Thursday, September 12, 2013

Scene from the childhood of a stranger

It’s remarkable how comforting it can be to witness a little scene of momentary peace in a family with young children. We seem to be far more likely to take notice of misbehaving children and parents at their wits’ end, perhaps because of our natural inclination to be always on the lookout for potential conflict. Yesterday as I exited a supermarket and began to walk along the perimeter of a suburban shopping centre, I overheard a brief exchange, beginning with a little girl calling out to her sister as she rounded a corner, “Daddy said stop running!”. Her sister did stop, but she also displayed that wonderful talent children have for obeying an instruction to stop doing something and simultaneously beginning to do something even more annoying instead. Rather than walking at a sensible pace like her polite sister, the little girl began to pause on the path to make dramatic gestures out towards the car park and howl like a wolf. At this point the other girl appealed to her mother: “Daddy said to stop running,” to which her mother replied “I know, and you reminded her and she did,” ruffling the little girl’s hair on the top of her head, which was collected at the back of her neck in a sensible-looking ponytail. It was at this point that I overtook the family, edging awkwardly past the little wolf, whom I suspect secretly appreciated my presence because it enabled her to be more disruptive. Walking ahead, I couldn’t tell exactly who was involved in the next development, but it began with the father, at the head of the pack, beginning to join in the baying and howling. His more convincing deeper register seemed to excite further the little girl, and in the ensuing commotion I began to sense that the whole family had become wolves, making quite a noise in the darkening evening as they walked along.

There was so much to treasure in this little scene. The first girl’s total faith in her father as an authority figure was confirmed only by deference to another, her mother: “Daddy said to stop running,” she had said, a little sulkily, her exasperation already beginning to give way to the realisation that perhaps it did not really matter so much. The mother’s choice of words in her reply - “I know, and you reminded her and she did,” - seemed remarkably deft: the little girl’s relaying of her father’s instruction had come only seconds after he gave it himself, so it hardly made sense that her sister could need to be “reminded”. But the mother twisted reality a little bit to make her daughter feel better about her overreaction, patting her head in a gesture that simultaneously said “I’m on your side,” and “You’re a little bit of a goody two shoes and it’s cute.” Then the whole family joining in the howling: how truly did they seem a family in that moment - a tight little pack, unconcerned about the opinions of passers-by, who had not shared their preceding day, in the context of which it probably seemed perfectly reasonable to begin howling like wolves. I felt great admiration for the parents: they seemed to live life at some great distance from me, in some second stage, where self-consciousness has been well and truly beaten out of you. The little girl having her hair ruffled struck me: here was a moment in her childhood, which seemed to hold the possibility of keeping her from falling off the tracks in the future. She wouldn’t remember it, yet her mother’s tenderness would be stored somewhere: it would count for something. But in the commotion a little lesson for the girl, too: don’t be too sure you always know what the right thing to do is - sometimes it is better to howl like a wolf.

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