The Truth, Mainly - 11/18/1991

'Selective senility' appears with birth of first grandchild
by Leon Satterfield

"Whatever you do," my wife says, "don't you write any of that sappy, sentimental, slobbery stuff about the baby. You know how you are."

The baby is our first grandchild, our new granddaughter. She's a little baby girl. But I don't know what my wife means by the rest of that, so I ask.

"You're a pretty good husband," she says, "but when it comes to babies you get all slobbery. You go into premature dotage. You get selectively senile."

I suppose she means I shouldn't be telling strangers in checkout lines about little Leslie Jo—that's her lovely little name, Leslie Jo—but they seem interested. They pay attention. But that doesn't mean I'd write anything sappy and sentimental and slobbery about her.

My wife says that I've lost my psychic equilibrium around little kids during the last decade. She says she first noticed it in 1982 when we saw a movie called "The World According to Garp" and I went catatonic during the opening credits when this little baby, maybe six months old, was flying up and down on the screen in slow motion. He looked apprehensive and puzzled and amused and contemplative all at the same time, and I had to stay and see him again.

Then we saw "Popeye," and Sweetpea was this little bitty kid from Nebraska with a crooked grin and a squinky eye.

Since then, my wife says, I've been embarrassing. It's not just that I holler "You gotta see this" every time those TV ads come on with little babies floating around inside Michelin tires. It's that I can't pass by a toddler without poking my finger in his fat little stomach and saying "Hey. Hey, there." I can't walk by a stroller without chucking the occupant under her chubby little chin. "Hey, there," I say. "Hey."

My wife says it's probably some hormonal sea change I've gone through—nature's way of preparing me for grandfatherhood. She reminds me that I wasn't always this way, that while I liked our own kids, other people's babies always seemed ill-bred and leaky to me. She says I always looked distracted around them, like I was planning an escape route from whatever excretions they were about to excrete.

But now, she says, I alarm strangers by letting their babies drool on my shirt in restaurants, by letting them wipe their sticky little hands on my beard in ice cream stores.

And my wife questions my subtlety when I send my own kids photographs of me looking moony while other people's grandchildren poke their pacifiers in my ear. She thinks that when my daughter says she's 30 and her biological clock is ticking, I should sympathize instead of telling her that my own ticking is louder and more urgent, that I need grandkids and I need them now—before my senility becomes so inclusive I'll be wondering why this child is bouncing on my knee. My daughter rolls her eyes at that kind of pressure.

Just like she rolls her eyes at family gatherings when I say things like "Well, then. Anybody here…uh, you know, that way?"

"What way?" my daughter-in-law asks. "What's he mean?"

"Pregnant," my daughter says. "He means pregnant. But his head is back in the 1950's when he couldn't say pregnant. It's his selective senility acting up again."

Then I load the whole family in the car and we go for ice cream so I can look for babies with sticky little hands. We eat the ice cream in front of the infant clothing store next door, the one with the window full of little sailor suits.

So when we got the call from Colorado at 4 a.m. announcing little Leslie Jo—5 pounds and 13 ounces, 18 inches, black hair, 10 fingers, 10 toes—I took an interest. I'd been dreaming of fat little contemplative babies in sailor suits flying up and down in slow motion, and I wasn't quite awake. But I think I heard my son and daughter-in-law say that Leslie Jo showed up with an anchor tattooed on each of her little bulgy forearms, a little pipe sticking out the corner of her little mouth, and one little eye squinky. She wants her little sailor suit, I think I heard them say, and she wants it now.

Then they let us listen to her cry over the telephone. It sounded a lot like the music of the spheres.

But none of that means I'm going to get sappy and sentimental and slobbery. I remember what Twain says, that "a soiled baby with a neglected nose cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty." And while I may want to talk about how little Leslie Jo came into this world in Wordsworth's entry mode, "trailing clouds of glory," I'm not going to.

She did though. I know, because she sounded muffled over the telephone, like maybe her little mouth was full of celestial cotton candy.

Say, did I mention that Leslie Jo is our first grandchild? Did I say that she's a little baby girl?


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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