HOME, 9am, in the kitchen. It is the last morning of my sister’s visit, and I’m sitting at the table with my nieces and nephew.
Rosie, Aida, Marius and Lola, I think as I butter toast, are the ordinary-but-magic kind of children that do not want the moon but want what you can give them instead, such as a walk on the beach for example, where they scatter happily to play with spades, like dandelion puffs in the wind.
So sunny, I think, looking around the table, that if you shut them all up in a box in the dark, you’d still see them glow from outside it.
And every morning they come downstairs as if they’ve been freshly minted, like new pennies.
Sitting in the kitchen, it strikes me that when you’re in the “on-going master-class in multi-tasking” phase of parenting — whereby scooping a toddler’s poo off the pavement, with the week’s shopping hanging off a finger and your car keys in your mouth is par for the course — chances are, you don’t have time to give much thought to just how gifted with happiness small kids are.
But I am not in this phase. I am at the tail-end of parenting; the “spit and polish” phase: one year left in which I may still issue commands (“eat your egg”), and offer advice (“it’ll set you up for school”), based on my legal right to control my youngest daughter’s destiny; one year left before she leaves home and ignores all counsel, going for the “whore’s breakfast” option of coffee and fag over egg-on-wholemeal every morning.
Standing at the tail-end and staring down the barrel of maternal obsolescence has a funny way of throwing things into relief — like for example, the moment when a small kid is teaching me a big lesson about the nature of happiness:
“We have a new game, don’t we Lola?” Rosie, 12, says to Lola, who is trifling with a banana like an Owl-Monkey.
Lola looks up smiling.
“We have a new game, don’t we Lola?” she repeats, “Lola, let’s show auntie the stopping-smiling game.”
“She can’t do it,” Rosie confides to me in a grown up voice, under her breath, “she can’t stop smiling.”
“Can you stop smiling, Lola?” she cajoles in a theatrical manner, “I don’t think so. I don’t think you can stop smiling, can you?”
She looks around the table at her siblings- willing thespians all. “Aida, do you think she can stop smiling?” she says.
“No, I don’t,” Aida obliges, equally stagy, looking up from her Cornflakes, “I don’t think Lola can stop smiling.”
“Look! I stoppin’ smilin’,” shouts Lola, smiling, “I can stoppin’ smilin’ I can.” She stands up on her chair, screws her bright Owl-Monkey eyes tight shut and smiles blindly around the table.
“See,” she says, opening her eyes, “I stoppin’ smiling.” She sits down.
“You were still smiling Lola,” says Rosie gently, simulating disappointment.
“What do you think, Marius?” Aida asks her younger brother, “do you think Lola can stop smiling?”
Marius knows his dramatic role: looking at Lola, he affects an expression of theatrically grave doubt. “I don’t think she can stop smiling,” he says sadly. “See if you can stop smiling Lola,” he encourages with his sad, doubting face, “really, really try.”
“I stoppin’ smiling now,” says Lola. Folding her banana in half with a spoon, she decides to focus on the task. She scrambles to her feet again and spoon in hand, suddenly contorts her face; scrunches up eyes and mouth into a fierce constipated grimace but it is no good; no sooner has she scrunched than the smile leaks out, beaming round the table like the Galley Head flash: sweep, sweep.
She sits down smiling, folds her banana in quarters and crams it into her mouth.
“See,” her siblings say, smiling at Lola, my sister and me, “I told you. She can’t stop smiling.”
It’s not that I’m nostalgic; the second my sister leaves, I’m going to bed with the first series of Borgen.
But like I said: gifted; gifted with happiness — in a way we are not. Just gifted.
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