It’s funny how at certain stages in life one can be too old for something yet too young for something else. I was covertly watching an eleven-year-old boy hogging the swing in the park recently, while his baby brother stood by craving some swing-time too, but in vain, before resorting to what baby brothers are wont to in such circumstances: piercing screams accompanied by a volley of tears. All of which, of course, brought dear old mum to the rescue — mum, who’d been seated on a bench not far away, back half-turned to her children, in conversation with a girlfriend whose back was, similarly half-turned to her two girls riding the see-saw.
The swinging eleven-year-old — because his back was turned, too — was therefore unprepared for the swinging open palm of his mum which, with strategic precision despite being aimed at a moving/swinging target, caught him a stinging blow on the side of the ear. Now, I guess, you can be too old at 11 years to be on a swing but never too old at that age to be seen crying — shocked by the stinging/ringing in the ear.
‘Grow up. Stop being selfish,’ ordered the mum, forcing him off the swing before returning to continue her chit chat, but not before admonishing her younger son, ‘And you, stop crying like a baby.’ It’s never easy acting ‘grown up’ when one is 11 and rivers are cascading from one’s eyes. The shirt sleeves become allies. They get pressed into service, acting as both absorber and mask.
Pleasures of swinging up and down
In the meantime, the younger brother, maybe four years old, who only a minute ago wanted nothing else in the whole world but to be seated on the exact same swing that his older sibling had commandeered … well, he’s now lost interest in the unmitigated pleasures of swinging up and down. This could either be because he’s seen what’s befallen his older brother — the sudden, surprising ear-clip from mum — and he’s rather wary about climbing onto the same seat that brought about such misfortune. Either that, or he’s taken his mum’s advice to heart — advice directed at his older brother — and decided to grow up, too, while at the same time ceasing his bawling.
So, behind his mother’s back he makes young-brotherly overtures. He approaches his brother who still has his slanted-sidewise face hidden in his sleeve while his shoulders heave to the rhythm of diminishing sobbing. He touches him first, tenderly, tentatively, on the knee, but older brother knocks his hand aside. Yet, in typical ‘grown up’ fashion, he persists, a second time, a third, a fourth. On the fourth he is allowed to let his hand settle.
Sensing this is a form of tacit permission, he moves closer, puts a little arm around his brother’s larger waist. His brother, still smarting, tries to wriggle the arm aside. Only, the wriggle is misinterpreted. A beatific smile, radiant as the sun breaking through clouds, lights up his little features. He digs the pudgy little fingers of his right hand into his brother’s side, a ticklish manoeuvre that catches him off guard and sends him leaping off the bench.
Not crying any more, but half-laughing, half-admonishing his little brother not to do that again. And that apparently is a coded signal for little brother to do exactly that, for he starts to chase the older boy who dodges this way and that around a bush.
Five minutes later they are back at the swing, positions reversed. ‘Push me high to the moon,’ says the young one, chortling with delight. His older brother makes as if to oblige. Watching them over the rim of my book I cannot help thinking that this is how we grow up when our parents aren’t watching.
— Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.