Friday, November 24, 2006

Just like you, only shorter...

The other day Gwen was making Ava some pasta – one of the few foods in this world she will eat at all times, without question. Scrambled eggs, dried strawberries, pizza and fresh mozzarella are the others. She pulled a box of De Cecco “Racchette” (tiny tennis racquets, currently in favor with the girls) from the pantry and, before she was able to elevate it out of the sight line of a three year old, Ava noticed that the box had already been opened.

“No Mommy! Not that old box! I want a fresh one!”

Before Gwen could even respond, Ava had made her own trip to the pantry and emerged carrying an unopened box of the exact same pasta.

“This one, Mommy. This is what I want. The fresh one!”

The moment was all the more amusing and illuminating because it was pure me, a fact that Gwen noted by calling out across the house, through the recounting and the laughter, “Jim! She is SO your daughter!”

It’s a dynamic that begins shortly after birth, really still in the hospital, seeing pieces of yourself in your kids. It starts with appearance – relatives pointing at a newborn baby and stating with complete confidence that he or she has your eyes, your ears, your nose, your toes.

But as self-affirming and heartwarming as those early observations can be, the fun really starts with the recognition of common behaviors that couldn’t have come from anywhere or anyone else.

Ava has an acute sense of smell. Walk her through the cheese or fish section of a supermarket and you will see expressions you didn’t think a human face could produce without special effects. This condition has also contributed to the fact that she is an unbelievably finicky eater. Put something in front of her on a plate or a spoon and her first reaction is to sniff at it, and in almost every case the reaction is the same, “No… I don’t like it. I don’t want it.” At that point the game is over. No amount of cajoling, supportive context or encouragement is going to push the offending item past Ava’s nose and into her digestive system.

I was exactly the same way, and confronting the need to identify and provide my child with a steady supply of sustenance she will actually consume has given me a new perspective on the things my Mom and Dad endured at my hands. There was just very little I would eat. If the item on the menu had parents, its rejection was virtually assured. I was not often subjected to the classic, “you’re going to sit here at this table until you finish your dinner” mandate, but on the rare occasions I was, believe me, I sat, and sat, and sat. The sun could have come up the following morning, that was fine with me as long as I didn’t have to deal with the meatloaf or hamburger on my plate. Most nights, my mother wound up having to cook one dinner for the rest of the family and, after I'd rejected it, another for me. Ava has taken my seat at that table.

I also enjoy what basically amounts to a lifelong gag reflex in response to anything that could even loosely be considered a leftover. This is another trait I’ve apparently passed on to my youngest daughter, although I have to admit rejecting dried pasta from a previously opened box because it wasn’t “fresh” enough was a new one on me. And, no matter what she says about it, I know deep down Gwen feels fortunate and uniquely blessed to have been given the opportunity to manage around this helpful condition across two generations of family members.

At five, Madison already shares Gwen’s affinity for lists, especially to-do lists, her heartfelt concern for others and an ability to absorb and retain the name of every person she’s ever met. I need name crib sheets to get through family celebrations that have included the same basic participants for the last 20 or 30 years. “Who is that woman again? How is she related to us? Oh, right, that’s Dad’s sister.” Gwen and Madison can roll through the names of every friend and neighbor who lives within a half-mile radius, complete with relevant personal information, like they were born with this information hard-wired into their brains.

Madison can be fairly preoccupied at times with maintaining her own stuff, as opposed to shared or communal toys or items, and she’s very careful and protective over things that are “hers.” I was exactly the same way as a child, and have only in recent years loosened up in this regard. I was the kid in my family who kept my possessions in perfect condition for years and years, even if that meant never using them.

My younger sisters would use their stuff, break their stuff, lose their stuff, give it away to vague acquaintances – it didn’t matter to them. Ava is like that when it comes to most material possessions. She is surrounded by them, she knows there are always more on the way, and really can’t be concerned with a specific item for longer than a minute or two, unless Madison happens to want it, at which point it becomes the single most important thing in the world for exactly as long as that attention lasts.

Madison possesses Gwen’s love of shopping and wandering in and out of all manner of stores. She's also inherently curious, unbelievably aware of the things that are happening around her and misses absolutely nothing. I'm happy to take credit for that, particularly since doing so moves my contribution out of the realm of dietary quirks and an inability to remember names.

For as long as I can remember, I have tortured friends and relatives by wrecking perfectly good songs by putting them on auto-repeat until all the life has been drained out of the notes and the tracks forever relegated to use as filler material in mix tapes or - today - iTunes playlists. Madison is my penance, personified. Get her locked on a song and the artist in question need not ever make another, so complete and enduring is her fascination.

I believe I am also the source of Ava's almost hypnotic reaction to the television set. Sit Ava in front of a TV and you literally have to turn it off to get her to respond to a question. My parents say I was the same way, especially during commercials, when I would apparently lock onto the screen, mesmerized, for the full duration of the break.

I guess some things do change, and the worn buttons on our remote control and my propensity to channel-surf and fast-forward through ads in recorded programming offer good news for partially-consumed boxes of De Cecco pasta everywhere: not all of these childhood behaviors, whatever the source, last forever.

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