At a dinner last night, one of our hosts began to talk about his memories from childhood.
His was an English education, boarding school from the age of twelve, a life I have long wondered about, but then I asked his wife about her education and my curiosity tripped me up.
What was it like for you as a child? I asked. Too broad a question perhaps but her response was immediate.
‘I had an ordinary, a normal childhood, nothing remarkable there.’
My friend went on to say something about her mother as a divorcee and that this was not the thing in those days, but that was all.
I sensed a trapdoor shut with the words, ‘Mine was an ordinary childhood’.
It puts me in mind of the times when my husband and I once interviewed would-be nannies for our children. If any one of them uttered the words ‘I love children’ I struck them off my list.
I distrust such sentiments. Who ‘loves’ children and who has an ordinary childhood? To me there is no such thing.
Childhood is that magical and terrifying place where life is its hardest, full of pitfalls, full of tricky and incomprehensible adults. Full of the hypocrisy of life, when even if you can figure out something of what’s going on, the rest is still in darkness.
To me there’s a hole in a narrative when someone reports on a happy childhood. A happy childhood. A normal childhood, an ordinary one. There’s no such thing, I reckon, though of course there are degrees.
My mother spent our lives insisting that her childhood was happy. The oldest of seven children, the first girl with only one female rival, a sister, one of twins, six years younger, my mother was the apple of her father’s eye.
She told us stories endlessly of how she lived in a two-storey house on the Marnixplein in Holland where even though it froze over in wintertime there were always canals and lakes on which to skate.
I sensed my friend did not want to go into any details about her childhood, after all it was so normal, but something tells me there was much more to it.
Life doesn't begin in young adulthood when we step out into the world. It begins the day we're born, and the richest moments occur in those extraordinary years before we reach what people call adulthood.
Virginia Woolf talks about them as ‘moments of being’. The moment when memories coalesce to form a crystal of images that can take narrative form and become something like the tip of an iceberg, underneath which the rest of our life’s memories form.
They point to something. Even a statement as bland as ‘I had a normal childhood’, hints at its opposite.
An ordinary childhood is a restricted childhood, one in which a child is discouraged from going deeply into whatever experience life might offer.
I can see it in the form of one of my teachers, Miss Fitzgerald, a woman who kept on her coat during classes in the grade three classroom. She spoke in a thick Scottish accent and had an aura that made her classes the best behaved in the school. She gave us an ordinary education, one that refused to feed our curiosity and imaginations.
An ordinary childhood is a repressed one.
Last night at the dinner, for a moment I felt like a poor relative. My friends come from other parts of the world, from places far afield and perhaps some of my interminable cultural cringe rose to the surface when I thought once more of the lack of glamour of my own Australian education.
But then I have to check myself.
We’ve all of us – those lucky enough or unlucky, as the case may be, to have had an education – experienced something of the Mrs Fitzgerald’s of this world, the strict and sour women who control their classes by instilling fear.
And whenever it happens, there’s still a story to tell.
There is no such thing as an ordinary childhood.