The Truth, Mainly - 05/10/2004

Exercising the Grandbaby Option
by Leon Satterfield

It's all right. You can relax.

I'm not writing about the obscenity of Abu Ghraib, the prison in Iraq where Americans are said to have tortured Iraqis.

I'm not writing about the obscenity of the racist fliers delivered under cover of darkness last week in south Lincoln driveways warning against "the deadly consequences of a multi-racial society" and "traitorous politicians [who] perpetuate the false image of racial equality."

And I'm not writing about the obscenity of the record number of U.S. casualties in Iraq last month.

You can read about those things in lots of other places. They're things that need to be written about, and columnists with stronger stomachs than mine are writing about them.

But I'm looking for a happier subject. And one has presented itself.

I'm exercising the Grandbaby Option.

That's the little-known option that's rarely discussed in even the best journalism schools. But it is, in rare cases, invoked by elderly columnists who want to write about their grandchildren.

Columnists got the idea from English teachers who a couple of decades ago established the Grandbaby Option as an alternative to teaching post-modern literary theories.

Before I retired from teaching, I occasionally invoked the Grandbaby Option. When, for example, I got for my 64th birthday an audio tape of my daughter and my then five-year-old granddaughter singing a magnificent revision of the old Beatles song, "When You're Sixty-Four," I played it many times to my English classes, to my colleagues at department meetings, to anyone within shouting distance of my office.

And here's my subject today:

This spring—the season of regeneration—I had a brand new grandbaby.

Oh sure, a strict constructionist might say that technically speaking, I didn't have the baby, that only girls have babies and even if boys could have babies, 70-year-old boys like me are probably past the age of child bearing.

I knew that. I took a biology class once, and tried to look at squirmy things through a microscope. But like James Thurber, I usually couldn't see anything other than the reflection of my own eye. But, still, I know where babies come from.

And I know that the grandfather's main duty in the whole process is to welcome the newcomer into this sometimes funny, sometimes mean world, and to chuck him/her under his/her chubby little chin and say "Hey. Hey there."

Our newest grandbaby is a little boy and he lives in Chicago under the name of Nathan Lee Satterfield. So my wife and I go to Chicago to introduce ourselves.

In the same celebratory frame of mind I used in coming up with spectacularly appropriate nicknames for our other four grandbabies (Lovely Little Leslie Jo the Wonder Child, Mari the Marvelous, Manly Little Maxwell James, and Evan the Exultant), I come up with another:

Nate the Great.

Short, simple, to the point. And it rhymes.

When I first call him that, he's moved to tears. Even to squalls. So I'm pretty sure he likes his nickname.

I see it as a kind of gift from the Patriarch, better even than money.

As Patriarch, I spend much of the time in Chicago getting to know Nate the Great by telling him epic stories of the Satterfield males he's now one of. My wife spends much of her time changing his diaper when he responds to my epic stories by having celebratory bowel movements.

Then we drive back to Lincoln, our grandparent hormones temporarily exhausted, she pleased as punch with the new member of our progeny, I pleased as punch with the nickname I bestowed upon him.

So imagine my distress when a couple of days later we get a phone call from Nate the Great's parents telling us they've come up with a new nickname: "Sparky," because of his electric personality.

They say when they call him "Sparky," he "squeals with delight" and "smiles with reckless abandon."

"Sparky," my wife says after they hang up. "Isn't that a nice nickname? Better even, don't you think, than 'Nate the Great'?"

"Doesn't rhyme," I say. "If his last name was Malarky, it would rhyme, but then he wouldn't be a Satterfield."

"Well," she says, "I like 'Sparky Satterfield' better than 'Nate the Great"-or even better than 'Sparky Malarky.'"

I'm silent for a minute or two. Then I speak.

"Doesn't the Patriarch get to decide things like that?" I say.

"You want patriarchy," she says, "you go to Iraq."

That ends the conversation because Iraq reminds me of the Abu Gharaib prison and I'm not going to write about that. Just like I'm not going to write about racism in Lincoln or U.S. casualties in Iraq. I don't even want to think about those things. I don't have the stomach for it.

But hey, have I told you about our other four grandkids? I've got pictures.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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