Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Eating and Speaking

My son is sitting on the couch, listening to the Bee Gees. He is eating cheerios and raspberries, and I am mesmerized by his perfectly erect toddler posture; his head balanced quizzically atop his fragile, curved neck; the simultaneously intensely focused and utterly absentminded movement of hand to mouth. There is something special about young children eating - it reminds you of their essential humanity, their selfhood. I wonder if I magnified this effect with my decision not give the kid "baby food," not to spoonfeed him rice cereal or purees or mush - he has always eaten "people food" with his own hands. Maybe this is why his eating has always seemed to me to mark him out as his own person, rather than my baby, a signal of his membership in the human race vis a vis himself, unmediated by me.

He asks for cheerios in the morning by pointing at the box on the counter, and he eats them from the box or a dish or my hand like he's hungry, like he's a little boy who just woke up and now wants breakfast. Sometimes he goes into the one cupboard that he's allowed to open, takes out a bag of freeze-dried strawberries, and carries it with him around the house, reaching into it and eating crumbling handfuls as he plays with his broken record player or alphabet blocks or books. When we eat a meal, he eats with us, sometimes in earnest, choosing each morsel carefully, and sometimes for pretend, clanking a fork against our plates and aiming it, empty, towards his mouth. The dog has taken to following him around slavishly, watching intently for any dropped morsels and pouncing on them triumphantly.

When the baby and my husband are home alone together, they do a lot of eating; when I come home, there are often strange combinations of bowls in the sink and unidentifiable crusts on the counter by the baby's clip-on seat. My husband says eating is how they bond. "Yesterday," he tells me, "we ate a big bowl of spicy noodles together. He couldn't get enough of them. He would eat a mouthful, and then cough a little bit because it was really spicy, and then ask for more, and more, and more. And afterwards," my husband adds, looking satisfied, "he took a HUGE SHIT."

Back to now - the baby is sitting on the couch, listening to the Bee Gees, eating raspberries and cheerios. I marvel at his composure, his self-possession. Now he chooses a cheerio, now a raspberry, another raspberry, and now a cheerio. He picks the raspberries out of the plastic clamshell balanced on the back of the sofa, holding them gently so they only squeeze a little pink juice onto his fingers. He pushes them into his mouth one by one, chews thoughtfully. Every so often, he makes a sour face - is it a bad raspberry? - and either ejects the berry entirely or continues to chew with a dissatisfied air.

What is he thinking? I don't know, because he won't tell me. He says "paPA!!" a lot and "mama" sometimes, and "DAH!!" for dogs (and cats, birds, young children, strollers, and nothing) and "mimi" for Limi, the nickname of the other little boy at daycare, but nothing else. We want him to speak to us so much, but he seems essentially uninterested. "Tell me what you're thinking! Talk to me!" I command as he babbles incomprehensibly. My husband implores: "Habla, hijo! Habla espanol, o por lo menos, habla ingles. Habla!"
Perhaps in response to our requests, he did add one more word to his vocabulary this weekend: "NO!" It was "NO!" when he didn't want something we were offering, "NO!" when he did want something we weren't offering, "NO!" as a general comment on any given situation at large. At a Memorial Day picnic in Central Park yesterday, he ran barefoot circles in the grass chanting "nonononononononononnnnNONOooooooo!" While I imagine that I may get tired of the no-ing pretty quickly, I am momentarily charmed by it, and relieved that my son has chosen to very slightly widen the channel of communication between us.

Now, though, on the couch, eating and listening to the Bee Gees, he is silent but for an occasional satisfied "hmph" betweeen bites. I could watch him do this forever, but I can tell that he is about to get bored and move on, as toddlers always do, and I remind myself to put the food away before the dog gets to it.

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