Happy birthday, Toby – albeit a few days after the event, as you actually turned nine last Saturday. Better late than never, but I wanted to ensure I shared my reflections on your last year with you, as is traditional.
In many ways, you are much the same boy at nine years old as you were when you turned eight. You’re still the quiet one of our three. (Although, to be fair, Kara makes the front row of a thrash metal concert seem quiet.) And yet you seem to have grown into yourself and come out of your shell more. You’re still full of creativity and imagination, although that has manifested itself in different ways this year. You’re a deep thinker with a real talent for seeing the long game, although you’re still prone to be blind to short-term consequences. And you have moments of surprising tenderness towards your siblings, although you don’t half whinge about them sometimes.
But you’re growing and developing as much as ever. And for all that you can drive me to distraction, you’re becoming a more rounded and interesting person with every passing week.
So here’s the story of your ninth year, summed up in four key personas and a load of other random photos.
2018 was the year you suddenly took an interest in football. Your previously vague interest in Arsenal suddenly blossomed at the tail end of last season and carried through to the summer’s World Cup and beyond.
Now there’s no stopping you. You watched pretty much every minute you could of the World Cup and collected all the Panini album stickers. I will come downstairs in the morning to find you watching Match of the Day. You obsess about your Fantasy Football team.
And you’ve even started playing. This from the boy who considers changing out of his pyjamas to be vigorous exercise. It started out as one-on-one coaching in the park and progressed to kick-abouts with the other kids in our close. You joined a local club who have been fantastically welcoming. And you even have your own goalkeeper’s kit now. (How did I know you would opt to be a goalie? You chose the position that involves the least actual physical exertion, of course.)
It’s been lovely to see you develop and nurture this new passion. Even if you have surprised us by lasting far longer than the three weeks it historically takes you to give up a new activity.
All hail the Great British Bake Off champion for 2029! Okay, it’s a long road between here and there, but you’ve suddenly become a whirling dervish in the kitchen.
First it was biscuits. (You make a mean shortbread.) Then a variety of cakes. (Your Dorset apple cake is my favourite.) Then we moved on to mince pies for Christmas. (Yum.)
I love the way you bustle around the kitchen so confidently and self-sufficiently, grabbing ingredients here, working pastry there. It’s as if you have found your natural home. And you’re so proud (and rightly so) of your culinary creations. You genuinely have the makings of a very good baker if you keep going, which I hope you do.
I admire your ambition too. Deciding to make your own birthday cake last weekend wasn’t enough. Oh no. You had to make it two tiers and four layers, and do your own icing and decoration. Just because.
I can see how much being a good baker means to you. There’s that moment when we taste your latest concoction, when I can see the hope in your eyes. And the way those same eyes light up with pride and relief when it is invariably delicious. I love your enthusiasm for baking – even if my waistline doesn’t. Keep up the good work.
You’ve always loved games, particularly ones which require a degree of strategic thinking. You’re scarily good at them too.
This year we’ve added mahjong and a number of other games to your repertoire. You may only be nine but you more than hold your own against even experienced game-players like your mum and me. In fact, in some instances there’s no question that you’re better. You have a natural ability to visualise and adapt your game-playing strategy that is rare in adults, never mind a nine-year-old. Don’t ever lose that – it’s quite a skill.
It’s hard being the middle child of three, especially when you’re the odd one out character-wise. But for all that both your older brother and younger sister wind you up, every now and then those little moments of sibling love shine through.
You’re often at your worst when all three of you are competing for attention. But you come into your own when you have the opportunity to pair up with one or the other. With Isaac it’s about cars, tech and the way your thinking styles – him logical and practical, you creative and unconstrained – complement each other. With Kara, you shine when you have the opportunity to be the big brother rather than deferring to Isaac.
I know you’ll be the last to admit it but for all the sibling rivalry I know how much you love them both. Behind the occasionally sulky and withdrawn exterior, there’s a deeply caring and thoughtful boy inside. I’d like you to show us more of it.
And finally …
I’ve pulled out a dozen other random photos that sum up your year for me. From your first pair of glasses to your appreciation of good food (especially if it’s a bolognese or a good pudding), these are all little snapshots that represent who you are today. Occasionally sulky, often cheesy. A lover of facts, maps and arcade slot machines. And an occasional Sonic the Hedgehog impersonator (third row, right).
You’re a unique boy who is fast growing into an impressive young man. And you’re definitely the child who reminds me most of a younger me, both in terms of your appearance and your personality. We’ll always have a close bond because of that. At a fundamental level, you and I just get each other.
But you keep growing into your own person. Don’t settle for being a copy of me; you can and will be so much more. Nothing would make me prouder than that.
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