There is one thing I vowed and declared I would never intentionally do: say something vacuous to a child.
This is made easier by the fact that I never had any children of my own.
My vow kicked into full gear when my sister produced the first of three – need I say it, wonderful – children.
The middle one turned eighteen today, hence the nostalgic rifling through the leather letter-writing case my mother was given by her father at age fifteen, and the one of a similar size yet not nearly so full of character that I was given at the age of twenty-one, which yielded this curious relic of a bygone age carefully crafted correctly in three languages without error, as if no one could understand the symbol of a white aeroplane on a blue background when affixed to a stamped envelope.
Since a child, I assumed that the Afrikaans and English in South Africa sent an awful lot of correspondence to France. Or, that if by some strange twist of fate one did not understand Afrikaans or English then as a letter-writing citizen one would be sure to understand French. No satisfactory explanation exists for this oddity, yet I would guess that millions were printed over time, given that airmail stickers are far easier to lose than safety pins in anything one might call a purse on either side of The Pond.
So there I was visiting the parents briefly one early evening after work. I was helping my mother prepare dinner in her kitchen with her first grandchild on the floor, thoroughly enjoying that stage of life when high-speed crawling is just as much fun as learning to stand. The gaga-gurgle stage of speech development when any resemblance to actual words that the child utters is minimal, yet we are all grateful because at least the child is interacting with her environment.
Suddenly, disaster! My mother knocks a cutting board to the floor on top of which is a mountain of hot pumpkin seeds recently removed from half a huge pumpkin. (My mother single-handedly ran her own version of the “feed the world” campaign from her very own kitchen.) The fact that my shin has been scalded with orangey goo through nylon stockings (compulsory corporate prison-wear in those days) is of no concern to Granny.
The Granny lets out a controlled shriek. I say not to worry, the one with the nappy on is unharmed, and remarkably free of the mess all over the kitchen floor. Granny rushes off to find floor cleaning equipment.
I bend down and decide to give Earth Mother Lesson Number One. I gently support her back while the child sits and wriggles. I pick up a couple of pumpkin seeds off the floor and hold them in the palm of my hand to show her. The first niece tugs at my dangling earring. I then rub a couple of seeds between my thumb and fingers to dry them, and put them in her hand, so that she can feel what they are like.
I address the child by name and say that these are “pumpkin seeds”. I tell her that if you plant them in the soil outside, they grow into pumpkins. Still with the two seeds clenched in her hand, I pick her up at this juncture, and point to the half of the raw pumpkin still on the kitchen counter, and say “pumpkin”. I have the child’s attention; there is no pain sensation in my ear lobe.
I then point to the semi-mashed cooked pumpkin in the bowl, and use my little finger to scoop some into my mouth with obvious relish and say “mashed pumpkin”. I scoop another little bit with the same finger thus sanitised, and shove it into the kid’s mouth. She swallows and we are both happy.
I repeat the lesson, making sure the child is watching my lips as I say the words. As I do so, my mother says, “Oh, it’s too soon for that, she won’t remember any of that – she is too young.” I say. “She might.”
Well, blow me down
Fast forward to another kitchen scene, this time at my sister’s home about three months later. She is standing, stirring a pot, holding her daughter on her hip. I have just arrived, and greet sister and greet niece. At which point, my niece lurches away from her mother’s grip and points with her arm extended to something on the counter. She says, “pumpkin seeds!” (properly pronounced, I should add) and turns and looks at me with a delightful, triumphant smile. I say, “So they are.”
with a feather.
It turns out that no-one had uttered those words to this child since that evening three months before. Go figure.
It is my sister’s second child who turned eighteen today. She was, and is (like her father), an astute observer of people and the world. Yet she was, for the most part, very good at keeping her observations to herself. And, despite her many and diverse talents, has never shown off, or been a pain in the rear end to anyone except perhaps her younger brother.
She is the one who really did test my mettle as far as my vow was concerned. Good for her! She has good perception and an analytical mind, and from what her friends say, a kind heart. I have not seen her or her family in the five and a half years since they emigrated in one direction and I in another.
I would rather like to have taken a trip on that aeroplane pictured above – simply to sit and share a decent conversation with her over a slice of birthday cake.
(the least sentimental of the brood, God help us!)