Tempting Lollies

While paying for my groceries at the local corner store, I noticed a tiny tot, no more than two years old, jump off his tiny bike, and head into the store as if on a mission. He was wearing his helmet as he strode up to the lolly section checking the goods on offer. The shop assistant and I couldn’t help but smile; the boy had the swagger of a cowboy in the body of a wee pixie.

I was just receiving my change when I noticed the boy leave the shop with a packet of sour chews in his hand. He jumped on his bike and rode off, just as quickly as he had arrived. The shop assistant and I looked at each other.

‘Did that kid just walk out with the chews?’ he asked.

‘He certainly did,’ I answered laughing. Our eyes met and we both smiled.

‘I’ll have to run after him,’ he said. He was clearly amused.

As I walked out of the shop, I could see the little kid next to his mother.

‘Did he not pay for the lollies?’ she asked as the shop assistant approached.

I could see that they were talking amicably so I turned and left them to it.

I know this story has turned out well for the little boy. The shop assistant was kind and the mother sympathetic. They both understood that exchanging money for goods is an abstract concept which a two-year-old can’t possibly grasp. Mum would have taken the boy back to the shop to hand over the coins and he would have been handed the lollies in exchange.

This incident reminded me of a similar story which did not end so well. I must have been about four years old when I was shopping with my mother at a market in Madrid. We walked from stall to stall buying vegetables when I spotted some delicious strawberries. As we walked past, I helped myself to a large juicy one that beckoned to be eaten. I have always been attracted to red as a colour, and this strawberry was a deliciously passionate, vibrant red. Just as I bit into the forbidden fruit, the grocer yelled at me, calling me a thief! I had no idea what this meant, only that he was shouting, angry and threatening me with a crooked finger coming towards me. My mother shouted back and pulled me away hard, which hurt my hand and shoulder. Tears welled up, and I could no longer enjoy the fruit I had so desired only moments earlier.

I won’t claim that we live in more enlightened times. To debunk that myth, you need only to look at the juvenile justice system where ten-year-old children can be locked up for shoplifting. But maybe there are an increasing number of people who understand that most children go through this stage and the best way to treat them is to approach with the love and compassion that all young children deserve.  

And so, I hope that the little boy enjoyed every last mouthful of his carefully selected lollies after handing over the cash.

The stick library

We have become familiar with street libraries which have popped up in the most unlikely places providing a much-needed community service. People take books that pique their interest and bring back ones they have read, but no longer wish to keep. There are no forms to fill out, no due dates nor any fines to worry about. It is a self-regulated system that works because everyone who uses it benefits. It only takes one person to start it, keep an eye on what comes and goes, tidy up every now and again, and occasionally cull. No wonder they have become such a hit.

Yesterday, as I was walking two dogs at a local park in Watson, Canberra, I discovered a variation on the theme – a stick library. My first reaction was joyous laughter. Such a charming idea matched with a quirky sense of humour, and a doggone purpose. In its vicinity, I spied four people and at least double that number of dogs. I should also mention that there was a lagoon nearby. The humans were standing at its edge, throwing sticks into the water for the dogs to fetch.

I walked up to a man whose Border Collie ran towards us with two sticks in his mouth.

‘What a great idea,’ I said, pointing to the stick library.

‘Yeah, whenever we used to come down here, no one could ever find a stick to throw,’ he said. ‘Then some guy decided to do something about it and since then, people bring sticks back for others to use.’

‘I love the community here in Watson,’ a younger woman chimed in. ‘The stick library speaks volumes about the kind of people who live here. It’s such a friendly place.’

‘Someone called ABC radio the other day to say thank you for the stick library and the switchboard lit up,’ the man added. ‘Now they’ve tracked down a guy called Tom who’ll give an interview at the local radio station.’

I nodded in appreciation and could immediately see the appeal of this good news story. After all, we are a dog loving nation. One in three households in Canberra owns a dog. You don’t have to walk very far to encounter a pooch with its special human beaming with pride as they make their way to the nearest off-leash area. Exercise is essential, especially in a city brimming with apartments. And what better exercise than to fetch a good old-fashioned stick?

30th Wedding Anniversary

I remember that summer’s day 30 years ago. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the weather was mild for Sydney. It was perfect. We had planned a low-key event with only your parents as our witnesses. Nothing fancy.

You weren’t that keen on marriage, but it was important to me, so you went along with it. At first you didn’t want to tell anyone at all, but everyone noticed your ring at work the next day. Years later, you couldn’t imagine not being married me, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

On the day, we arrived at the Registry Office, me in my pink suit and you, quite informal, in a black shirt and cream jeans. We were greeted by your parents and your sister, whom you hadn’t invited. She came along anyway to see her brother on his big day. After the ceremony was over, she surprised us with a gift – a two-hour lunch cruise on a replica of the Endeavour. We made our way to Darling Harbour and boarded the boat.

