By David Blistein
There’s been extensive research into “the role of the father in child development,” including a 656-page academic albatross by that title that’s currently in its fifth edition. But what about the role of the child in a father’s development? Emily certainly played a significant role in mine.
By the time she was two years old, she had figured out how to run around, eat her own food, and communicate with and without words. Her worries were few and quickly forgotten—a real mark of maturity.
I, on the other hand, had been around almost thirty years. And though I, too, was able to run around, eat my own food, and communicate more or less effectively with and without words, I tended to worry significantly more than she did.
Even though Emily had no way to know where her next meal was coming from, she didn’t seem to care. She expressed herself quite freely, without much concern as to whether she was getting her point across. And she always enjoyed the journey as much as, if not more than, the destination. All of which were developmental milestones that I was striving to attain. And, in some ways, still am.
Back then (forty years ago now), she and I would spend two or three mornings a week downtown. I always had some errands to do—the kind of errands that self-employed people thrive on—going to the post office, the bank, the stationery store, the hardware store, and the library (primarily the children’s section, which, for both of us, was the best place to do research).
When we were done, we’d always stop to get a cup of coffee for me and a donut for her. She particularly enjoyed washing down her donut by drinking several of the little plastic cups filled with cream.
Those were leisurely mornings. My destinations weren’t very pressing. Emily had no destinations whatsoever and only a subliminal sense of needing to stay more or less within sight of her father.
Often we were separated by half a block or so, and I’d look ahead to see her being watched by a shopper or two who were casting furtive looks up and down the street to see if this child had a parent.
Strangers had a tendency to try to make friends with Emily. But she had little time for chitchat. After all, she was self-employed and had business to do. She wasn’t about to be distracted by some large person who just wanted to see her smile for no apparent reason. Sometimes I’d turn back to see her moving smoothly and swiftly to keep her shoulders squarely in front of some interloper—like a martial artist keeping her opponent at bay.
It wasn’t fair, I figured, to always make her follow me around on my errands. So sometimes I followed her around. Which tended to lead us into real-estate offices, garages, other people’s apartments, or down some alley to investigate an incongruous spot on the ground—usually either tar or old bubble gum. I dared not tell her that it was the latter. She would have moved mountains to get it up and into her mouth. (I learned to say “yuck” very convincingly, although sometimes she would look up at me skeptically to make sure Dad wasn’t pulling a fast one on her.)
When I needed to get her attention, I had a limited arsenal of words to use as verbal reins. They included: “Puppy!” “Kids!” “Truck!” “Stairs!” (to be crawled up) and, of course, the never-fail “Donuts!”
Regardless, we managed to move along. Me in a more or less straight line. She in a wide range of intricate geometric progressions, broken only by occasional carries across the street.
One of the best parts about hanging out downtown with Emily was that, since she was far more perceptive than I, she was always on the lookout for some noteworthy anomaly: a small pile of sand left over from a sidewalk construction project that she could turn into a playground for ants; street grates that, for some reason, children always find fascinating; and child mannequins in a window, whom she was determined to coax out of their poses.
While she could be fascinated by anything, for me, her most magical-child moments were when she was fascinated by everything. She would suddenly stop and stand dead still, absorbed simultaneously in the world around her and her own little world—not responding to anything but missing nothing. Waiting. She might turn her head slowly and look right at and through me, without changing expressions, until the beep of a horn or the bark of a dog brought her back from the world of all things to the here and now. Then she would break into a run, sometimes toward where I was, sometimes tearing in the opposite direction.
One time she was walking several storefronts ahead of me and stopped in front of a store that had rock and roll blaring out the front door. She paused for three or four seconds and then did a perfect two-step in time with the music, sticking one foot out and bending to the sound, and then bringing the foot back and her body straight again and standing dead still. A girl coming out of the store looked at her, looked at me, and nodded approvingly as if she’d just witnessed a command performance.
Emily’s fascination with dogs (all of whom were “puppies”) bordered on the obsessive. She’d remember for days, and sometimes even weeks, particular spots where she’d seen a puppy on a previous walk. She would point and look at me questioningly, “Puppy?” It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to her when I explained that the puppy wasn’t there today, though she was willing to accept that puppy was having lunch or taking a nap and would return its physical form to the indicated position as soon as possible.
Puppies weren’t her only four-legged fascination. If she was getting cranky, we’d take a roundabout route home on country roads. Soon Emily knew where every “Hawsey!” “Moo!” and “Baa-Baa!” was likely to be grazing. She’d point gleefully at promising-looking fields, whether the animals were there or not. I would listen to the news and drink the rest of my coffee. She would babble back at the newscaster and take a few hefty hits on her bottle.
When we went for walks, I’d frequently point out birds and dogs to take her mind off her more pressing concerns—like cutting teeth or wanting another cookie. She liked it when I pointed and began to mimic me early on. Indeed, I can take credit for helping her to learn developmentally appropriate pointing—although she soon took it to the next, more metaphysical level. One day we stopped to sit on some steps, and she began pointing insistently and making her sound for “bird,” even though there weren’t any birds in sight. It was only after she did this several times that I realized she thought I had been making the birds appear when I pointed—which gave me a whole new insight into why Adam got into so much trouble when he started naming all the animals. And which came first…
Occasionally I took Emily on business trips. The reactions to her in the world of two- and three-piece suits ranged from mild discomfort to pleasure at the break in routine she provided. While she usually preferred not to interact with strangers, she tolerated them, especially if they came bearing gifts.
One time we went to a big factory in Boston where she was treated like royalty. As I stood making small talk, she crawled into a comfortable swivel chair opposite my host and twirled around as she sucked on her bottle. I introduced her as my credit manager, and she responded with remarkably emphatic and perspicacious “No’s” to all questions regarding our solvency.
Later, as we walked through the plant—Emily couldn’t care less about OSHA regulations—I caught her, out of the corner of my eye, being offered a positively lethal amount of candy by one of the guys in the shop. I had to do a quick sleight of hand to change those half-dozen pieces into one.
Most of the time, however, she stayed on task, using her charming personality and serious demeanor to make sure we got very personal attention for our very small job at this very large plant.
By the end of the day, she’d accumulated three coloring books, two notepads, a cap that wouldn’t fit her for many years, and a piece of peanut brittle, all of which she had graciously accepted as offerings she was due. As the moon sang her to sleep in the back seat, I was left alone to drive in the dark, wondering whether the knowledge I’d gained over the years was anywhere near as valuable as the curiosity I’d lost.
An important question. Developmentally. At any age.
Copyright Blistein 2023