Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Hi, my friend,

How are you? How is your daughter? I've never asked after her, and you rarely tell me what she is up to, but when you do your voice softens, a comforting, vocal gleam. I do not know if anyone's voice softens for me like that; my own father has a different expressive style than you do, I guess.

I'm thinking about fathers, about parents, especially at present because I've just come from the home of my sister and her family, including my newborn my niece. She is small and round and pink and blotchy, and when she cries she makes the most extraordinary shapes with her mouth, rounding it, squaring it, extending her lips forward, pulling them back into a grimace; it's like she doesn't yet know what to do with her mouth, other than make noise with it and suckle with it. Her face was immediately and unaccountably familiar to me. A trip to the family photo album to inspect old baby pictures reveals that she looks a great deal like my mother, so no wonder. My niece seems both more demanding and more affectionate than her brother did at that age.

Not that my nephew is not affectionate. My primary job these past few days has been to keep him occupied, and he spent much of this evening alternating between leaping into my arms for great big hugs and attempting to feed me pieces of his toast. But he is also fairly self-contained; he can occupy himself when need be, he is generally obedient and helpful, and he is at once entirely sure of what he wants and entirely confident that demands are unnecessary. He is an extraordinary little boy, and his affection seems more a generosity of spirit than any emotional neediness on his part.

I've been learning to play with him and learning also to answer his questions, most of which consist of asking the names of things. He is in that semi-verbal stage in which he can understand what is said to him and use a few words correctly to communicate, but a stranger would not understand any of his words because his pronunciation is terrible.

An emphatic "Da!" with a single nod of the head is "yes."

"Dis!" and "Da," without the emphasis or nod, are "this" and "that" respectively, and he uses them, with pointing, to ask for things to be named to him, or sometimes given to him.

"Go" or "do" is "goat," which means both "goat" and "animal." Any animal he does not know the name of is a go, although the animals he can now name more specifically include a "graf," or something similar-sounding,which means "giraffe." There is one in one of his picture-books.

"Da da da" also means "Daddy," but I have not yet heard him say "Mommy," or anything equivalent.

"Dis!" he says, pointing to a pile of books.

I pick up one. "This one?" I ask.


He sits in my lap and we open the book to the middle. It's a reference book on singing insects, written for grown-ups. He points at pictures.


"Cricket! That's a cricket!"


"That's another cricket!"


"That's another kind of cricket--a MOLE cricket!"


"ANOTHER mole cricket!"


"Oo!, That's a TRIG. I didn't know about trigs. And look! According to the map, we're in its range! Maybe this summer you'll see a trig! Or hear it! It goes trr trr trr." I trill like a cricket as best as I can and he laughs. If this kid doesn't turn out to be a nature geek it won't be for lack of support from me.


"Oo, that's a CICADA! They're very loud. They're just this big and they make a huge noise," which I imitate and he laughs, "they're only this big, but they make a noise THIS big, bigger! It just fills up whole trees, you wouldn't believe such a big noise could come out of such a little bug. And the earlier in the day they start making that noise, the hotter it's going to be. My Daddy taught me that."

He tires of the book and flops on his belly and looks at me and grins.

One of my favorite things has been explaining things to him. You'd think answering such simple questions as "dis!" over and over again would be boring, but it really isn't. I don't get bored because we are engaged in a process I fundamentally can relate to, the process of finding all sorts of things out. I like talking about live things and I like teaching, and I'm just as happy to do that with a toddler as with adults older and generally more experienced than I am.

We go for a walk and I name for him grass, sticks, other sticks, moss, a small piece of moss. I stop to investigate my own mysteries: a flattened and dehydrated stink bug; a fallen maple flower; a very cold and slow fly.... A turkey vulture drifts overhead, fairly low, and catches my nephew's attention. "That's a vulture," I tell him, "a vulture. Isn't it pretty? I think the way the sun comes through its wings is so pretty." My nephew watches the big, honey-dark bird intently until it soars out of sight. It astounds me that he probably doesn't remember the green of the growing season, when trees had leaves on them and the farm fields were full of vegetables and he was still too young to walk. Spring is coming, and it's going to be a truly amazing thing.

Back inside and the baby is crying. She does that a lot, while awake, for when she is neither eating nor bothered by something she mostly sleeps. Her father swaddles her tightly in a big square brown shawl and lifts her. She's hardly big enough to fill his hands. He puts on classical music and he dances with her. My brother-in-law is an accomplished dancer and his feet move through the complicated steps of some kind of waltz, back and forth across the dirty, toy-strewn floor, to an instrumental version of "Once Upon a Dream," from Sleeping Beauty, and the child quiets, calms, looks around, her eyes dark and star-filled as the ancient night.

I know you, I danced with you once upon a dream

I hadn't known I knew the words, but they spin themselves out from the spool of memory in my head,

I know you, the gleam in your eyes is so familiar a gleam

The little pink beauty in her father's arms begins to droop; her eyes shut. This kiss sends her to sleep, but my brother-in-law keeps dancing, mindful that she might wake if he stops, and he is enraptured by the music, too, perhaps, as his feet keep the intricate patten, back and forth and turn and step, gallant and tall upon the toy and blanket-strewn floor,

I know it's true that visions are seldom all that they seem,
but if I know you, I know what you'll do,
You'll love me at once, the way you did, once upon a dream.

Sometimes, watching him, I think of you, for you were once also the father of an infant, young and inexperienced and probably harried. You've told me nothing of those years, just as you've told me almost nothing of what your daughter is doing now, and little enough of your own life. What little I know of you is not fodder for my writing, not truly. If I am unavoidably a journalist even among my own family, I am not so with you. You are as inviolate, as camouflaged, as the heart of an old tree with its cargo of owlets, just hatched now, in the grey of early spring, and I shall not even search the somber trunks, though I heard the adult birds calling in the winter and I know they must be there. But I know you well enough to guess that you have been harried, long ago, by a newborn's squalling, sleep-deprived and frayed, and that once a newborn fell asleep in your arms, to the sound of your voice.

-best, as ever,

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