That evening, your parents came to our place for dinner. Your father noticed that I was doing my best to impress them. He was so happy his son had ‘finally settled down.’ We didn’t know then, that in four months’ time he would collapse in a supermarket and never regain consciousness. Afterwards, you often remarked that it was rare to see your father as proud as he was on our wedding day.

By our third anniversary you were holding our sixteen-day old daughter. It was love at first sight and you never stopped loving her with all your heart. Fatherhood suited you. The two of you adored each other in ways that is only comprehensible to daughters and their fathers. I should know, I had a father like that.

While you loved us wholeheartedly, you were never much good at making decisions. They were left up to me. Or, according to you, I never gave you enough time to think things through. I was impulsive and driven. My nesting instincts kicked in once our daughter was born. Although you felt harried, you always went along with my decisions in the end. It turned out that I was pretty good at making the right ones. You, on the other hand, were good at keeping me grounded and working out the logistics. Practicality has never been my strong suit.

Our lives went on and we became steadfast partners. We were like hands that fitted into well-worn gloves, comfortable and warmed by each other’s presence. Without much need for discussion, we agreed on how to raise our child, what mattered most in life and were buoyed by the ideals that sustained us. Our house was a place where academic discourse could dominate dinner conversations, yet humour and laughter were never far away.

We had a magical year in Switzerland shortly after you were diagnosed with melanoma. A disease you would eventually refer to as ‘the bastard’. That year, we were still clinging to the life-raft of hope. I was working as an exchange teacher, and you took leave to write your PhD. We explored every corner of Switzerland on weekends, and you relaxed into your role as the house husband who shopped, cooked and cleaned while writing the next chapters of your thesis. We both wished that the year would never end.

It wasn’t too long after our return that ‘the bastard’ began to eat its way through your body. Quite by accident we discovered it had attacked one of your lungs. The chest pains I thought were a heart problem turned out to be the spreading cancer. You never quite recovered after the next operation. Although you bravely attempted to return to work, you collapsed on the train on your first day back. After that, it was a quick downward spiral. None of us could have imagined how quick it would be.

You were quite unwell at your last Christmas with us, but you did your best not to show it. You even took our daughter on a long bush walk a week later. A fortnight after that, you were unable to make it to bathroom unaided.

We decided the hospital was unable to help us with what lay ahead and thankfully they didn’t argue. I took you home on the Wednesday and by Friday morning we were saying goodbye as you laboured your last breaths. It was both a beautiful and at the same time agonisingly confronting experience. We held your hand, told you we loved you and let you go. Your dog came, licked your hand, lay upon you, and would not leave. It was heartbreaking to witness.

Twenty-eight days later would have been our 19th wedding anniversary and on the 10th of February this year, it we would have been our 30th.  I raise my glass to you.

Your 100th birthday

My father in his 20s

I wish I could celebrate this day with you instead of mourning the decades since you left your life. We would raise a glass and remember the good times and shake our heads at the tough years we survived. You’d hardly recognise me as that rebellious daughter you left behind almost 50 years ago.

As you wished for me, I completed the university degree that was denied to you. The war had disrupted your youth and by the time it ended, further education was no longer an option. Instead, you became a master leatherworker, and your wages allowed your younger brother to receive the tuition to become a lecturer. In later years, this became a bone of contention between the two of you and it was easy for you to feel wronged. With the iron curtain between you, the relationship didn’t survive.

The war didn’t end in ’45 for you. Its effects lingered on. You married your sweetheart, yet a cruel fate awaited her. She had survived the bombs, but TB tore your son from her womb. Not long after, your beloved wife was also taken. Somehow you carried on. Much later you met my mother, a feisty woman with a hearty laugh, and you fell for her casual bravado which turned ugly once fuelled by alcohol.

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution changed your life. Many of your compatriots left the country to start anew. My mother wanted leave, so you followed. However, your heart stayed behind. No matter where you went, you could never find a place to call home; wanderlust was not part your makeup. But your new wife gave you something that would sustain you through dark times – a daughter. I became who you lived for.

After many attempts to leave her, you still followed my mother to ends of the earth. Happiness would elude you there too. So you continued to love me fiercely, unconditionally, and in the end destructively. When I was a teenager, your love engulfed my life until I felt it constrict my every movement. While I was the one who felt suffocated, in the end it was you who decided to stop breathing. Maybe you thought it was better that way, but I never did.

I have missed you all these years and still talk to you often. On your hundredth birthday, I wish I could tell you that things have turned out better than either of us could have imagined. And I wish I could tell you that it is worth believing in the good times come, even in our darkest hour.

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