Richard Gilbert | Longreads | May 2017 | 13 minutes (3,798 words)
My granddaughter, Kathy, sprinted down the upstairs hallway of her house, wailing for her mother. But her mother, my 30-year-old daughter, wasn’t home. She and her husband had left Kathy with me while they went to buy a larger car—Baby Number Two was due soon. I’d been on duty about three hours when Kathy realized her parents were really gone, and dashed for their bedroom. She was wearing only a red shirt, having shed her diaper and her britches somewhere. I hadn’t been able to get shoes on her in the first place. I ambled behind her down the dim hall, wondering how I’d deal with this crisis.
I’d already learned not to tell Kathy “no,” except in injurious situations, so I don’t recall doing anything to set her off. But on top of the Terrible Twos, she’s in a mommy phase. And she’ll only nap at day care, so she’s always exhausted on weekends at home. Her parents, Claire and David, had warned me that they had to drive all the way to northern Virginia for the best deal. Their getting back to this southwestern tail of the state meant I’d agreed to tend Kathy, alone, for over 12 hours.
They’d left at 7 a.m., and soon afterward Kathy had taken me into their bedroom. She’d had me “throw her away”—toss her onto their bed—and then she’d wrestled from Claire’s closet a green foam yoga mat. “Mommy’s,” she’d informed me, and we’d regarded it there on the hardwood.
Now, as I entered the master suite again, why was I surprised to see her, in profile, crying atop that very pad? She was in the classic yogic “child’s pose” as she wept tears, straight down—holding perfect form!—and whimpered, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.”
Kathy’s sadness bruised my heart. And her cries underscored that I’m losing my lonely crusade to have her call her mother Mama instead of Mommy. All my life I’ve envied friends, often but not always from the South, who even now, as senior citizens, refer to “Mama” and “Daddy.” So warm and so comforting, I imagine, to their inner child. If I’d grown up in backwoods Georgia, where my father farmed until I was 5, that would’ve been me. Instead, my parents transplanted me to a Florida beach town, and my Mama became Mommy.
Until the day she looked at her needy brood and commanded, “Stop calling me Mommy! All this Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. It’s driving me crazy.”
“But what can we call you?” I pleaded, a pang my throat.
She paused a beat. “Call me Mother,” she said.
Do you want your daughter to be the only child in Riner, Virginia, who calls her Mama Mommy? Like a Yankee?
She was raising us in a raw subdivision 1,000 miles from kinfolk and without hands-on help from our father, who hadn’t wanted children in the first place—she’d divorced him three times over that issue: winning his assent for each child took another divorce. So she was fiery and could be scary. But we were unable to follow her orders and call her Mother, and she became, in our mouths, the softer Mom.
I’d presumed Kathy would have a Mama and Daddy, growing up and bound for school in this southern hamlet. But she attends day care 30 minutes away, in a diverse, upscale university town, Blacksburg, where Claire and David work. This matter isn’t compelling to Claire. When Kathy was about a year old, Claire had just grinned and shrugged when I argued, “Do you want your daughter to be the only child in Riner, Virginia, who calls her Mama Mommy? Like a Yankee?”
Names, how they resonate. I hadn’t anticipated being asked to pick my grandparent name. I thought you were Grandfather or Grandmother, and the kid butchered it into something pronounceable and cute. I never knew my paternal grandparents, but the maternal were Grandfather and Grandmother. Odd, when I think about it, since they lived in the Little Dixie region of southeastern Oklahoma; but they were reserved, Depression folk, not cuddly. No humbling Meemaw and Peepaw for them, like the Appalachian refugees who’d lived across the street from us in Florida. But after Claire told me and her mother that we needed grandparent names, I remembered that I had asked Mom, “What do you want our kids to call you?”
“Grandmother,” she’d said. Of course.
