family photo unsmiling
Photo: Getty Images

Joylessness to the world 

You’re born either a cheery soul or a gloomy one, reckons Linda Burgess – but what happens when gene pools from opposite ends of the spectrum collide?

In our shoeboxes of photos that we have to sort out before we die or get demented – because who IS that kid on the plane, or that one on the beach, and if he took a photo of a stranger’s child like that now, wouldn’t he be arrested? – but anyway, in one of those shoeboxes that have caused so much marital tension is a photo of Robert’s parents. They’re at a church – Presbyterian, should you ask, 1950s – Christmas do, and Robert’s dad Angus is dressed as a shepherdess, and Robert’s mother Gwen is a male pirate. They’re with like-minded gender-fluid friends and they’re full-throated chortling and it’s such a hoot.

I remember seeing such photos when we first got together, and one word came to mind: Dad. Dad was reasonably witty and loved to laugh, but if you’d asked him to dress up as a shepherdess or even a pirate his face would’ve shown his feelings all too clearly. He was a Todd (not those ones – sadly) and the Todds did not do guileless delight. Perhaps it’s the Grahams, not the Todds, that had the joy gene removed. Dad’s mother was Scottish to her calcium-rich little bones. After decades of cold showers at 6am she died in her 90s, her general lack of high spirits evidenced in her famous catchphrase: “I feel so cross.”

You can’t fabricate joy. It’s in your DNA. Or not. Your psyche dooms you to either burst into music at the sight of hills, or humpf at the thought of climbing them. I watch friends who stand with their choir mates, their faces working like mad as they carol away, having all the fun in the world, and I feel downright jealous. I can’t sing anyway, though I reckon if I’d kept trying I more or less could’ve (Primer 1 report: “Linda has a tuneful voice”). But I don’t. Not only have my vocal cords forgotten how to wander around the full range, but in spite of enjoying a good conversation, something stops me from being a joiner, from being one of those people who only puts down their yoga mat or their tennis racquet to slip smilingly into place beside the other altos.

In the week before Christmas we were in Auckland, and when invited by our daughter-in-law Julia to join Edward (4) and Flora (9) at Smith and Caughey’s to meet Father Christmas, we agreed, in the way grandparents feel they ought. There was all the business of getting them changed into clothes befitting the occasion, and then into the car, negotiating the road works and the late afternoon traffic. Then finding the entrance to that car park, that one that’s just down the road, and getting them out of the car, and ringing up Daddy to see if he’s left work yet, and if not why not, then, in spite of having booked and paid in advance – Santa’s people are well organised – there was a bit of a wait. 

First of all though, we did our walk past the shop’s windows.

In spite of living less than a kilometre from Queen Street, Edward has probably never been to that street before. He skipped cheerfully along, deftly negotiating his way past the sleeping bags, and when he came upon the windows where Santa’s little wooden elves slaved for a fraction of the minimum wage, he paused, and he froze. Entranced. Even the frigid heart of Granny Todd on her way into the shower would have melted at the sight. My theory that children have seen too many special effects to get joy out of the real (well, sort of real, in this case) was thrown to the ground and stamped on, trampled to nothing by haughty reindeer. His little hands made two sticky stars on the windows and he could barely breathe, such was the magic of his experience. I meanwhile could breathe, but my eyes were becoming awkwardly moist. This was exacerbated by the sight of Flora, deeply into protectionism, with her arm around his shoulders pointing out what to marvel at next.

When it comes to Santa himself – call him Father Christmas at your peril – children divide into two groups. It’s either, Hi Santa! Or, Back. Off. Buster. Lucie and Max, our grownup grandchildren, were pretty much in group two. By two and a half years old, Lucie had established herself as the sort of child who thought old men in cotton-wool beards were total freaks. It was disdain she showed rather than fear. Max was a little more pliable when bribed by the word “present”, but only because he’d worked out the advantages. By the time he was three, his six-year-old sister had explained to him why it was most unlikely that Santa was real. They’ve both, by the way, moved on into a deep and well-informed interest in politics. 

Flora, her arm still comfortingly around Edward’s shoulders, ushered him under the migraine-inducing silver lights, where we paused, waiting to be summoned by one of Santa’s enablers, convincingly disguised as a pretty fairy. Albeit one who’d had a hell of a year having to do her course online because lectures went off-campus. In an era where it’s perfectly normal for spunky small girls to dress in pink tutus even when sitting in a supermarket trolley, it was completely possible to believe that the Christmas fairies were what they were pretending to be. 

Only the grownups realised that in the interest of speed, and also in the interest of accessing useful government subsidies, the shop had hired not only the real Santa but even more doppelgängers than FLOTUS keeps in her basement. There were several doors, only one of which was opened to us. The only potentially disturbing evidence that there was more than one, was that the family that had shared our special lift up to Santa’s Perspex-screen-enhanced cave, exited simultaneously from another door. As we burst out of the lift into the different sort of paradise that is the children’s department in that gracious store, it was no time to point out to our grandchildren that they had unwittingly taken part in an immaculately executed conspiracy. 

Both Flora and Edward had been admirably courteous with Santa, and in the way of children who have already got everything they need, both asked with simple sweetness for colouring books and pens. (“Not a trampoline?” asked Santa, prime influencer. “We’ve already got one.”) Then there were photos, which could be bought immediately, and I wondered why it is that family photos with Santa make everyone taking part look like fundamentalist Christians from the American heartland. 

Which genes are dominant, I pondered as we stopped off for sustenance in the form of two big bowls of chips and a stiff glass of pinot gris, then farewelled Daddy on his way back to work. Will Flora and Edward become joiners, prepared to sing along, to take one for the team? Briefly, still under the spell of Edward’s reaction to a shop window, I almost – only almost – hoped they would. 

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