all anymore. But I can’t bring myself to get rid of any of it during our upcoming spring cleaning. For all the monotony on our daily runs, I can look back and say I’ve enjoyed my time on the rails.

Conductor out.