Then Claire and David put the shoe on my foot. David’s family tradition had already acted: upon Kathy’s birth, his mother, Janet, became Mimi; his father, Bruce, became Bumper. I dithered, but my wife, little Kathy’s namesake, then known for convenience as Big Kathy, pounced. Doubtless she was eager to shed her Big Kathy handle. Referencing an Italian folk tale about a woman named Strega Nona she’d read to our kids, Kathy picked Nona, which means grandmother in Italian.
Awakening one morning a week later, an inspired grandparent name floated into my cerebral cortex. Smokey Lonesome. He’s a character in the novel and movie Fried Green Tomatoes, though why I wanted to be named after an alcoholic hobo mystified everyone. Even me, at first. Since a baby can’t be expected to say “Smokey Lonesome,” any more than “Grandfather,” I took my own nickname by shortening Smokey to Mokie. Kathy couldn’t say that at first, either, and called me Kiki. Which is what she usually calls me, though she can now say Mokie. Either name challenges me to live up to this beneficent new persona.
Toddlers are a different species, part ape and part angel, without much buffer in between.
And yet, I’d just stood there during the yoga incident. Helpless. At the time, Kathy herself had seemed so much more helpless than if she’d collapsed, instead, upon her parents’ bed. Maybe because that’s what an adult would’ve done. Toddlers are a different species, part ape and part angel, without much buffer in between.
When I told Claire later about Kathy’s use of her mat, she laughed: “Did you get a video?”
“God no! I was mortified. But I can see why they call it child’s pose. There was a child, in that pose.”
“I think they teach the kids yoga at school.”
With that, I began separating my helplessness from Kathy’s actual behavior. Maybe child’s pose was taught to her as a way to calm down, to get centered—anyway, that’s how she used it, to cope. In contrast to my own practice with painful feelings, grim sufferance, Kathy made an admirable and apparently successful effort to process her brief but overwhelming sadness. This reminds me of Buddhism’s suggestion to note that a feeling has arisen without attaching to it undue importance. Sadness has arisen. This acknowledges the feeling, accepts it, and yet underscores that the feeling is not you. Kathy added child’s pose, a physical meditation, which I find impressive.
“Childhood is the unhappiest time of life,” Mom once said. A memorable and maddening declaration—and intended to be: vinegar atop saccharine platitudes about life’s magical, carefree years. I couldn’t dismiss her provocation on those grounds, but, as a parent myself by then, it struck me as equally facile. Our children seemed happy. I was torn between two thoughts: Maybe that’s a reflection on your parenting, Mom; and Here’s another of Mom’s ornery sayings to share with my siblings.
Like a hyperactive artist, she moves in fast-motion from one creative activity to another, making her own weather, following her feelings like they’re some private sun.
She didn’t elaborate, but I’ve got a lot of her in me, and I understood her meaning: children experience constant frustration because they lack autonomy. Little Kathy sure wouldn’t have chosen, after a long week at Rainbow Riders Childcare, to lose her parents—especially her precious mother—for an entire winter Saturday. And true, her Terrible Two flashes of anger seem unmerited. She throws fits over the most trivial matter, which she’s changed her mind about three times in as many seconds: “I want red cup. Red. No red, I want blue! Blue cup, no red! I want yellow! Yellow.” Since Dada has already shelved the red cup and is pouring juice into the blue cup, tears ensue. But Kathy’s joy is more typical, and seems boundless, so her average is pretty good. The adults around her marvel at her energy and intensity; she’s fun to watch, running around on her broad little feet, and we laugh at her antics. Like a hyperactive artist, she moves in fast-motion from one creative activity to another, making her own weather, following her feelings like they’re some private sun.
