My sense of abandonment intensifies as I turn over the ignition and back the van out of the driveway. The car feels empty – the once endless chatter of youthful voices replaced by the silence of the vacant seats behind me. Who wants to come to the markets with me? No one any more it seems – four bloody kids and not one of them can be bothered. I feel a wry sense of futility around all those wasted ice creams, special treats and barefooted romps on the bouncing castle that they cajoled from me in their youth.
Once the mere mention of a possible trip to the markets would have filled the house with delighted squeals. How things change. The eldest declines with a rain check as she blows out the smoke from her first cigarette of the day – and to think how pure I kept myself when she was in my womb. The second grunts, rolls over and goes back to sleep, the third has not yet appeared after spending the night with friends ... and of course the youngest ‘can’t stand’ the markets any more.
Tears press behind my eyes as I pull out onto the road. ‘This is ridiculous,’ I tell myself, searching for a distraction on the radio. A tragic news story catches me off guard, causing moist droplets to fill the corners of my eyes and escape down my cheeks. By comparison, my suffering seems trivial.
The park is teeming with families – young mothers, grandparents, babies in strollers. I turn automatically to a call for ‘mum’, then realise it’s another person’s toddler begging for a ride on the merry-go-round. I feel a little foolish at my instinctive reaction. It’s such a dreary day to be alone – a grey-skyed mongrel of a day, with an icy lick and a slother of drizzle. I walk quickly around the stalls, not terribly interested in anything much. The usual – I’ve seen it all before, no hidden treasures here.
As I turn towards the gate to leave, I feel the promise of the sun against my face. It slips out briefly as if to say, ‘You haven’t found what you came for yet.’
I persuade myself to do one more round, just in case. I hadn’t really noticed the gem stall on the first round or maybe I had subconsciously dismissed it as a bit of trendy nonsense. This time it seems more interesting. Moving closer, my stomach flutters a little as I eye off the baskets of polished stones made precious by the glitter of sunlight – purple, pink, silver, golden – gleaming in assorted shapes and sizes. How pretty, perhaps I could indulge just a little.
A stippled stone with a fiery glint stares up at me from a collection of earthy brown and orange hues. ‘That one’s called Tiger’s Eye,’ the stall attendant explains. As I hold it up to the light I remark on the aptness of its name. Its glimmer reminds me of the sparkle in my children’s eyes just before they were about to blow out their birthday candles. An involuntary chuckle rises up from my belly as I remember the year my son insisted on re-lighting the candles of his teddy bear cake and singing ‘Happy Birthday’ every time someone wanted an extra slice. He got a lot of mileage out of that particular birthday. I’ve lost count of the number of birthday cakes I’ve made since then.
Next my fingers retrieve an unusual yellowish stone speckled with irregular brown spots. ‘That one’s Leopard Skin Jasper’, the stall attendant offers eagerly. Again I nod in agreement, tracing the irregular brown blotches that resemble the spots on a leopard’s coat. My lips curl into a smile at the thought of nature imitating itself so precisely. It doesn’t seem that long ago that our backyard would become a jungle. I’d wave goodbye from the laundry window as the children set off on safari in camouflage shorts and oversized gum-boots. They’d spend all afternoon dodging lions, riding elephants and wrestling crocodiles and I’d snatch a few precious moments for myself.
Still attracted to the earthy tones, I notice a sad black stone glistening like a teardrop, at the bottom of the basket. ‘Ah you’ve found an Appache Tear,’ the stall attendant coaxes, ’you don’t see those very often these days, not ones as black as that.’ As I pick it up, I see the sad black tear trapped inside me lamenting the inevitability of change. ‘It’s time’, I think to myself, ‘to let go and make room for new things in my life.’
The stones feel cool and smooth against my palm and when I close my eyes, I feel my loneliness receding. I hand over a few meagre coins and slide the stones into my pocket. As I walk away, the sun irons out the wrinkles in my back. Perhaps the day isn’t so bad after all.
I stroll down the hill towards the river. The grassy slope meanders casually along the water’s edge, where a few itinerant water birds brave the icy calm. They seem quite satisfied with the day and I am reassured by their simple contentment. As I sit down to watch them, the crisp air invigorates my lungs. I take a deep breath and savour the bliss of being completely alone. Basking in the luxury of doing absolutely nothing, I am now somewhat mystified by my earlier feelings of abandonment. I pull the stones from my pocket and place them on the grass in front of me. ‘It’s amazing’, I think to myself, ‘what a difference a few little stones can make.’
“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