My 10-year-old daughter Grace has been cleaning out her bedroom. She calls it Happy World and its flag is a painted, smiling sun, wearing shades. On every horizontal surface there are tigers, dolls, bears, gollywogs, fairies, dragons, mermaids and puppets. Everyone is permanently in bed, with their own sleeping toy, save for the group of teddies who sit up vigilantly together under a flimsy scarf. They are Happy World Police and work undercover.
The tiger family has grown like the population of India itself, the various members stretching out like a Mumbai shantytown across the floor. At the head of the family, is the enormous Mrs Snow a white, almost life-sized tiger. She joined the family as a reward when summer fun was sacrificed for daily literacy classes. Old Chap, a smaller but dapper tiger who speaks impeccable British Raj, recently proposed to Mrs Snow. Their wedding, a joyful occasion attended by three of Grace’s best friends, was captured for all eternity on video.
The Royal House contains King Teddy and Queen Rabbit in their homemade clothes and respective tinsel crowns. Teddy still has the scars of the day he was covered in bandaids. One sits, rather uncomfortably, across his mouth.
Toothache - Grace tells me.
Hostage victim, I think.
Queen Bunny is exactly the same age as Grace. She is a tiny terry-towelling rabbit with long floppy ears and the cutest stitched-on face – half loved off these days.
The walls of Happy World are covered in artworks. A smaller Grace-shaped cut-out from the distant mists of kindergarten hangs underneath pictures of tigers in jungles, mermaids in underwater gardens and intricate family portraits, where family members are arranged in size according to how large they loom in the artist's eyes. Colourful copies of Monet’s Waterlilies and Van Gough’s Sunflowers done at school are layered like living skin, on the huge, ever-thickening notice board.
On the mantle-piece shelf, sit treasured photos of now gone grandparents, holding baby Grace. Final photos of one generation passing to the next. Above the bed, are photos of baby Grace and her father having their first shower together, Grace and her best friend Stella eating ice cream, their faces painted like butterflies, a group of kinder kids, tentatively holding a live snake across their lap. There’s a pair of delicate leather boots, so enormous when given to newborn Grace, but which now sit as tiny reminders of the fleeting nature of babies.
There is not a spare inch of space in Happy World.
The cleaning of Happy World is an annual event. The Christmas booty mounts up and then comes the dreadful moment when it dawns, that there is absolutely nowhere to put it. Critical mass in Happy World has been reached. It’s a daylong operation involving both Grace and me and a series of heart-breaking decisions.
“Do you really want to keep all these toys?”
A look of horror crosses her face. I feel like I am ordering the elimination of family members.
“There are children in the world, not nearly as lucky as you,” I say, “who would love to have some of your toys.”
Tears swell and tip silently down her cheeks. “But the toys are my friends,” she says.
“I know they are sweetheart, but there’s just nowhere to put any more. It’s just plain full up. You have to make room for new friends.”
Grace looks at me. In the last few months a big change has occurred for both of us. I have a new man in my life. Frank has moved into my bedroom and she has witnessed the space juggling that has involved. She is starting to see him as a new father.
“I like Frank,” she says to me, “but I love Daddy.”
“That's okay,” I say, “you should love your father. Frank is not your actual father, but he loves you like he loves his other daughters.”
“So is there enough room for Frank and Dad then?”
“Yes I think so. You can probably fit them both in.”
“So there should be enough room in Happy World for all my friends and their new fathers and sisters too.”
My baby is growing up. No longer the little sponge she was, soaking up all I had to say without question. She has her own opinions and the cleaning of Happy World involves a delicate set of negotiations.
“Maybe we can put some of your old friends into the bungalow. We could make Happy World Two?” At this, her face brightens. Yes an off-world solution.
We fill six enormous garbage bags with refugees bound for the other world. Gollywogs and clowns and an enormous horse bought for a bargain at the crèche fete are shipped offshore. Bags of dolls clothes and baby books and sets of wooden blocks are packed away. I sneak kilos of plastic junk into a bag headed straight for the garbage bin. As each animal is dispatched, she looks at them. This one came from Grandma, that one belonged to the boys next door, these days grown men playing with cars. This one we got that Christmas when we did all our shopping at the op shop. In fact most of the toys are destined to go back to whence they came. From op shop to op shop, so is circle of life.
In the midst of the clean up, Grace's glamorous 16-year-old half-sister arrives. We haven’t seen much of her since she became a teenager and left us for the excitement of adolescence. Stories have been filtering back though. Grace reports breathlessly after visits to her father. Sophia has run away from home. Sophia is in big trouble. Sophia won’t answer her phone. Sophia has given up dancing. Sophia has been drinking alcohol. Dad kicked Sophia’s boy friend out of the house at 2 O’clock in the morning. But it’s school holidays and she’s back for a welcome visit. Grace hands her the home-made card – ‘To My Best Sister Ever.’
From on top of the mounting pile of refugee toys, Sophia picks up a music box. Her old music box. A tiny doll in a tutu dances in front of a mirror to the tune of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. My eyes fill with tears. I have to leave the room.
Finally, it is done. Space – like the final frontier – has appeared in Happy World. I’d forgotten what colour the carpet was. The animals and dolls are back in new beds, their covers tucked around them. The Royal House has been newly dusted. King Teddy and Queen Bunny have new clothes and new and improved crowns have been fashioned from rings passed down from Sophia. Every horizontal space is still covered by the residents of Happy World. The walls still hang thick with pictures, but they are this year’s paintings. The Veronicas have made an appearance along with Pink. The photo of the Kinder kids has been replaced with the picture of the little girl we sponsor in Bangladesh. Grace and her father taking their first shower is still there, right next to the tiger Frank has made for Grace out of wire.
“I feel good about my room now,” says Grace, “but it’s not Happy World anymore. Now it’s Happy Town.”
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem