Childhood Tears – from “Goodbye Crackernight” by Justin Sheedy
My childhood was an exceptionally fortunate one. I never suffered abuse, I never suffered poverty, nor was I born into the Third World or a war zone. Indeed, my first experiences of deep sorrow bear out just how lucky my young existence was.
One rainy evening in my preschool year, I’d just got home from the pictures, as they were then called. Mrs White from next door had taken her daughter, Sarah, and me to the city to see Mary Poppins. Mum was in the kitchen making dinner, back then called ‘tea’. I’d maintained my composure the whole way home, but coming into the kitchen and seeing Mum, I grabbed the skirts of her apron and began to sob like I’d just seen the Hindenburg go down.
‘What on earth’s the matter?!’ begged Mum, her arms instantly down around me. ‘Tell me all about it, darling.’
‘It was the … the pigeon woman in Mary Poppins,’ I managed to blubber. ‘She was so poor … She had to pick dirty breadcrumbs off the ground, then sell them in bags. She was so old and alone, it was just so sad.’
‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ Mum soothed, a reassuring smile in her voice. ‘The pigeon woman probably sells lots of bags. And those pigeons in London have so much to eat, they’re all fat! I’ve seen them!’
I was inconsolable. The woman’s plight seemed real to me in a way that the Vietnamese boat people’s never had. For me, their black-and-white images on the telly every night remained black-and-white images. It had taken a fictional story to engage my emotion, and Technicolor.
Another early moment of deep sadness occurred while on holidays at Gerroa, our stay there memorable not so much for our visit to the famous blowhole as for the fact that it rained the whole week. There’d just been another storm, yet Dad and I were braving the beach. Walking along it, we came across a seagull on the sand. It was moving slightly except, strangely, it wasn’t sitting on the sand, it was lying on its side. I asked Dad why.
‘It’s mortally injured,’ he said, ‘probably in the storm.’
‘What’s “mortally”?’ I asked, looking up at him. ‘Is that like “Italy”?’
‘No. It means when something’s hurt so badly it’ll die soon.’
I looked down at the bird again. ‘Can’t we try and make it better?’
‘No. No, we can’t.’
‘Will it go to Heaven?’
‘Only people go to Heaven.’
I wondered where it would go, following as Dad took it down to the grey water’s edge, where he carefully drowned it.
‘But aren’t you killing it?’ I fretted. ‘Isn’t that wrong?’
‘It’s all right to kill this bird,’ he said as he let it go in the water. ‘I was just putting it out of its misery.’
I didn’t cry that time. I felt terrible inside though. I’d seen a few dead birds already at Howard Place, but this one had been dying and there’d been absolutely nothing I could do about it. At least I’d learnt something: instead of going to Heaven, birds went out to sea. I put this to Dad as we walked back up the sand. He said yes. I was five.
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