Archive for June, 2009



We are in Wappinger’s Falls, upstate New York, and I sit here on a muggy, humid Saturday morning, in a Starbucks.

I have just ambled over to Wal-mart, resisted buying $6 guido-wear, stuck to the task of buying a pack of socks (6 for $4, and whoopee, let’s have a big hand for for child labor!) and I am eating oatmeal and a banana.

My wife has taken the pre-schooler to Jumpin’ Jakes, a large red and yellow room in which are a series of giant inflatable jumpy houses and slides.

We will soon go and meet up with the rest of my wife’s family for a ‘reunion’ lunch.


Her parents are old now, mid 70s and early 80s respectively, but they remain chipper, pushing on well, refusing to capitulate to age, aches, forgetfulness, a decrease in speed.

I caught sight of my wife’s mother in a photo from when she was barely in her 20s. She was a beautiful woman, flawless in appearance, eyes wide open with all the hope, wonder and expectation of a life with 5 children and multiple international living situations to come. And it has been quite a life; homes and eras in South Africa, Singapore, Switzerland, five children, dances with anxiety…the plate has always been bustlingly full.


She has retained that smile from her youth, and to be fair she has looked after herself well, but of course there has been the inevitable descent into advanced old age. We keep having the same, small conversations, and spirited as they are, imbued with genuine emotion and inquisitiveness, they are nonetheless the same conversations. I watch her watching her grandchildren; she seems delighted to see them but in a slightly disoriented way, as if matching the grandkids she’s currently seeing with the ones she hears regularly about is not a straight route. That’s not necessarily a negative, christ, the very same happens with me and my own kids! But hers is more the product of pace, the realization of that time when energy, the sort of energy you need to deal with young ones, is just not available on tap anymore.

That’s the process of age. Nothing more. Nothing less.


My wife’s father, my father-in-law, one of four fathers who will gather for breakfast tomorrow on Father’s Day, and the most experienced father of all, is a whippet-smart humorist, observations as dry as water biscuits and a wicked grin to boot. I still can’t get up early enough to catch him out with a quip or a joke. I’ve always liked him, even when (perhaps) he wasn’t sure about me. I was, after all, the rock’n’roller who came into his daughter’s life with a divorce and child under his fingernails; naturally cocaine and strippers must’ve been part of my daily diet. And I remember so clearly a dinner we had early on in San Francisco, when they had both come out ostensibly to see who this creature their daughter had fallen in love with was. I had discussed with my wife how important it was that I explain to them who I was, what my job was, why I got divorced, the fact that my son was with me too, the fact that I Am Father in name and committment to him. I proceeded to advance this discussion as we waited for our meal to come, and as I reached the divorce explanation, the food came.

“THE SAUCE ON THIS BURGER IS DELICIOUS!” proclaimed her father, but my wife said calmly that I wasn’t finished, and so I continued.

As we got up to leave after that meal, he came over to me and gave me a long, tight hug. And so it is that we’re always happy to see each other, there’s always jokes, there’s always political discussions and there’s always (I sense) a gratitude that his daughter and I met. He himself harbored painting aspirations, perhaps a bohemian side which never got full expression as he instead worked tirelessly for Kodak around the globe, supporting his family and bringing them on a world tour in the process. indeed, those days at Kodak sometimes become the stuff of which 70s blockbuster movies were made, epic tales of skullduggery witnessed and bravery shown in an increasingly hostile and unempathetic working environment.

He is a rare old bird, a man who most certainly comes from a time, era and ethic far beyond the current one, yet a man who has effortlessly embraced the world around him and all it’s changes seemlessly. That might sound trite, but the majority of men dipping a toe into their early 80s spend days at a time bemoaning the state of the world. Not him. Not a chance.


And so as I survey the scenarios, as I ponder them, as I see the memories of a long and busy life dotted around their house (a sculpture from South Africa here, a painting from Singapore there) I realize that far from feeling melancholic for my wife’s mother and father, I actually feel delighted!

They have MADE IT to HERE with very few PERSONAL HEALTH ISSUES.

They still see their 5 children, whatever the stories, whatever the histories, whatever the dramas have been (and ALL families are all about that, there is no perfection, there is no golden ticket at the family center) they have four grandchildren, they have a relative degree of comfort and they have each other.  And perhaps (in my wife’s mum’s case) the advance of memory loss is a protection against any emotional pain that might come with the aging process. Perhaps it protects her from being riddled with anxiety which she wouldn’t have the energy to act upon. Perhaps it’s the body and brain’s design to make the impact of loss, of your visiting kids leaving, of your grandkids flying back to their homes with their parents less impactful. Perhaps…right? Right. 


