A loving mother gives her child a simple choice. But nothing is ever simple.
I leaned out of our back door and yelled out into the yard.
“Yes Mum?” A little voice came floating down out of the big Maple tree in our back yard.
“Come down out of the tree, honey. It’s time to wash up for dinner.”
I watched as a few branches started shaking and then the little monkey came into view as he scrambled down out of the tree. I watched until he was safely on the ground – partly because I was concerned that he not hurt himself but also out of pride at the way he moved with such surety and confidence.
Johnny brushed his hands off and trotted up to me. I held the door for him and he slowed to a walk as he went past me and into the house. He didn’t say anything to me as he passed me and I frowned to myself at his unusual quietness.
That quietness continued through dinner. He wasn’t silent but all we got were one or two word answers rather than the extended monologues we were used to. George raised his eyebrow at me when he noticed Johnny’s mood. I gave a little shrug and we filled the gap with conversation between the two of us, leaving Johnny the space that he obviously wanted.
Once we were finished eating, George leaned over and slapped Johnny lightly on the shoulder.
“Our turn to cleanup, tiger,” he said.
“Okay,” said Johnny.
I relaxed in my place for a moment while the two of them bustled around the table, clearing off the dishes. There wasn’t the usual chatter and I could see Johnny had something on his mind. Thinking perhaps he wanted to talk to his dad without Mum listening I made my way into the next room to put my feet up in front of the TV.
The news was on. I turned the volume down a fraction so that I could hear if a conversation started up without necessarily eavesdropping but they continued to work in silence – scraping off the plates and stacking the dishwasher.
I could hear George make a couple of attempts to start something but he wasn’t getting anywhere so the two of them settled for working in silence. I smiled to myself. My two men did that sometimes, just working together without talking. Neither of them are what you would call taciturn, and they would normally chat away quite cheerfully, but just occasionally they would spend hours doing something together in what I can only describe as companionable silence.
I couldn’t do it – the quiet would drive me crazy.
The two of them came back into the room just as the news was finishing up. I flicked a glance at Johnny and quietly switched the channel so that he could watch the half hour comedy show that he liked. George pulled out the daily newspaper and started reading while I watched the comedy with Johnny. I thought parts of it were funny but most of it seemed formulaic – but then I’m not an eight year old boy so what would I know?
Once it finished I picked up the remote and switched off the TV.
I looked over at Johnny. He was slumped back on the sofa, staring at the blank TV.
“It’s about time you were getting ready for bed, young man,” I said gently. “Go and have your bath.”
Johnny let out this huge sigh as if he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
He dragged himself off the sofa as if his limbs were three times their normal weight.
George waited until we could hear the splashing sounds of a small body moving in the bath before he looked over at me.
“So what’s going on with himself?” he asked, wagging his head in the direction of the bathroom.
“I don’t know,” I replied with a frown. “He’s been like this since we got back from the park this afternoon.”
“Did something happen at the park? Did he have a fight with his friends?”
“Not as far as I know. He and his friends seemed pretty chummy with each other when they were saying goodbye.”
“Well, something’s obviously wrong,” said George. “Apart from anything else, he’s having a bath without giving us a running commentary about his day.”
“Yes. I’ll give him the third degree when he comes back after his bath,” I said. “If that doesn’t work, we may have to resort to more serious measures.”
“Not the tickle torture,” said George, in mock horror.
“Only if I have to,” I replied.
George grinned at me and went back to his paper.
Eventually, a freshly washed little boy wandered back into the room, dressed in his pyjamas.
“Hey, tiger,” I called out softly. “Come and give your mum a cuddle.”
He wandered over to me and crawled into my lap. I wrapped my arms around him and squeezed him tight.
He dropped his head onto my shoulder and a moment later I heard a quiet sniffle.
“Hey, sweetie,” I whispered. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothin’,” he muttered into my ear. Then he sniffled again.
“I don’t believe that for a second,” I said softly. “Nothin’ doesn’t stop you from talking all evening. Why, you’ve hardly said two words since you got home from the park. Did something happen? Come on, tiger, you can tell me.”