Kathy’s brown eyes exude pleasure or slyly share her amusement; her thin wispy hair, which in the last year has turned from brown to sandy blonde, enhances her comic mien. Upon request, she’ll assume her glowering “mean baby” face, or my favorite, “tense baby”—its origin unclear, though I credit Nona, who denies modeling it. In tense baby, Kathy vibrates her rigid hands beside her face, her mouth grimacing; while doing this, she often turns her head and looks back at us with glazed eyes, making her appear utterly deranged. Given her constant trips, collisions, and falls, she should be black and blue, but she seldom sports cuts or bruises. Although her nose is often snotty, and sometimes there’s a rattle in her chest when she breathes, viruses seldom slow her. She’s hardly ever stayed motionless long enough to be weighed or measured, outside a doctor’s office; later I had to ask Claire to ascertain that, during her day with me, she stood 34 inches tall and weighed 27 pounds. I’d have guessed her height-weight ratio at closer to a pound per inch: other than her pooched toddler-belly, her body, a perfect miniature, is as dense as a pork chop.
. . . other than her pooched toddler-belly, her body, a perfect miniature, is as dense as a pork chop.
Her humor, as it blossomed during her first year, struck me as sadistic. Which just indicated that maybe humor itself is, at base, sadistic. When Kathy offered me food from her plate, she must’ve felt less helpless, and jerking it away from my mouth at the last instant put her in total control. (I encouraged such cruelty by miming devastation so she’d laugh.) Control—it seems to underlie my mother’s Grand Unified Theory of Childhood Pain. But a baby’s primitive desire for control just exposes the human desire for control, which may dip underground but never abates. Adults think nothing of choosing their favorite cups. Mom focused on that, on the choices adults enjoy that children don’t. What’s more significant to me, however, is the human need they share. I wonder if control is the foundation of humans’ signature personal quest, for freedom? Is scorned control, morphing into freedom, a baby step toward our noblest desire: justice for all?
Kathy’s accessible, free-flowing emotions underscore how little I show my feelings. And maybe I can’t, having lived so long behind an adult male’s mask. With her and for her, I’m learning to try. One day, when she was just under a year old, we were all sitting around the table, and I was looking at her in her high chair. Only I’d stopped seeing her, had gone inward into private thoughts, and she saw that in my dead eyes. She burst into tears. I’ve never felt more chastened; I vowed not to repeat that failure. With Kathy, I’m trying to be Kiki, who is present.
Maybe that’s why another moment besides the yoga mat lingers from our long day together. Coming at the end, it felt equally indelible, though it lacks the visual clarity of naked butt cheeks stacked atop bare heels. Honestly, meeting Kathy’s needs—speaking in her terms, being unswervingly present—was, at length, disorienting. My usual defenses and strategies to cope with life, and myself, meant nothing. At the end, she’d broken me. Or remade me.
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By midday, I’d gotten Kathy dressed again, though still without shoes and socks. Her toddler’s mind had decided it was an inside day. Weird, since she loves going to the playground, or out back to her swing. It was late February, cool but sunny, and I’d craved an outing to give us some exercise and break up the day. She likes me to watch her swing and slide—likes to order me down the slide. Now I felt too tired to push her stroller a half a mile to the playground at Auburn Elementary School, where she’ll attend in just a few years. Even trekking across the backyard to her swing set had begun to seem excessive.
For some reason, she hadn’t let me read to her for more than a page or two. With Kathy doing something different every 30 seconds, tagging along was my task. The day had become a gray wash—I’m not clear what happened in those long middle hours. I’d begun taking micro naps—passing out—and jerking awake as Kathy changed activities. Toddlers define Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Only it’s normal for them, or at least for Kathy. So many things to do, so much fun to be had! Her passions mock an adult’s attempt to impose order, let alone a schedule.
She enjoys yams and prunes, and I think I fed her those. I’m sure I had to wipe such provisions off her chubby cheeks. I call her my Little Grubby Goombah, which she likes, whereas she’s vetoed my other nascent nickname for her, Booper, which I called her mother and uncle as kids. She rules over three large dogs, their combined weight over 200 pounds, and stands on tiptoe to wrestle door knobs with her tiny hands to let them inside or put them outside. She grandly bestows, or maliciously withholds, their treats. She loves to paint (I think we did that), take baths in water dyed purple (can’t remember), and push, at a dead run, a raucous toy mower (often). Whenever she grabs the mower’s plastic handle, the dogs flee. Twice that day she led me into the baby’s nursery, which she told me Bumper had painted, and she dragged toy bins off shelves, rode a new upholstered swivel chair in a corner, and bounced in her old crib. She’s excited about the baby due in four months, a girl, and about being a sister. We like to quiz her on her preference for the baby’s name—a hoot because she repeats our suggestions and because it’s fun to throw her a curve.
