The 21st birthday, set in 1920s Chicago. No, it has not escaped my attention that she looks ever more gorgeous, and I just look fatter. Helas, it was ever thus.
So last night, see, for reasons which need not concern us here, The Family Wellthisiswhatithink are schlepping all over rural Victoria in the darkness and pouring rain. Cue an hour and a half of trying not to get written off by wayward road-trains, or driving off the side of the unlit road into a gum tree, or aquaplaning into a swaying oncoming caravan.
She Who Must Be Obeyed is very kindly driving as Father has cried off with sore eyes. (An inevitable result of too much blogging which does sometimes get one out of driving.) Fruit of One’s Loins is in the backseat, half asleep between texts to various friends.
We have all just listened to a fascinating but rather tiring BBC podcast about the history of mathematics, trying to keep awake – specifically about a Swiss guy called Leonhard Euler who is well worth checking out, interesting dude, actually – but understanding what he did that was so clever has left us all a bit brain numbed, so we have now resorted to desultory conversation and flicking around the outer reaches of Father’s iPod listening to “driving Music”. (Usually long-lost one-hit-wonder 1970s bands.)
The rain slows to a steady drizzle, Melbourne’s lights loom vertically and vaguely in the far distance, the largest skyscrapers punching through the gloom, and planes landing at Tullamarine light up the sky with their nose searchlights, picking out the way home. At this moment a warm bed and sweet oblivion seem worth trading ten years of one’s life for.
You get the general picture.
For some reason, we fall to discussing the foibles of Fruit of One’s Loins early conversations with us. The way, like all kids, she couldn’t pronounce certain words properly, so just did her best, and how those words pass into the fabric of a family, un-noticed and un-remarked, until they become a habit.
My nephew, par example, aged one and a bit, christened all road-working heavy equipment as “Tac Tacs” as he couldn’t manage “tractor”, and would scream “Tac Tac!” delightedly whenever the car passed any yellow-painted earth-moving thing of any type. Gradually, generations of us decided to agree with him and repeated it. I confidently expect Tac Tac to pass into the English language one day.
“I upped the adorableness meter a few notches, Daddy, is that OK?” (Un-retouched photograph from cheap bedside frame where it has resided for, oh, about 20 years.)
It was a gentle conversation as we drove through the night-laden, moonlessly sodden suburbs. I recalled that she christened wallabies wobble-ies, which in retrospect seems a better name altogether given their bizarre ambulatory habit, and their propensity for ending up as roadkill. For some reason, she never learned to say “By myself” as in, “I can do that by myself”. She preferred “By my own.” Which makes perfect sense, even if it’s incorrect English, and to this day, every member of my family now says “By my own” to describe a solitary act. Vitamins were morphed into “Bitamins”, and so on.
As she grew a little older, and established a command of the English language that makes her writer Father proud, she never, ironically, learned to apply a concomitant filter to her thought processes, encouraged, one supposes, by a laissez-faire attitude to free discussion that her mother and I encouraged as being about the only thing we thought we knew about parenting beyond “love all your kids to bits”, which seemed just obvious and sensible.
She would simply say the first thing that came into her fertile, creative mind, often long before she has paused to consider the logic of it, a characteristic which I am delighted to see she still exhibits. It makes her refreshing, charming and sometimes hilarious company.
So it was that in her middle teen years – and attending a Christian school – she was one day sun-baking on a forty degree day by the backyard swimming pool when she asked her parents, with all the seriousness of not stopping to parse an idle thought adequately, “It must have been hot in olden days too, before swimming pools and air-conditioners. I bet people died of the heat back then. I wonder what Jesus died of?”
Suggestions came flying as what she had said dawned on her. “Really bad diarrhoea?” “Smallpox? Wasn’t there a lot of smallpox around back then?” “Old age?” “Maybe a car accident?”
It would be some years before she would be allowed to forget that one. Correction, it will be some years. Perhaps never. Of such little moments are the history of a family made, and each family’s is unique, and really rather wonderful.
“Could someone get me up from here?” Kind regards, Big Bird
Swerving off the freeway to catch a turn-off to home that she had nearly missed, the car teetering on what felt like two wheels but probably wasn’t, the Leader of the Opposition suddenly said to me “I’ll tell you one you don’t know, if you promise not to tease her about it.”
“Sure,” I said, “Go for it. I promise.”
A worried little voice warbled up from the back seat … “Is it about ….?” No, it wasn’t. I knew that one already. “Then is it ….?” No, I knew that one too.
“Well,” said my wife, cheerfully carving up an incautious motorcylist or two who had dared to travel on the same road as us at the same time – obviously hadn’t got the memo – “She used to wake up with sleep in her eyes …”
“Oh yes, yes, I know this one,” came the backseat cry, “I know, I used to wipe the sleep from my eyes, and you told me it was Fairy Dust that the faeries had put there to send me to sleep, so in the mornings I would wipe the sleep from my eyes and then rub it into my shoulder blades, because then one day I would grow real fairy wings of my own.”
I turned to look at her, charmed by the story. With all the good-naturedness of her affable, life-affirming 21 years she beamed at me.
I turned back to my wife, and said to her. “That’s not silly at all. I can completely see that. I bet it works, too. I bet you do grow fairy wings if you do it often enough. Yeah, good one. I might try that myself.”
The car fell silent again as we negotiated the last few sets of traffic lights and roundabouts before home. The rain started up once more, hammering on the roof of the car, turning the whole landscape into some sort of vast film noir set. I half expected to see Phillip Marlowe standing in a bus shelter, collar upturned, silently watching the world for clues, head turned away from the icy Antarctic wind which by now was bending the trees almost horizontal again.
I glanced back at my daughter again, and was rewarded with another grin. And it occurred to me that she had never grown fairy wings, no matter how hard her little four year old hands had rubbed her shoulders and dreamed of flying through the air in clouds of glitter and magical primary colours. But that, huddled in the back seat, and secreted under the coat and scarf and wooly jumper and warm shirt and thermal undies, she was almost certainly hiding a fine set of angel wings.
And I made a mental note to remember that more often. And to be grateful. And to smile more, even on winter nights, even when the road winds on forever, and the sky cries its eyes out, and the dark seems darker than nothingness.