Sunday, September 20, 2009

Growing and shrinking

Una and Fred are playing in their bedroom. I'm on my bed, fixing up the last changes on the computer. The phone rings. Martin answers. It's his mum. They're making plans for the week. Something Fred says (I don't hear it) prompts Una to clomp up the three wooden steps that divide the mudbrick from the weatherboard and into the loungeroom.
'Yes Una?'
'Do people ever shrink?' (This is an interesting question in light of the fact that several times over the last few days Una has asked me 'Are there giants in this world?')
I hold my breath, listening for Martin's answer.
Martin assures her no, people don't shrink.
She gets on the phone to Nana and asks her the same question. Una's voice is loud and bell-like, ringing through the house. Of course I am not sure what Nana says, but I think it must be something about old people sometimes getting smaller (which is not, I am pretty sure, what Una means, I think she means like Treehorn, which we were reading a lot about six months ago.)
Una informs Nana that she is not going to have her birthday (at the end of this month) because she doesn't want to be a grown up. This is a familiar theme. She has been talking about this for a week now, and not even the thought of presents and parties can entice her to change her mind.
Later it's dinner time, and we're all sitting up at the table together. We are eating chicken pie. There's a movie playing on Martin's computer.
Una turns from the movie and announces to everyone: 'I think we should talk about shrinking.'
Martin and Fred remain absorbed in the film. 'Are you worried about shrinking?' I ask her.
Her attention is drawn by the film.
'Una?' I say, trying to attract her attention.
She glances at me with a distracted frown. 'I don't want to die,' she says.
My heart cracks. I have a lot of little cracks on my heart, like a crackle glazed cup.
'All the people are going to die. Everybody wants to die but not Una.'
This moment passes somehow. Things happen. Martin turns the movie off. I go back to work in the bedroom. The girls eat dessert while Martin reads them stories. Una sneaks down to talk to me before bed. We converse. She is sunny. Her new haircut curls around her ears. She takes my breath away with her clear eyed, open faced beauty.

In the car, whenever we drive anywhere, Una will suddenly cry out 'I can see the distance!' Una's greatest desire is to live in the distance, but she can never go there, because the distance is always retreating. I remember driving up the highways of my childhood, looking at the velvet green rumpled hills and wanting to delve deep into them, to exist somewhere in their folds. Wanting to turn off the road, to glide over fields, disappear into forests.

She wants to drive on the moon.

She spent several minutes looking at the Schleich catalogue, telling me which smurfs she wanted and what she wanted them to be able to do: 'I want the smurf in the hammock, but I want him to be able to get out of the hammock himself and walk and talk by himself - real - and I want him to be able to sleep and sing and dance and...' She would rest her forehead on her hand, down on the table, between thoughts, as though tapping into some deep secret part of her mind. Real. The way she says it, her eyes wide, her conviction. There are some things you can't photograph, can't record. Some things you can only hope your mind will hold onto.

This time next week we will have celebrated her fourth birthday, though she will not be four for one more day. She will have blown out four candles. She will be little, but she will be also grown.


  1. beautifully written

    i loved immersing myself in the preschool room with the 3yos and 4yos and they were so like this - they teeter between one thing and another. i remember the girl who told us she was going to make her (cardboard box) robot be a *real* robot that could walk and move, and she brought two batteries to school one day, cut open the back of her robot, threw the batteries in, and taped it shut again.

    they are raw, like lightning, and so incandescent with thinking and feeling.

  2. Happy birthday Una. The distance arrives with every step older and bolder.

  3. one of my sons - when he was six - became quite obsessed with the whole idea of death, and unlike my other kids,(who have all been a bit scared by the fact of death at times and so ask lots of questions and can easily be reassured by being told that yes, they will eventually die, but not for a long long time)he seemed really full of a deep grief and sadness about it.
    It was really upsetting at the time and I wasn't at all sure how to handle it.

    Happy birthday to Una!

  4. Phew! So your heart breaks more and more as time goes on, not less. How will we ever cope?

  5. Oh, how much gorgeousness! She says the most wonderful things (so great for you to record them like this too).

    I used to want to live in the big, fluffy clouds.

    Um, still do...