So despite the fact we are staying in upstate New York at a hotel across from a Wal-mart, despite the fact that the pre-schooler takes a while to adjust to new environments (don’t they all I suppose), despite the fact I haven’t seen the teenager for a week and won’t for another (he’s of in Florida with his mother’s cousins hanging by the pool, getting sunburnt, loping around with girls and getting hangovers after a hurricane to many with his Mum) I am happy we’re here.

Because these are the visits which must be made, not only for the grandparents, but also for the children and grandchildren  to get much-needed fixes of elderly wisdom, as well as reminders that old age can still be active, still be relevant and still be fun.

At these moments, perspective is everything…

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“Wow,” said my brother-in-law, “she’s a spirited child.”

“And I should be a spirited Dad,” I countered, “imbued with large amounts of liquor to deal with the dervish that is her!”

He looked at me, smiling. “Sure, sure,” he replied, “but she really is a spirited child.”

“Is that some sort of category, adjective or euphemism?”

“No, it’s an actual phrase to describe kids who are just ‘more’ of everything; more energetic, more perceptive, more emotional, more verbal, sharper, more resilient, just ‘more’…”

He saw my face dip.

“It’s not a bad thing at all,” he quickly followed up, “it’s a great thing actually, these kids usually grow up to have very active, gregarious and productive lives, but there are things to know about them in order to be able to deal with them properly.”

A spirited child. A spirited child. A spirited child. I watched her, the whirling fizzball of energy, the curious, the questioning, the demanding , the loving, the smiley, the laughing, the happy her. And it clicked that she was precisely this; a spirited child.

“I have a book about it that I’ve been reading,” my wife said, “I’m sure I’ve told you about it, or that you’ve noticed me reading it.”

Neither rang a bell. Because had it been presented to me, I’d have grabbed the lifeline with both hands. Because I have been wondering. And because I have been searching to know if she is a bit ‘more’ than most, or if it’s all been in my head, my 42 year old sometimes frumpy-grumpy head with it’s own myriad of little fizzles and crackles going on. And here was the answer. It hasn’t been and it isn’t. It’s very, very real.

I found the book underneath a couple of crossword puzzle books and I took it. I started reading it. And I learnt something new. After 17 years as a parent, I really learnt something brand, spanking new. It was a relief and a revelation. 

She is a spirited child.

And the context this has offered, the insight and context, is nothing short of a revelation. The book, the websites I have subsequently looked up, the people I have since spoken to about it, none of them suggest it’s a ‘condition’ as such, and damn right. It isn’t an illness. It’s a type. I suppose back when my Mum was young, they’d have scoffed at these ‘sub-type’ definitions, they’d have talked of  making sure they eat well, sleep well and how a little smack on the botty never hurt anyone. But then, as my brother-in-law and his wife discussed the other night, these are the main customer base for therapists the world over. So as long as there are no drugs involved (as in ‘prescribing kids with drugs wily-nily simply because you cannot find another answer), what’s a little ‘sub-type knowledge’ between friends?

It can only help. Help me understand the repetitive questions, the incessant refusal to accept certain answers, the almost pathological determination to do something which, err, shouldn’t be done. Because I know deep in my heart of hearts that she doesn’t know how ‘alive’ she is, how bright the fire burns inside her, how utterly, totally and completely overwhelming she can be. And I know that not only must I slowly make her aware of these gifts, this power, but that I must also continue learning how to deal with it. That isn’t to say I won’t yell, piss, moan, grumble or grishnackh once in a while, but I am hopeful that learning more about the things which push me to a grumble or ‘nackh will mean I can not engage in either so much. 

I always knew she was unique, this ‘spirited child’ of mine. I’d say how much like her brother she generally wasn’t, save for their goodness, kindness and sociability. I’d refer to his ‘Hawaiian’ nature versus her ‘roadrunner’ speed, and I’d note how he never seems to worry whereas regular readers will have noted that she can meltdown over the loss of  hair-tye. This is the providence of ‘the spirited child’ and whilst the speed bumps will doubtless continue, I am finally aware that what at first seemed odd is now understandable, what at first seemed unfathomable is reasonable and what seemed daunting is actually wonderful. That energy. That passion. That perpetually upbeat demeanor…my spirited child…

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