“Do you like Lucy?” I asked her a few nights ago.
“How about Becky?”
“What about . . . Appomattox?”
Finally I gave Kathy her preferred name to affirm, Kensington, so I could hear her say, “Yes Kensington.” The name is trendy, Claire told me, and Kathy knows a Kensington. But I wonder if she likes it partly because it takes three times as long to say as hers. Kathy’s adults can speculate, and often we do, but we can’t know the reasons behind her decisions, a little red wagon full each day. Is she expressing herself or creating herself? Both? Who knows. She’s claimed her human birthright of mystery.
The first question in my and Nona’s minds as we held Kathy as a newborn was the classic Who are you? Often silent and sleeping, she was ripe for projection.
“I want her to major in musical theatre,” I said.
“You want to major in musical theatre,” Nona said.
“True. But that’d take reincarnation.”
I can’t carry a tune or execute more than two successive dance steps. Whereas Kathy needs only to: receive dance lessons from her doting parents; inherit a voice from her father’s side of the family; and take piano lessons to go with her long, elegant fingers. Her mother, listening to my fantasy for her child, raised an eyebrow. Claire had quit dance lessons at a tender age, declaring, “I don’t want to be a dancing flower!” She’d announced, by then, her ambition to be America’s first woman president.
“Kathy can still become president,” I wheedled. “By then we’ll have had a female president, but not one who was a musical theatre major.”
“I’m not sure I want her going into politics,” Claire said.
“David,” I appealed to her father, “look at these fingers!”
To sing and dance your way through college, practicing a collaborative art at a high level, what could be finer? Plus she could minor in physics, write poetry, and be a fierce soccer star. For now, her genius is to be incredibly cute. My theory, skeptically received by her other adult hosts, is that there’s a daemon involved. Kathy’s attendant spirit is an imp who makes her far more adorable than is necessary.
In the fullness of time, as an expressive performance and literary artist, she’ll appreciate Kiki’s literary provenance. And she’ll grasp that Smokey Lonesome, who got bashed on the noggin trying to protect Miss Ruth’s baby from her evil ex-husband, is a motif embodying love. Through her example, though, she’s already giving Kiki more than he gives her. As when I saw her glance up at Claire and, with a frank expression, ask, “You okay?” As I say, adorable. Surprise and then pleasure flickered across Claire’s face, and she said, nodding, “Yes, I’m okay.”
We can’t control what Kathy imitates, for the world doesn’t always model caring. For a while recently, when her parents would ask Kathy questions during dinner, she’d reply only, “I eating now.” That was funny and cute, but with an undercurrent. She must’ve been told that at school, probably not by a teacher, I came to imagine, but by a classmate. A kid had tried out on Kathy what may have been meant as firm instruction in manners. This was received, in the 2-year-old realm, as dismissal, a dark new power.
Kathy’s taught me not to break eye contact but that it’s fine to break into dance. I look absurd, a fat bald oldster, a shy and socially awkward guy, with an absurdly lighthearted—but aspirational!—moniker, dancing with a toddler. That’s not strange to Kathy—that’s Kiki.
Sometimes being Kiki is hard because I’m fighting another pitched inner battle involving control. At 62, as I slide into my “golden years” (talk about putting lipstick on a pig! what’s golden about decline?), I’m feeling anxious. I’m scared about looming retirement, a vast unknown, and even about our long-range plans to move to Virginia from Ohio. I want to retire, and I want to live near our grandchildren, but I find transitions terrifying. I’m ashamed of this, more damn fear, after a lifetime of it, and after Claire and David have brought Kathy into our lives. And it isn’t logical, since life is as risky in suburban Ohio as in rural Virginia. But as a retired social worker friend told me, “Any change is first experienced as loss.” Can you imagine coming unglued emotionally after winning, say, $33 million in the state lottery? Unfortunately, I can. Your old life, with its known comforts and cares, vanishes. I pray Kathy will handle change better.
