Last updated: April 14, 2012 12:11 am

Distinction in plane sight

Perhaps if you have six children you have to learn how to negotiate the world with calm and dignity

On an early morning flight from Newark, a lovely sight: a family with six children, several girls in plain skirts and jerseys and flesh-coloured tights and two younger boys in yarmulkes with dark locks, the bigger children helping the mother who could not have been more than 30 and was carrying a gurgling baby.

The children settled into their seats and drew out their books and games and screens. Two of the older girls cosied up under a large plush blanket, their knees and calves tessellating together carelessly, the wires of their headphones entwined across the arm rest. A younger girl wrapped herself in a fluffy dressing gown and focused on a word-search. One of the boys slept. The mother was beaming. As a family, they really were a work of art. I peered around me, I wasn’t the only one to notice, as looks of approval and sentimentality were flashing on the faces up and down the aisles. It was a mighty generous act, cheering up a whole planeful of passengers just by existing – most of us must have risen at three or four that morning and were in need of a boost. I imagined myself with six children for a second and bit my lip.

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Susie Boyt

After take-off I leafed through an article in a fashion magazine about a retreat set up to help the anxious in an English country-house hotel. The expert at the idyllic-looking Queen Anne property spent time with each inmate writing an individual sort of life prescription for the outside world based on his own experience of, and research into, panic attacks, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. The author of the article, cynical at first, had been amazed at the effect of the treatment. Within days of the short stay her old self, which had been buffeted by childbirth complications and illness, had begun to re-emerge. She no longer faced each day with terror as her world narrowed around her, forcing her to outsource everything that had formerly brought her joy. In fact her horizons had broadened wildly, her energy levels had shot up, she took genuine pleasure in her life again after two blank years. I wrote this woman a little note, wishing her well as I know her slightly, then flicked through the films available and decided that there was nothing I would rather watch than the enchanting family who were seated all around me.

. . .

They looked so intelligent, not carefree exactly, but sensible and kind. They were serious children, in the best sense of the words. Then, as the seat belt signs came off, they started being sick, one after the other, each one discreetly vomiting into a white paper bag, backs turned to the window. Their father walked calmly up and down the plane, dispensing wet wipes and soothing words. The lack of fuss was so impressive. No-one cried or seemed particularly put out. There was no panic, and none of the heightened whoops of sympathy that I would have lavished on a sick child, possibly making things more acute. There was no sense of crisis whatsoever.

The handling of this minor emergency made this already lovely family seem utterly distinguished; world class even. Perhaps if you have six children you have to learn how to negotiate the world with calm and dignity. Perhaps it was the strong religious faith, which their appearance suggested, that was the key to their serenity. Whatever it was, I felt as though this family across the aisle existed on a much higher plane than the one I had boarded.

A tremendous sense of calm spread about me. Life is a very serious business, I almost heard the father say, but in parallel to this fact, all can be well. I half-wished I could talk to him about my grief for my own father whom we lost last July. For where, on the ground, can you speak of such things?

After a time I found myself making a list of madly ambitious projects and highly enjoyable leisure pursuits to see us through the rest of the year. For a few moments I felt very happy. A friend had given me a bag of macaroons for the journey and I selected a blackcurrant one and closed my eyes to get the beauty of it.

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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