Our days parked at a huge shopping centre have been marked with lovely connections, extraordinary coincidences and blessings from strangers. We are experiencing the truth that when we give away our lives, we find life given back, but not merely given back — given back with bonus and blessing!

So we’re outside Westfields Eastgardens in the south-eastern suburbs of Sydney. It was once the biggest shopping centre in Australia and has since been expanded, so I don’t know how it ranks currently, but it’s huge — to the tune of a 2010 turnover of A$517 million. (I really have no idea how much money that is, but it’s a big enough number to be quoted by Westfields themselves.)

Previously shopping centres have been a focus of my disgust and vitriol. I’ve avoided them. And hated them. But now… (Can anyone else see the pattern emerging as I learn to love things that I once hated?)

This impersonal, money-hungry, artificial retail experience has shown us its friendly, human side. And it’s nice. Very nice!

We found it easy to park. There was a spot outside just for us. Un-marked, un-timed, hassle-free and shady to boot! We spilled out a little onto the pathway, but the pedestrian traffic was so low that we didn’t bother anyone.

On our first evening at this location, David took the girls inside to play even though it was after trading hours. They ran up and down escalators, experimenting with walking the wrong way up the moving ramps and traversing a circuit that took them across all three levels and along the length of the building. The cleaners and security guards didn’t mind the loud, laughing calls of the girls that echoed through the empty halls.

When they got tired, David took the girls to watch the previews that scrolled across the big screen outside the cinemas. It was a fun way to spend the evening, and totally free!

Calista playing outside the trailer, January 2012
Our truck is parked kerbside out the back of the big shopping centre in a legitimate, un-timed zone (somewhat of a rarity here). Calista is enjoying playing with her new toy which was given to her by a random stranger who received it in a cinema promotion. This little gift is a huge thing to a little girl, and we feel privileged to see our child receive a blessing like this from someone we don't know.

The next day, I experienced two wonderful encounters with complete strangers, quite apart from the people who enquired about our family and congratulated us on the birth of our son! First, I ran into a family whose girls had played with our children at the beach in Yarra Bay. It was lovely to see them again, and David questioned aloud, “How many people really live in this city?”

Then, as I was leaving one department store, I was approached by the attendant checking the contents of bags. As she approached me, I started to open the bags that were hanging off the handles of the stroller in which Delaney was sitting. But she wasn’t interested in the bags, she just wanted to peer into my sling at beautiful Elijah.

After checking that he was a boy, she told me to wait a moment. She disappeared behind one of the store’s counters and re-emerged holding a large white paper bag. Inside were a number of toys, samples, clothes, tools and books suitable for a baby boy — a gift of the store usually reserved for those who purchased items greater than a certain value. I felt overwhelmed that she had picked me out of the crowd of mothers who came through the store and chose to bless me in this way. And what could I say but “thank you!”?

While walking around, David re-met a man he had first talked to at Yarra Bay, and I ran into the girls who had played with our children at that beach. “How many people are in this city?” David asks, and I laugh. Our world seems to have shrunk to the size of our friendliness.

When Brioni was walking around with me, methodically checking every shoe store in search of lovely sandals that she was “in love with”, she was holding firmly to her purse. After one trip to the toilets, she emerged without the wallet.

We didn’t notice its absence until well away from the service corridor. Brioni ran back to check the toilet, and it was already gone. As I knelt down to comfort her, I felt like using the occasion to deliver a lecture, but I didn’t. I just hugged her and let her cry.

Nearby, a woman noticed Brioni’s distress and asked what was wrong. When I answered that she had lost her purse in the toilets, the woman reached into her bag and pulled out Brioni’s pink wallet. “Is this it?” she asked!

I was amazed that the same person who found the purse happened to be the one who witnessed Brioni’s sadness, but Brioni accepted the latest development with aplomb. She is growing used to unusual circumstances, coincidences and acts of kindness from strangers. Perhaps one day I’ll also be accustomed to these sort of blessings as well.

We’ve loved having access to a library again. There’s a library just outside this shopping centre but within the same infrastructure. David was able to plug in and get some videos uploaded.

David working on the computer in the Eastgardens library, January 2012
David's been able to plug in at the library and use the time to learn how to stitch movies together in a new program.

The Eastgardens library was advertising some children’s activities, but notices on the posters said that the available positions were all filled. I also noticed that there was a small fee attached to the experiences, and I’m still learning to let go and try to seek out free activities instead.

One morning, we entered the library to find one room full of small farm animals. Small children were buzzing with excitement, and our girls started enquiring whether they too could visit the animal exhibit. As I was working out a way of letting them down softly, a woman approached me.

“I paid for an extra ticket for my grand-daughter,” Irene said. “Now she’s flown to Melbourne, so one of your girls could take her place.” She approached the librarian and switched the names so that Aisha could enter. When Irene noticed Calista also hanging off my arm, she opened her purse and pulled out the right amount of money for her entrance too. The librarian who had previously been adamant that there was no way extra children could participate, agreed to let Calista and Delaney in. That only left Brioni — who was no where in sight. Later I discovered that she had slipped into the animal room freely.

Delaney and a chick, January 2012
Delaney is given a chick to gently hold.

Aisha touches a lamb, January 2012
Aisha touches the head of a lamb. Although she is given the opportunity to go into the cage with the animals, she's happy to keep a fence between herself and the bleaters.

Aisha holding a chick, January 2012
Aisha loves to cuddle the chicks. I think she would be very good with a small pet, but, alas, this is not the season for bringing one into her life.

Brioni with a duckling, January 2012
Brioni gets a turn with a little duckling. I wonder what happens to these animals when they stop being so cute. Do I really want to know?

We’ve had so much fun at Eastgardens. Staying outside a large shopping centre has now crept up our list of fun places to visit, and we’ll remember this spot for the next time we’re in this part of Sydney!

Brioni holds her nose, January 2012
Brioni holds her nose as we pass by the displays of fresh seafood. I sympathise, but part of me wants to start down the old line: "When I was a child..." and describe the smells of the markets in West Africa!