I try to take the kids out for a treat individually every now and again. With four of them in the house it is difficult to give them individual attention and so, once a fortnight or so, I will take one of them out for what we call Treat Day. The format is predictable: a trip to the bigger of the two shopping malls in our city, where I buy them an item of clothing and then an ice-cream. It doesn’t take much to enthral my kids.
Yesterday it was the turn of our second youngest, only 2 years of age. She hopped into the car singing “Treat Day, Treat Day” all the way to the mall. We parked in the underground parking lot – when the weather is hot, parking in the open is liable to turn your car into an oven – and took the lift up. She pressed the lift button and giggled for joy. We picked out a new shalwar kameez for her – which is to say, she picked out several and I chose the cheapest, least garish one – and she carried the bag out of the store by herself.
We went to the bookstore where she chose a new colouring book, and two others to take home to give to her brother and sister. We went to the supermarket where she bought a lollipop for herself and two more to take home and share out. Then we went to one of the ice cream shops on the top floor. She gazed, open-mouthed, at the array of colours on offer and eventually plumped for a combination of strawberry cheesecake and Nutella. We found an empty table and sat down.
And she stared at her ice cream in awe. The world, for her, seemed to stop in its tracks. I chivvied her along.
“Come on, sweetie, eat your ice cream” I said.
Slowly, tentatively, she picked up her little plastic spoon and transferred a tiny speck of it onto her tongue. She swallowed it and raised her eyebrows in delight. Then she returned to gazing at it in adoration as though the small paper cup was the Holy Grail.
I was getting impatient. I had things to do, shopping to collect, and then I had to get home in time for a conference call. When you’re raising four children in Pakistan with minimal support, life never stops being busy. I tapped my foot impatiently.
And then I felt ashamed. For me, Treat Day was something on the diary to be ticked off before moving on to the next task. For my daughter, Treat Day was a unique chance to be the centre of attention rather than a small, indistinguishable part of family life. This chance to have new clothes and an ice cream only came around every couple of months. I was sitting there checking my watch and tutting impatiently but my daughter was drinking in the moment, enjoying every part of it from pressing the lift button to sitting in the front of the car. When we got home she would recount the story to her mother and her siblings. She would tell her teacher at school about it the next day.
She’s not going to be small forever. One day it will take more than a new shirt and a cup of ice cream to enthral her. One day pushing the button for the lift will not be exciting; it will be an insignificant task carried out by adults, like me, who tap their feet impatiently, frustrated by any delay to their busy, busy lives. The small wonders of life shrivel as we grow. Why should she not pause to enjoy it while it lasted?
And so I sat, and watched, and stopped worrying about the next thing in my schedule. Conference calls could wait. Emails can be answered tomorrow. I stilled my tapping foot, calmed my impatient heart, and focused on my daughter as she transferred tiny specks of ice cream to her mouth, her eyes open with with wonder.