Last week there was a family night at Bunnings to celebrate Mother's Day. My boys, Dave (5) and Alex (4) have been into crafts a lot lately, so we decided to go. We had an hour to spare before the workshop started, and the boys wanted to go to the indoor playground they have at Bunnings. They were thrilled when five minutes after we got there, another boy arrived with his Dad.
Until just a year or two ago I was one of those parents who would be standing near the slides, still helping Alex to climb up or down. I don't have to do that anymore. Both Dave and Alex love climbing trees, fences, rocks, hills... The playgrounds and indoor fun parks are not big challenges, but they still have fun in them. So on this particular day, I sat at a nearby table from where I could still see them, started up my Kindle and began to read.
Dave and Alex engaged the new boy in play straightaway, as they do, being unschooled and very social. They had a few toy soldiers with them and let the other boy have one. His dad had gone in the playground as well and was standing very close to all of them. 'Go outside!' cried the little boy. 'Daddies are not allowed in here.' He flinched, gave me a little smile and muttered, 'I'm not allowed.' I smiled back and raised my eyebrows as if to say, 'So get out.'
He got out, went for a thirty-second walk and was back in. I had stopped reading and was now surrepticiously watching him. He had called his son's name a few times, mainly to tell him that the soldier toy was not his and he had to give it back. For half a second I thought Crystal was an unusual name for a boy, but people are so imaginative with names nowadays that I didn't think it was that strange. What really drew my attention to the way this dad was interacting with his son was that apart from Crystal, he kept calling him 'love'. It was the first time in ten years of living in Australia that I had heard a father call his son LOVE. And I loved it! I'd heard 'sweatheart' a couple of times addressing infant and toddler boys, but usually an Aussie dad calls his son 'mate' and the tone in which that word is uttered is very blokey and low-pitched.
In my mind I started speculating about this dad. Maybe he wasn't Australian. Maybe Crystal was autistic and Dad was making an effort to be extra gentle and affectionate. Maybe Dad was a widower; his wife had just died in a terrible car accident and he was so overwhelmed with grief that he had forgot all about being tough and treating his son the tough way so he would become tough just like him... Maybe he was gay.
I was still admiring him when he started freaking out. Alex was on top of the tunnel slide and Dave on the roof of the plastic house. Last time we had been here, a lady had told Dave off for climbing up there. She said you're supposed to "be" in the house and to "slide" down the tunnel, not to lie on top of them. She wasn't here today, so there was no reason why they shouldn't use their climbing skills to the full. Crystal was emulating my boys. He had got to the top of the tunnel in no time, and was looking very confident and proud of himself for making it up there. Dave was smiling at him from the roof. Dad, on the other hand, was urging him to get down! He was being ever so gentle but insisted that he come down at once. 'No! I want to be up here! Get out!' Crystal yelled and soon began to scream and kick to free himself from Dad's arms.
I was bewildered. On the one hand, Dad was taking Crystal's shrieks with such calm and patience that I had not seen often, if at all. I have observed even mothers being very stern and not taking this sort of behaviour from their boys. On the other hand, I couldn't understand why he was so alarmed about Crystal being up there. He had just accomplished a marvellous feat, and instead of admiration from Dad he was greeted with fear. 'I don't want you to fall down!' Dad said at last, and then he said it a few more times as he grabbed Crystal and brought him down, by force. Crystal kept kicking and screaming. In the end, Dad said, 'Stop it!'
Ah, so that was it: Dad didn't want him to fall down.
Dave and Alex were watching with eyes wide open, but later they didn't ask me any questions or even comment on what they had seen. We have witnessed scenes like these many times before, but usually it is a mum who worries and overprotects, not a dad. Dave always says, 'I don't know why the parents make such a fuss. It's not even scary up there.'
After that I went back to my book. I thought I had found an interesting subject to observe, an Australian father that didn't fit the mold. But no. Something was certainly different about him: he was gentle, patient. But then also distrustful, controlling, fearful.
Then Mum appeared. Ha! So he was not a widower. She'd been doing the shopping at Bunnings and now they were ready to go. Dad asked Crystal once again that he return the toy soldier to Dave. 'No, it's for him to keep,' Dave said. Dad was taken aback. But it was not Dave's generous gesture that surprised him. I saw it straigthaway, it was something else. He hesitated. Then he approached me, and said, 'Can she keep it?' I was quick to nod at Dave while I replied, 'It's his toy, so if he wants to give it away, it's his decision.'
'It's a girl!' I exclaimed once Dad was gone. 'I thought he was a boy!' said Dave, as surprised as I was. 'Crystal is a boy's name, isn't it?' 'Actually, no, I think it's a girl's name.' Then it all made sense. The pink trainers, the leggings. Of course I had seen them from the beginning. I just thought it was really cool that a boy wears pink trainers and his parents are comfortable with that. She was also wearing a super cool Lightning McQueen shirt that I'd never seen any girl wear before. And her hair was shortish and full of blond curls. And she was playing with the toy soldier as enthusiastically as Dave and Alex were, pretending to shoot, die and kill with the same zest my boys employ.
So I thought she was a boy. I guess I don't spend enough time with girls and I tend to think all children are boys, just like mine. Her Dad was giving me plenty of clues, but I didn't see them. And this also means that I still haven't heard an Australian father call his son LOVE. Pity that.