We climbed what felt like a million wooden steps. Crawled through a make-believe castle window and made it to a two-story-high landing where we had a thrilling choice: Which of two giant tube slides would throttle us to the ground through red pipes that looked, from the heavens, like a giant heart?
“Mommy!” my 4-year-old chirped as he waved toward the one he insisted was faster. “Come with me!” He hopped in, vanished, and I dove in right after him. Our laughter ricocheted as friction, and cares, melted away in that big, red heart.
“Wow,” a woman later muttered when I ran into her at the bottom. We were both standing in front of those slides, watching kids dart around the Manderach Memorial Playground at Limerick Community Park like maniacs. “They didn’t have playgrounds like this when I was a kid.”
I had discovered this place in the far western suburbs of Montgomery County a year ago after being invited there for a young girl’s birthday party. I went back a few more times, nagged each time by the question: Who built this wonderland? How? Why? This couldn’t be just the showpiece of an affluent community in one of Philadelphia’s pharmaceutical-industry corridors.
What I discovered was that ordinary moms and dads built this playground as a shrine to a mother and toddler whose murders a generation ago gripped the nation. What remains two decades later in the heart of 70-some acres of Montgomery County open space is an oasis of unbridled joy. Where hyperbolic happiness is demanded of you.
Lisa Manderach was 29 when she made the grave mistake of taking her 19-month-old daughter, Devon, to browse at a children’s clothing store in nearby Collegeville on a Sunday in 1995.
The proprietor’s son, Caleb Fairley, strangled them both in the store and dumped their bodies that same day. Days later, Devon was curled up beside her mother in a single bronze casket, her head resting on Lisa’s shoulder.
“You never, ever lose sight of that,” said Limerick Township Supervisor Tom Neafcy Jr., whose son, Tyler, was just 4 at the time. “That was the most horrific of horrific crimes that’s ever happened in this area. It shook everyone to the core.”
Neafcy had just helped Limerick buy a huge section of land along Swamp Road. Ginger Childs was a young mom of two toddlers who lived nearby and couldn’t get over the grisly details of the murders. The community was consumed for months.
“Everyone was talking about it,” Childs remembers.
She called the township with an idea. How about letting some residents build a playground on Swamp Road in Lisa and Devon’s memory?
Childs had no track record in civic action. But the former college class president was convincing.
“She was the sizzle,” is how ex-Parks and Recreation official Glenn Holcombe remembers it. “She got people excited about this thing.”
Childs led a volunteer committee that raised $500,000 in cash and in-kind donations. For inspiration, they looked to a playground in Upper Gwynedd that had a castle theme, too. They hired architects who took brochures to Limerick Elementary School and asked the kids: “What would you put in your most fun playground?”
And when it came time to build, hundreds of teenagers, parents, and retirees came out with shovels and gloves and worked for several weeks in 1998. They formed a huge pile of dirt that would be the raised foundation of the castle slide, installed paved paths for disabled children, and built a tall, wooden fence with just a single, small opening to make sure kids couldn’t wander away. To this day, that fence shelters all who enter, each slat etched with the name of someone who helped bring this place to life.
Local heating-business owner Steve Oehlert was a young dad himself when he pitched in to help raise money. The community build was awesome, he said.
“It just started,” Oehlert said, “as a mound of dirt.”
Today, the playground draws people from all over, which Township Manager Dan Kerr says is unusual because most municipal playgrounds are designed specifically not to become regional attractions.
Over the last two decades, officials have renovated the playground, added ballfields, bathrooms, picnic pavilions, and an open-all-weekend concession stand. They recently acquired 25 acres more, too.
I went back with my kids a few weeks ago on a Sunday to meet with Ginger. Children dangled from a rope trellis atop a twirling merry-go-round. And that thing was spinning fast, the way I remember pre-lawyered playground equipment did in the 1970s, when steel monkey bars, concrete ground, and frictionless ball bearings conveyed to all of us kids: “Do This at Your Own Risk.”
Others swung from large saucer swings. Toddlers balanced their way across a long, raised caterpillar that undulates with each step.
Childs, now a busy real estate agent, pointed to several hearts painted on the enormous, heart-shaped slide. They’re for Devon and Lisa. She stopped, too, to think about her own kids, a son now 26, a daughter, 23.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “It goes so fast. A blink of an eye.”
When Lisa and Devon died, the Rev. Joseph Duffy urged Lisa’s husband, James, to find solace in memories, however brief they were: “Go back over the many happy things and tender moments that happened. The courtship...the excitement of the new baby.”
Cope, in other words, with the miracle of your mind and heart.
“He has to imagine those times to ease the sense of loss,” Father Duffy said. “God has given us imagination just for that purpose.”
The souls of Limerick have given us this playground for much the same purpose. So that imaginations, young and old, may heal us all.