With all the talk about gender issues bouncing around lately, I’ve been thinking about this little story from my childhood that I’d like to share.
I hate being asked what I want for my birthday. Or Christmas. Or any event for that matter. This is partly because I am a grown man now and don’t feel the same inclination to exploit holidays for personal gain that I once did. It is also because my brain is a troublemaker and will happily spend most of the year thinking of colourful trinkets it would like, only to forget them when put on the spot. What do you want for Christmas? is one of those questions I never have a good answer to. Fortunately, the older you get the less people ask.
This wasn’t always the case. I remember clearly the first present that I really wanted. I must have been about three or four. I don’t remember what the occasion was, birthday or Christmas, and I don’t remember which parent asked me. But I remember my answer. I wanted an iron and an ironing board.
It’s funny how things can make complete sense as a child and seem so strange when you look back upon them. I don’t remember being particularly interested the real iron back then (or the ironing board) but I remember the palpable desire for an iron of my own. It seemed to fill my every waking moment, the need for an iron, and the fear that I would never have an iron. I’m sure my parents laughed it off, no doubt amused at their toddler son and his request to be furnished with the most dull of domestic appliances on this special occasion (whatever it may be). Still, my desire for an iron did not fade and I’m sure I pushed the matter from that point on.
When your parents aren’t together, extra effort must go into organising Christmas/Birthdays. I don’t remember a time when my parents were together, so perhaps I underestimated the logistics. I’m still a bit unclear on the details, but I’m pretty sure they’d gone their separate ways before I was born. My Mum had five other kids by the time I arrived and so she was a very busy full time parent, my Dad was (and still is) a retired joiner. They weren’t together, but when I was little they always seemed to co-operate on all the right things. It wasn’t until I got older that I realised they didn’t really get along. Like a lot of kids, I lived with my Mum through the week, only seeing my Dad on weekends. I have been told since that this must have been very hard for me. This is a sentiment I have never really understood. It was what it was, it was my life and it was as regular and normal to me as any other part of my life. Though, I do remember telling the other kids with glee, that I had two houses which was obviously superior to their insignificant one house. I was practically in high school before I realised just how hard up my family was.
That next trip to my Dad’s was different though. I don’t remember any other presents I got that year, but I will never forget the thrill when I opened my iron. It was made of blue and metallic plastic, a realistic replica of a real household iron and you could fill the water tank and spray just like the real thing! To my toddler eyes it was the best toy iron in the world, but nothing could beat the next present. To accompany the iron my dad had built a child sized ironing board. He’d made it out of wood. It had folding legs with a catch to keep it stood upright. It was varnished and equipped with an ironing board cover made from an old pair of curtains, and on the underside was my name. It was written in thick felt tip, in the clean, clear writing that I will always associate with my Dad. I played with it all night and all of the next day too until it was time to go back to Mum’s. For a weekend I had all I wanted in the world.
As I mentioned, my Dad was retired before I was born. He was always older than most Dads, but he never felt it until the last few years. Perhaps I didn’t see it until I moved out and went away to University. He’s doing well for his age, but he can be forgetful, and it’s often harder to have the long, winding conversations that we used to, particularly when we disagree. He has his share of outdated ideas I now, my Dad, and he has his little prejudices that I want to argue out with him but can’t. Instead, I always try to respect my Dad for the important things he taught me. That all people deserve respect, that violence solves nothing, that everyone should have equal rights regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation. But most of all I respect my Dad because he was born in 1926, in a poor working class community, with few educational opportunities and grew in to a man who saw no problem spending an afternoon in his shed, making an ironing board for his four year old son.
Years later I asked him if he remembered buying me the toy iron.
“Of course,” he said. “I drove all over town trying to find a toy iron that wasn’t pink.”
I was a little surprised and asked if that was because I was a boy. “No, I’d have got you the same one if you were a girl.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“You wanted one that looked like a real iron.”