Down the rabbit-hole

While we should never be tempted to see the developing lives of our children as a means through which we get another crack at living, one of the inevitably bittersweet pleasures of being a parent is reliving your own childhood as seen through the prism of theirs.

Recently I’ve been wondering what our first intimations of romantic attraction towards another human being say about us, and whether those intimations may hold true as set attitudes all the way into much later life. I don’t mean the giddy, messy time as first love unfolds, the learning of the ropes, but the moment or period which precedes it, much earlier in life, when the realisation dawns that love of another human being beyond our family is a possibility, and attraction a certainty.

In the pub the other night I listened as two friends of mine talked about their respective son and daughter, who have over the course of the summer – at the tender age of nine – become ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’, seeking out each other’s company and FaceTiming with one another in preference to being with friends of the same sex, as is more typical at that age. Each father had independently asked their child, ‘What is it you like about her / him?’ And the answer from each came back, ‘(S)he’s funny, and fun to be with.’

I recall talking to my own father late one night in the bar of a social club and raising an eyebrow at his avowal that he had started chatting up girls seriously at the age of five – so beginning a lifelong career of flirtatiousness, which in time became rather more than that, in a way that could be said to be his defining characteristic. By way of contrast, I remember when I was about ten going with my mother to visit a friend of hers in another part of the country, and falling immediately in what I could not have yet dared or known to call love with the friend’s daughter. She was my age, with a face as beautiful as her forename and hair the colour of her surname. Was it simply that she was beautiful (at least to me), or did she also have a softness, an at-oneness with the country garden in which I found her that made me fall? Memory confers that she seemed as struck by me as I was smitten with her, and that we played wordlessly and shyly together through the course of a summer’s afternoon, but how much of this is retrospective glow, I can no longer be sure.

It was of course my first dose of infatuation, and it would certainly not be the last. I never saw her but that one time, and yet she stays with me still, along with the knowledge that if and when I fall, I always fall hard, plummeting helplessly down the rabbit-hole, like Alice. And so sometimes it seems to me that we are set in stone so early that our whole lives feel like a fight against the person we became before we ever had a say in the matter.

Back in the pub, the remaining friend at the table, who has a son the same age as my daughter, says that to date, his youngster is not interested in anything which isn’t a tennis racket. My daughter is the same; boys (or indeed girls, in that sense) do not yet register at all on her dial of interest, as far as I can tell. But forgetting for a while their respective sporting pursuits, perhaps each child has already had their own gradual realisation or epiphanic moment which may go on to inform how and who they love in future. If my own experience is anything to go by, the revelation can lie dormant for years – and then, pow! back down the rabbit-hole you go, never once considering how in the world you are to get out again.

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