In concert with children

CHLO"E's eyes sparkled as she sat expectantly on the very edge of her red plush seat and gazed around. The concert hall was filling rapidly and the orchestra, elegant in cream and black, was tuning up. The glitter of the instruments under the blazing lights, the excited murmur of the audience, and the hint of perfume in the air as we waited for the conductor were all a new experience for our nine-year-old. Those responsible for the rich and varied cultural life of Perth do not forget the children, something that B and I and many other parents have cause to be grateful for. The family concert that we took Chlo"e and Matthew to was as much a treat for us as it was for them. In the magnificent surroundings of the concert hall by the river we were able to enjoy the music and the sense of occasion, and share our daughter's delight in the conductor's kindly and humorous introduction to the pieces and the stories behind them. Even Matthew, who was 6, waggled his feet or nodded his head at the louder and more stirring parts of the program and scarcely fidgeted at all for the rest of the hour.

Our family life has not often included highlights like this. In fact B feels strongly that there should be an association for the enlightenment of would-be parents. Nobody, she points out, ever tells you that from the day your first child is born until the last one turns 8 or so, the opportunity for gracious or impromptu pleasures virtually disappears.

It seems a lot longer than 10 years ago that B and I were able simply to get up from the supper table and go to the cinema or the theater, and dawdle past the lighted shop windows before coming home. Suddenly, the effort even to go to the the park resembled regimental maneuvers, with prams and pushchairs and emergency food supplies and changes of clothing. The difference is that in the Army there are seven soldiers back at base supporting each one in the field, whereas in a family there are only two parents for a variable number of children. The ratio is highly unfavorable.

When both children were past the baby stage, things were better. At least we could leave them with friends on rare occasions. (Both grandmothers had emigrated, for reasons apparently unconnected with our offspring.) Even then, we worked hard for our evenings off. At one stage we were living in a seventh-floor apartment, and after we had collected the children, bundled them into the car, and taken them home, I then had to carry each one up in the elevator while B stayed with the other. Elbowing open the heavy safety door, I would drop into a simian crouch on our doormat with a sleeping infant pillowed on left arm and right knee, while with my right hand I unlocked the sticking door and gave it as hard a shove as I dared without dislodging my burden or toppling over. It all took the gloss off the occasion, somehow.

One does, of course, become conditioned to parenthood by degrees and by necessity. One runs a marathon one stride at a time and tries to overtake the person immediately in front. The whole race is simply too grim to contemplate in its entirety. But one can take metaphors too far. Parents receive rewards along the way in a manner that runners do not. Who can describe the wholesome, friendly smell of warm boy as your son burrows into your bed in the early hours? Or the grin of pure delight and triumph as your daughter picks her way slowly, but for the first time without a mistake, through ``Little Donkey'' on the piano?

Which brings me back to where I started, more or less. A few weeks ago we took Chlo"e and Matthew to one of the bicentennial series of concerts given by the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra on the terraces below the concert hall. Children and adults sat on folding chairs, on rugs, on the steps, and anywhere else that offered a good vantage point and waited for dusk to fall. The sociable hum was quieted by the appearance of the announcer, for this program was to be broadcast. A number of well-known pieces followed, until finally the orchestra reached Handel's ``Royal Fireworks,'' for which we had all been waiting. With a rush and an ear-splitting crack, great rockets soared, detonated, and burst in cascades of green, pink, gold, and silver high in the clear night sky, the smoke drifting in ragged swirls across the river. Crack after crack echoed across the water and among the tall city buildings as the brilliant trails arced, plunged, and then faded abruptly into blackness.

Regrettably there was no question of an encore, but at the end of the performance the children led us across to where the musicians were beginning to pack their belongings away. They stood, enthralled, as the redhaired ``harp lady'' talked and played a few notes on her huge but graceful instrument to a small circle of listeners until she, too, had to go.

As the four of us strolled together to the car park in the balmy evening air, I asked Matthew if he had enjoyed himself. There was no need to ask Chlo"e. My son looked up, the lights reflected in his clear child's eyes, and nodded happily.

Perhaps this is also something I should tell the association for the enlightenment of prospective parents.

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