He was quiet for a moment so I waited him out, gently running my hand down his back.
“You’ll think I’m weird,” he said, finally.
I smiled. “I guarantee there is nothing you can say to me, nothing at all, that will make me think you’re weird. Now Dad over there,” I pointed over at George. “Now he’s weird.”
Right on cue, George looked up from the newspaper he was pretending to read and pulled a silly face.
Johnny chuckled into my neck. “He’s such a dag.”
“Yeah! He is. But you on the other hand – you are not a dag.”
I sat him up on my lap a bit so I could look into his eyes.
“You’re not a dag, and you’re not weird. But something is bugging you, so spill it.”
He sighed and looked down.
“You know when you sent me to get an icecream?”
I nodded for him to continue.
“The man selling icecreams thought I was a girl. He said I was pretty.”
I watched his face for a moment, trying to get a read on his emotions.
Eventually, I reached out a finger and lifted his chin up so that he was looking at me.
“So how did that make you feel?”
He looked confused. “I don’t know – weird.”
I nodded my understanding. “Weird-angry? Or weird-upset? Or weird-happy?...”
He shrugged “Weird-weird.” He gestured at the centre of his chest. “Weird in here, weird.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding.
“Do you think I look like a girl?” he asked.
I looked at him carefully. “You do have a thin, elfin sort of face,” I said. Then I reached up and ran my fingers through his silky hair. “ ... and your hair has grown a bit long. I can see how some people might take a quick glance and think you were a girl.”
He scowled down into his lap. “So that’s all it takes? Grow my hair long and suddenly I’m a girl?”
“There’s a bit more to it than that,” I said, not even trying to hide my smile. “But most of the differences aren’t really important until you get to be a teenager.”
“Oh, you mean puberty and stuff?” he asked.
I nodded. “You don’t have to worry about that for a few years yet.”
He scowled. “Good.”
He was quiet for a moment.
“Girls miss out on doing all the good stuff,” he blurted out.
“I don’t know what you mean? What good stuff?”
“Girls can climb trees,” I said.
George leaned forward over the newspaper. “I’ll have you know that when your mother was your age, she was the best tree climber in the neighbourhood.”
Johnny looked at me with surprise.
I nodded. “Your dad had the most awesome tree in his front yard. We used to spend hours clambering around in that old thing.”
George held up his left arm and pointed at it. “I broke my arm right here, trying to prove that I could climb better than she could. The truth is, she was better. It took a broken arm before I was willing to admit it. So there you go, girls can climb trees if they want to. In fact, I can’t think of anything that boys can do that girls can’t do.”
“Huh!” said Johnny and paused for a moment. “Girls play with dolls.”
I smiled at him. “You say that as if it’s a bad thing. Playing with dolls is fun for girls. But boys play with dolls too.”
“No we don’t!” he said with a scowl.
“Of course you do,” I said. “You’ve got four or five action figures in your room. Every one of your friends have them too. You all spend hours playing with those things. An action figure is simply a doll designed to appeal to boys.”
George chuckled. “She’s got you there, champ,” he said. “Have to say I used to have a Gumby when I was little. It was a green figure in the shape of a man that was made out of rubber. You could twist it into different shapes. It was fun. I carried it around everywhere for a while. I guess you could call that a doll for boys if you wanted to.”
Johnny looked thoughtful. “So dolls are kind of like the girl version of action figures?”
I nodded. “That’s what I’m saying. Mind you, most girls will play with dolls differently from the way most boys play with action figures.”
“Huh!” said Johnny.
He thought for a moment. “Girls wear different clothes. They wear dresses and frilly stuff.”
I nodded. “That’s true. But they don’t have to. A lot of the time, girls will wear jeans and a t-shirt, just like you, but maybe cut to a different style. Other times they might wear dresses and frilly stuff because they want to look pretty.”
I saw something flicker across his face and tilted my head to look at him sideways.
“Would you like to try something on? Would you like to see what you look like in a pretty dress?”
“I can’t do that. I can’t wear a dress. I’m a boy.”
I shrugged. “Okay then. It was just an idea.”
He sat still for a moment, but then he shifted on my lap and looked around nervously.