Nothing remarkable here.

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
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
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
An ordinary childhood is a restricted childhood, one in which
a child is discouraged from going deeply into whatever experience life might
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. 

5 thoughts on “Nothing remarkable here.”

  1. I didn’t have an ordinary childhood. I’m not actually sure what the word ‘ordinary’ means. It’s one of those non-words like ‘normal’. Normal guys have ordinary lives. I didn’t have an ordinary childhood but then neither was it extraordinary. Or abnormal. It was my life. It was different to everyone else’s lives and I include my siblings. Of course we shared many of the same experiences and what was the norm in our household was certainly not the norm in my friends. They never said grace, not even the churchgoers amongst them. That made us different but not so different as to not be regarded as ordinary in most other respects. Like most boys I had a bike—that was an ordinary thing to have—but I never had roller skates. Few did but those who did were still classed as ordinary. It was unusual to have roller skates but not out of the ordinary. And if they did happen to have a pair of roller skates they would, of course, be ordinary skates.

    My not exactly ordinary childhood made me the not exactly ordinary man I am today. Or at least it contributed. The things I did and had and the things I never got to do or wasn’t allowed to do as well as the things I never had. Compared to even my daughter’s childhood mine—and the childhoods of my peers—was freer. It wasn’t as if kids weren’t prey in the sixties but there wasn’t the same emphasis on life’s little dangers as there is today. We played beside rivers and in building sites and junkyards and railway yards and rifle ranges. We left the house in the morning and only appeared to be fed and sometimes not even then if one of our neighbours gave us something to tide us over. It wasn’t quite Swallows and Amazons but not that far from it. We didn’t think it was anything special though. It was what we did. It was what the kids in Second Avenue did and the kids in Third Avenue. It was ordinary. We were ordinary. We were happy being ordinary.

    You can read too much into a person’s reticence. My childhood was an important part of my life but it was only a part. I rarely think of it. When nostalgia comes I mostly look back to the seventies after I’d left school. For me that’s when who I am began to solidify. I know the famous Jesuit maxim goes: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man” but I’m not sure I agree with it. I didn’t live through a war or a time of famine; there were no earthquakes or other natural disasters apart from the river overflowing its banks every few years; murders still made the front page of the papers in the sixties but no one was ever murdered in our town or abducted or tarred and feathered. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened. Nothing much. The guy who drove the grocery van knocked down a kid and never drove again. I got meningitis as did my brother but not my sister. They built a new sports centre down the harbour. My dad got made redundant. He bought me an electric organ with his redundancy even though I’d never pestered him for one or even a second-hand piano. I didn’t dance for the Queen when I was seven.

    We’re watching a show called Nurse at the moment and one of the characters who has Alzheimer’s says this over and over again with great pride. If I end up that way I wonder what I’ll tell people. I was the first kid in my class who knew was a million was. I was the only kid in my class who knew who Sibelius was. I used to be able to ride a bike with no hands. An aunt of mine gave me a Canadian silver dollar. Does any of that matter? It all seems so ordinary. Hardly worth mentioning really.

  2. Of course there is no ordinary childhood. Each is unique.

    I was the boy number 1 born in January 1935, followed by boys 2, 3, 4 and 5. Four of us lived through the bombs of the war, boy 5 was born a month after VE day.

    It was a struggle to survive. Not just the air-raids but more so the shortages of everything. We were always hungry of course, as most young boys are.

    We were also very cold in the winter months during the war. Fuel of any kind was scarce, coal was not rationed but very hard to find. And being poor didn't help either.

    When it was dark my brother Geoff, boy number 2,and I would sneak into back gardens and steal a few lumps of coal as Mum was desperately short of everything, including money.

    It was quite exciting as Geoff and I crept silently into a garden and searched for the precious coal, putting a few lumps into a cloth shopping bag.

    There are many more exploits I could write about but the night raids on coal sheds or bunkers in and around the alleyways of Croydon is the most vivid.

    Geoff died six years ago; David, boy No. 4 died a year ago; Michael, boy No.5 died in 1990. I do not know if John, boy 3, is alive – lost touch years ago.

    Each of the five boys had their own special lives from day one and none was ordinary.

  3. Hello greetings and good wishes.

    Childhood is a time when we start exploring and watching and learning and forming our ideas about our parents,peers, the surroundings and the world.

    No one has a normal childhood because for children everything is exciting and fun. A small toffee makes the child giggle with joy whereas a large slab chocolate will not bring smile on a grown up persons face.

    Interesting post. I enjoyed reading it.

    Best wishes

  4. Yes, I'm inclined to think, like Jim, that she was suggesting that her childhood was mundane,as many are, not an appropriate or interesting topic for a dinner party.
    At the same time, I think that if your richest memories come from your childhood,as you say,Elisabeth,I can only feel sympathy for you. (Of course you had an unusually dramatic childhood).
    My richest experiences by far were in adulthood: mating, giving birth, witnessing growth, decay and death.
    Childhood was actually pretty boring: I'm always amazed by those who romanticise it.

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