My usual defenses and strategies to cope with life, and myself, meant nothing. At the end, she’d broken me. Or remade me.
A therapist I once saw said a child’s first year of life is crucial—our start goes deep—and aspects of mine were harsh and hectic. I was born three months prematurely, very early for 1955, even if Mom exaggerated by a month. Before I could come home, I did time in a California hospital’s incubator. Then Mom brought to our ranch two Native American girls as nannies, one for my sister, who was a toddler, and one for me. I believe they came from the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, home of the Cahuilla and Cupeño tribes, in the county south of ours. My first summer, my nanny held me and diapered me and gave me bottles of formula; Mom didn’t nurse her children, doctors having discouraged it because of her “inverted nipples,” but such was nasty-neat 1950s America, too.
My nanny was about 12, Mom said. In the fall, when it was time for the girls to return to their reservation, mine packed me up. She thought Mom had given me to her, and Mom had to explain that I stayed. I imagine the girl cried, later if not then, and I surely felt her absence. I feel I owe that girl so much. I’d like to think Mom would’ve brought her back the next summer, but soon we moved, to Florida, and then to Georgia, and then back to Florida, Dad chasing his dreams. I didn’t get another nanny, but in Georgia my brothers did, a woman who wore a stiff white uniform.
I held my breath for Kathy’s first year, but there were no major disruptions, no traumas. She got very sick once, with a bad fever, a year ago. I held her a lot, and maybe that’s when we bonded. Maybe that’s when old Mokie truly became her Kiki.
Kathy’s parents have tried to ensure her days are filled with expressions of love. So have Mimi and Bumper, Nona and Kiki. We grandparents watch each other with appreciative eyes, especially when Kathy, unaware of adult armor, places us just so or tells us what role to assume in an improvised drama. The baby, around whom we orbit, smiling, has special standing.
In late afternoon, the daylight fading, I found myself back in Kathy’s nursery. I looked at my watch: 5 o’clock. I hadn’t a clue where the last 10 hours had gone; my only clear memory was of the yoga mat meltdown 8 hours before. Kathy’s parents were still over 2 hours away.
I rested in an old wood-and-wicker rocker. Thirty years ago, I’d taken my favorite photograph of Nona sitting in this chair, dressed in a pale blue bathrobe and gazing with adoration at newborn Claire. Twenty-five years ago, I’d rocked in it as I sang lullabies and read bedtime stories to Claire’s little brother, Tom. Now Kathy, playing at my feet, turned and climbed into my lap: “Sing me the boom boom song.” Although she had wanted me near her all day, this was a rare overt request during our 600 elapsed minutes together.
The song is a fragment of the old counting classic “Over in the Meadow.” Nona learned the “Three Little Fishies” verses from her mother, in northwestern Ohio, and had begun singing it again for Kathy. It has a fun, silly chorus; Nona’s version likewise features nonsense words in its foreground verses, about a “mama fishie” and her two disobedient offspring, who swim over a dam and out to sea. I sang:
Over in the meadow in an itty bitty pool,
fam an old mama fiddy and her little fiddies two.
Fim, said the mama fiddy, fim if you can,
and they fam and they fam all over the dam.
Kathy rested against my chest, listening, and I blew the chorus against her cheek: “Boom boom ditum datum whatum . . . choo.” I repeated it, drawing out the ending, “chooooo.” Kathy jolted forward and swiveled to look into my eyes, her own shining with mirth, her smile radiant. “I like that song,” she said, and collapsed into my arms, asleep.
Richard Gilbert is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, a story of farming and fatherhood. His essay “Why I Hate My Dog” was named by Longreads a “Best of 2016.” He’s working on a collection of essays, and he blogs at Draft No. 4.
Illustrator: Kate Gavino
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands