Two of my children have left home and one has started secondary school so now my only doorway into the enchanted land of childhood is through my seven-year-old daughter writes TIM LOTT
There is one song I simply cannot listen to because it upsets me too much – Turn Around by Nanci Griffith. It is a song about the ephemerality of childhood – the velocity with which you will lose your children to time and growth. Recorded first by Harry Belafonte it begins with this stanza:
“Where are you goin’ my little one, little one? / Where are you goin’ my baby my own? / Turn around and you’re two / Turn around and you’re four / Turn around and you’re a young girl / Going out of the door.”
Even without the tune it brings a lump to my throat. I have watched two of my children “go out of the door” – one is 18 and one 20 – and although my pride in their independence and achievements is overwhelming, knowing that the children they were can never return is sometimes sharper than a serpent’s tooth.
Now I watch my 11 and eight year old jealously, coveting them and yet already seeing the inevitability unfold. Eva (11) started secondary school this year and the change is marked. Trips to the swings and the roundabouts have been replaced by hockey and homework. Louise, the youngest, is my last foothold on, and doorway into, the enchanted land of childhood.
Of course, I accept their changes, as I must. But I sometimes wonder if the pain of seeing them grow up is merely an echo of one’s own pain – the loss of childhood we all had to go through. Perhaps we are all in exile from that place. The wish for children is, as much as anything, an attempt to re-enter that enchanted garden – albeit by proxy.
What else is it we lose as our children grow up? For many of us, it is a sense of purpose. The empty nest syndrome is no myth – my mother, who took her own life in 1988, I am sure, grieved the departure of her youngest son, a few years previously (although, of course, it wasn’t the only factor). I have friends who view the absence of progeny from the family home with terror.
I am 58, and perhaps fortunate in that I will be nearly 70 before I face any kind of empty nest. At times when the chaos of family life overwhelms me, I look forward to that time – of peace and quiet, financial security and well-earned rest. Some of my friends have already retired, and seem to be thoroughly enjoying their freedom.
But how is one to live without the adoration that young children bring to your life, the volcano of love that is always erupting – along with the tantrums and trials? How many luxury cruises, how many strolls on how many exotic beaches compensate for that?
I am lucky to have had four children – and such enchanting ones at that – but I never imagined when they were first conceived of the sense of loss that they carried as a seed within them. Or, rather, within me.
In my novels I am obsessed with the idea of change – that things are constantly slipping away from you, including yourself. Most people it barely seems to bother, but it sometimes seems impossible to me to bear such a disappearing life.
I am, as so often, comforted by the words of my favourite philosopher, Alan Watts. “Transience is the basic condition of life. Nothing can be possessed. We are all dissolving smoke. Life, despite its appearance of being solid, is immaterial. Going away, dissolving is the same thing as living. To dissolve is the heart of beauty and the heart of life.”
This is the truth about childhood and everything else. Change, and loss, cannot be escaped, and nor should we want to escape them – any more than we should want to make a flower plastic, or inject a serum into our children to keep them at the age we choose. Growth, as John Updike said, is loss. There is no other way.