Tuesday, October 14, 2008

father’s days
Steve Braunias basks in the reflected light of a golden age

She is incandescent. Warm to the touch, as round and succulent as a little greased pig, a pagan idol chanting weird spells – she wakes up singing, “Happy to you” – she is, at 19 months, in a state of grace, an occupant of a golden age. She has evicted the baby she used to be, that incompetent, gummy, staring bug, a prisoner of prams and high chairs, marooned at A without a hope of getting to B, and joined the biggest revolution of all our lives: behold, she walks among us.
An upright citizen, a determined troll out for a stroll. Watching my daughter walk can sometimes feel like a bigger miracle than birth; it’s her own miracle, her own doing. It took her long enough. Until her first steps, she was either lazy or impractical, apparently content to crawl while her contemporaries got up on their hind legs, and loomed over her like ogres. I judged her severely. I served her a report which read: “Distinctly below average.” But I also suspected she was covertly engaged in one of her inherited pastimes: sitting back, and watching.
Now that she has joined in, she is away laughing. I sit back, and watch, and wonder: do we ever truly experience an event as momentous as being able to stand on our own two feet? “Well,” answers my fiance, “there’s driving.” This is a tart and really quite frivolous comment aimed at the fact I can’t and don’t drive. But driving is only a minor rite of passage. Walking is major, a profound locomotion – our feet are a liberating army.
Set free, my daughter roams the wide open spaces: “Plaza.” There, among the poor devils who sit for hours on end with six-packs of Cody’s Colt Bourbon & Coke at their feet, she staggers and stumbles in her own fairly convincing impersonation of a town drunk, then bends down to take a close inspection at the joys of nature: “Drain.”
I point out roadside signs which read, DANGER. ABRASIVE BURNING IN PROGRESS. She translates, and says, “Hot.” She is like an avid collector, scooping up words as she makes her rounds of the house, the garden, the plaza. “Gentle. Stuck. Quiet. Goddammit.” Her entire life is filled with the wonder of things, and also the naming of things. “Umbrella. Hose. Lavender. Newspaper.” Her entire world is on fire, a vivid blaze – a burning in progress. What colour is that tulip? “Red.” Good. What colour is that lemon? “Red.”
She is so nascent, an absolute beginner, a complete ignoramus. Her mind is there for the taking. I try and keep out of its way. Faith-based values have no place in her life, and neither does education, although I filled her music box with about a dozen words written on scraps of paper. “Shoes. Nana. Off. Duck.” The only word she claims to recognise is her own name. I dread the day when I have to break it to her that she also has a strange, ungainly surname. Her favourite toys are books – she is on close terms with such characters as Wibbly Pig, Messy Teddy, and Wee Willie Winkie. At the library, she is happiest sitting by herself with a book in her lap; the book is upside down. Too young for the tyranny of Hannah Montana, thank God, she is nearly half-way to mastering the complete lyrics to “Twinkle, Twinkle”.
We travel to distant lands. Together, we sail the seven seas of Auckland by bus, and set foot on the shores of Karangahape Road. She walks into the Hare Krishna Food for Life restaurant, where rather sour staff serve her semolina with custard. She trudges past Artspace Gallery, where a new exhibition is advertised by a sign which reads, PLASTIC IS LEATHER, F**K YOU. She sings, “Up above the world so high.”
An innocent abroad, a sensualist who wants her face mopped with a warm cloth, who stops at the florist to smell the flowers. She is on close terms with goodness. Resolutely cheerful, she greets strangers on the street, approaches babies with a question: “Cuddle?” Her tantrums are few and brief. She is as fit as any number of fiddles, sleeps like any number of logs. She could eat a horse, but will accept broccoli. She has no doubt that the cow does in fact jump over the moon. She lends a helping hand to fill bowls of water with three spoons of sugar for tuis and silvereyes, and says, “Sugarbirds.”
Parents of older children say: oh it just gets better and better. I can believe it. Sitting back and watching her grow up will be a blessing. But right now is her golden age, her age of innocence, full of the joys of legging it. At 19 months old, suspended in sunlight, just another New Zealand pedestrian hogging the pavement, unable to dress herself, a fat fool, executing dance steps to “We Belong Together” by Mariah Carey before bedtime, in her pyjamas by 7pm, in love with her cousins, in clover, neither fearless or impulsive, a cool customer, steady as she goes, dispensing kindness at the drop of a hat, observant, alert, tender, incorruptible, totally harmless, completely happy, she is immaculate – the owner of a golden heart.

The above essay, which moved me greatly when I read it in the Sunday Star Times last week, is in my opinion an utterly compelling piece on the joys of the innocence and delight of childhood and also of parenthood. I have described Braunias previously as one of New Zealand's funniest writers but in this essay he shows that he is also one of our finest writers and I thank him for sharing his love for his daughter with us and for generously agreeing to allow his column to be posted to this blog.

He is the author of four books, three published by Awa Press with the first title, Fool's Paradise being published by Random House.

Fool's Paradise
How to Watch a Bird
Roosters I Have Known
Fish of the Week


Adam said...

I am in Sydney so do not see your Sunday Star Times. So my warm thanks to you for making this column available to a world-wide audience. But more especially my thanks and congratulations to Steve Braunias for what is one of the most beautiful tributes to a child I have ever read. That father's love shines out of every sentence and like you Bookman I was greatly moved.
What a truly fine piece of writing.
Worthy of the widest possible distribution.I am sending your blog link out to my entire address book and I suggest others might like to do the same.
Is there a prize for a stand-alone essay in the literary world? If so this should be nominated.

Bookman Beattie said...

Thanks Adam, very nice to have your warm remarks.
For the benefit of yourself and any other overseas readers that might be interested in reading more of Steve Braunias' writing I advise that How to Watch a Bird, Roosters I have Known and Fish of the Week can be bought online at www.awapress.com
Thanks again.

maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

I have a granddaughter who has just discovered how to walk and Steve's essay captures the essence of both the adult and the child's joy in this experience.

I have to agree with Jane Westaway in New Zealand Books, that Steve should do more of this sort of thing (the serious essay or journalism) where his real talents lie.