I went to the Lego movie expecting an hour and a half of fun, probably a few laughs and a couple of retro references from the '80s. But I didn't expect to learn lessons about my childhood and now my fatherhood. Cue the flashback music...
It was the late 1970′s when my dad first showed me those boxes of Lionel trains being stored in the basement behind the furnace. They were the old ones, the really big ones. You know, the ones that people would build and set up as a hobby. These trains belonged to my father and my uncle when they were kids. These trains meant everything to them. My dad told me these trains were now mine. Wow! I couldn't believe it. I couldn't wait to put those trains together again... with dad's help. I had been told how old the trains were. I had been told how expensive the trains were. I had been told how those trains needed to be handled with care... with my dad... to make sure the trains were always OK. I was the new keeper of a precious childhood heirloom. That holiday season, my dad got all the paints and material needed to restore those trains. My parents even got me one of those engineer hats to wear when the trains were set up. It was going to be father and son bonding. It was going to be great. I couldn't wait.
But days would turn to weeks. I understood. My dad was a teacher. He was very busy with work. The paints sat on the table. The trains stayed in the boxes. Weeks turned to months. But still, I understood. There were papers to grade and lessons to plan. All the supplies sat stacked neatly. The trains were safe in the boxes. Months turned to years. But even still, I understood. There were things to be done. All the while, those boxes called my name. They sat in the basement with a childhood full of memories inside just waiting to be set up and to come back to life again. Once in a while, I'd peek in the boxes and hold the steel gauge track in my hand. I remember the track and the locomotive being so heavy in my hand. I'd look at the little depot buildings and dust off the windows and the trees. The dial wasn't hooked up for the locomotive, but I'd turn it from left to right and imagine these trains steaming around the track. They looked so great in my mind. I could almost hear the whistle as they raced around the basement. But the trains didn't whistle. They never whistled.
In 1990, my dad died. I was 14 years old. I was angry that he left us. I was angry about all the broken promises. I was angry about those trains. Those damn trains in the boxes. I hated those stupid trains which just sat there and had never been set up. I never wanted to see those stupid trains again. F*ck the trains. I hauled the trains out of the basement... box by box. I sold them at a yard sale for dirt cheap. I spent the money. Almost immediately, I regretted what I had done. Holy crap. What did I do? But the trains were gone and I knew it. Once in a while, my uncle would ask about the trains and if I still had them. I'd lie and tell him I did. I'd lie and say they were safe in the basement just waiting to be restored and put together. I lied for years and years about the trains whenever he'd ask me. Then one holiday when he was at the house for dinner he asked about the trains again. He asked if he could see them. I was now a young adult. I burst into tears in front of the entire table. I proceeded to tell him the story of the trains and why I got rid of them. It was a catharsis years in the making.
And that's what brings me back to the Lego movie today. I won't ruin it for you if you haven't seen it yet. But suffice it to say, one dad learns a whole lot about the relationship with his son. Only in this fictional movie, that dad did what mine never could. He recognized the mistake he had made. He recognized a toy was only a toy. He used it as a bonding experience for him and his children. He grew as a dad. I hope I recognize the same thing as my kids get older. Toys are only toys. Things are only things. They can mean a lot and they can come and go, but they will never replace the people in your lives. One day maybe I'll go buy that new set of Lionel trains. I still dream of them. I still think of them in the boxes in the basement behind the furnace. I still think of what they would have been like steaming around the track with me and my dad holding the dial. I know it would have been great. It could have been great. If only it had been.
I've made a promise to myself to never leave a box of memories just waiting to be opened.