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Relationships • Parenting

A Portrait of Tenderness

There’s a story going on, a very lovely one, but we can’t know the details for certain. In this respect, we are standing outside a window ourselves, in the most agreeable of ways.

Jacobus Vrel, Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl, c. 1650

We can guess that the relationship is a kindly and tender one. This is Granny, Mummy, Nanny or Auntie, and just beyond the window, through those delicate panes of 17th-century Dutch glass, there is little Maries, Annelies, Sofie or Wilma. Maybe it’s a game: I’ll run outside and wave to you and your job is to wave back. Or: You cover your eyes, I’ll duck beneath the window, give a little tap and then you have to spot me before I drop down again. Or, more simply: When I have to go home after a day with you, I miss you so much and I like to say goodbye many times: four times in the room, twice from the hallway and once again at the window.

In other words, in some undefined way, this is a portrait of love. An adult, probably quite a serious one who has known many cares and has considerable responsibilities, is bending to the sweet and imaginative will of a small person, in whose reflection she sees a version of herself (Vrel hints that the window is a mirror; the old woman is gazing at a version of her younger self). A grown-up who could easily have humiliated the child – said she was busy or that it was all too silly – is joining in enthusiastically and giving the ritual or game her all (she might even fall off her chair).

One of the unexpected origins of something as serious and consequential as adult mental health arguably begins right here. If we find ourselves as grown-ups feeling creative, knowing how to appreciate ourselves, understanding how to remain calm and ready to give affection to others, it is almost certainly because at some point, a long way back, someone did for us what the woman in Vrel’s painting is doing for the little girl: giving us attention, making us the focus of tenderness, appreciating us on our own modest but vital terms.

Children who end up sane have been spared the need to be very good or very reasonable too early. We can’t know much about the economic status of Vrel’s figures. What we do know is that such games and the love behind them belong to what it really means to have had that most invaluable of things: a privileged childhood.

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