First published in Melbourne’s Child 2006
The penny dropped while we were playing a mad game of Marco Polo in my parents’ swimming pool last month. As I lunged after them, eyes squeezed shut, yelling “Marco” I could hear my boys bursting with giggles and surprised delight. “Polo”, came their water-logged reply. What was their mum doing crashing about, arms flailing, competitiveness oozing out her togs, all for a childish game of water tag? When I opened my eyes and saw their faces, I understood: they think I’ve always been an adult, that I was never a kid.
Of course, it makes sense when you think about it. They never knew the young girl who climbed telephone poles – and got stuck at the top. Or the little 6-year-old who rode her bike no-hands after dusk with the neighbours, ignoring the ringing cowbell which declared dinner time at 5 Grove Hill. They don’t realise that I was the queen of the local swimming pool, mastering backward summersaults and specialising in extended underwater tea parties. I’m sure they would have liked me. But they’ve never known that side of their mum; it was dead and buried long before they arrived in this world.
It was a recent trip back to my hometown that stirred up the old child in me. It also gave my boys a few telltale signs that there might have been a time when their mum didn’t notice toothpaste smears in the bathroom sink or grumble over unmade beds and inside-out pyjamas on the bedroom floor. Driving past my old school, visiting with three former teachers, recounting stories of misspent Saturday afternoons with old friends all left me wondering if the process of maturing and becoming responsible had stripped me of characteristics which I need to recover. Would the silliness and fun that I long ago jettisoned as immature now help me face the challenges which life keeps dropping in my path? Maybe getting serious is a healthy process for all 20-somethings. But now that I’ve hit my 40s, is it time to salvage some bits from my childhood attic, trading in a bit of intense responsibility for some light-hearted letting go?
My boys listened with fascination, savouring every detail, as my long-time friend recounted stories of my practical joke escapades. They loved the ones about the bedroom stuffed to the ceiling with wadded up newspaper and the friend who we “decorated” as she slept in her bed unknowingly on her birthday. I don’t think they really understood the significance of the Just Married signs that we attached to the back of my good friend’s car while parked outside the cinema on her first date. But they laughed anyway. Laughed at the thought of their ever-responsible mum being a kid, living carefree and impractical, doing things just for fun. Unfortunately, this is not the mum they see very often.
I was a kid once, we all were. It’s hard to remember, though, when it seems such a long time ago. There was a time when we all begged to stay up late and to eat the entire batch of cookie dough; a time when we could roll down a grassy hill without worrying about the stains; when the future was more about unlimited possibilities than obstacles.
We can’t go back and, for the most part, that’s okay. After all, youthful carelessness has its drawbacks. I have a clear recollection of 30-some stitches from the failed experiment with a shower door and the long plunge from the 3m diving board to the concrete. Not to mention the countless errors of judgement and utter stupidity made during one’s pre-mature years. We might refer to them as “cringe memories”. Maybe they keep us from revisiting our childhood. But the privilege of age allows us to choose which lost characteristics should be revived. Our kids don’t need to see our former immaturity just because we rekindle a bit of zaniness. And maybe it would do them good to know us when we’re free of the drudgery of unpacking barely-touched lunches, when our creativity is not consumed by appointments and deadlines, when we can surprise them with a zest for life.
I’ve done some thinking since returning from my trip into the past. Unfortunately, I’m still busy and loaded with responsibilities. But I’m trying to make regular visits to my childhood. Having limited energy to put toward this, I’ve been amazed to see how often opportunities are presenting themselves. It’s as though just opening the window a crack has let some youthful wind rush back into my personality. In time I may once again become a person who loves getting sandy at the beach, who schemes up practical jokes, and who is occasionally able to leave the laundry mound on the couch and play kick-to-kick with a budding young AFL hopeful. Resurrecting some of my former ways may also keep my kids from wishing they’d known me 30 years ago, rather than today. And who knows, maybe I’ll discover along the way, thanks to them, that I’m becoming more the kind of person I’d like to be.