On Sunday morning Jay had his first cup of coffee. For that he can thank the movie Winter’s Bone, which Caroline and I watched the night before. It’s a grim, slow-boiling thriller set in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri, and it’s most notable for the excellent lead acting and for the exoticism of the modern hillbilly culture it depicts.
But on Sunday morning, as I made pancakes on the stove and Jay stood beside me on a chair, the part of the movie that had me thinking was the kids. The main character is a 17-year-old girl named Ree, who’s left to take care of her younger siblings when her mom goes crazy and her dad goes missing. Ree teaches her brother and sister how to shoot a rifle and gut a squirrel, all the while battling gap-toothed ne’er-do-wells in search of her dad and generally outperforming conventional ideas of what a teenager is capable of.
Thinking about Ree and her siblings made me wonder whether maybe Jay isn’t capable of more than we give him credit for. So, after pouring some pancake batter into the non-stick pan, I asked Jay out of the blue, “You want some of Daddy’s coffee?” He did a double-take, and then he said he sure did, so I poured him a thimble full of decaf. After he drank it down I poured him another, and for half-an-hour while Caroline and Wally slept upstairs, I enjoyed imagining what it might have been like to raise Jay in a different time and place, where they called pancakes flapjacks and dads and sons drank coffee together from the womb.
Overall, I have a hard time getting a precise read on Jay’s maturity level. Sometimes I overestimate what he’s capable of until some inexplicable deed reminds me that he’s only two, while just as often I find myself taken aback when he displays a complexity of interaction I didn’t think him capable of.
That same Sunday morning, for example, after the four of us had stuffed ourselves on pancakes, I loaded Jay and Wally into the car for our fourth trip to Trader Joe’s in as many days. Just as I’d strapped Jay into his car seat he told me, “I’m thirsty.” I wasn’t sure whether to believe him (Jay’s gotten pretty savvy recently about using “I’m hungry” or “I’m thirsty” as a way to put off things he doesn’t want to do), but I’m particularly vigilant about dehydration, so I went back inside to get him a sippy cup of water.
No sooner had I walked back out of the house, though, than Jay burst into hysterics. I opened the car door, sippy cup in hand, and tried to get him to explain what was wrong. At first his words were inaudible through the heaving and gasping. Finally, he calmed down enough to state it clearly: “I wanted the dinosaur cup,” he said a deep, pitiful whine, referencing his green metal water bottle with the brontosaurus on the side that both of us knew was sitting on the kitchen counter at that very moment.
Standing beside him I could barely believe what I was hearing. I thrust the blue sippy cup at him and said with a great absence of sympathy, “If you want a drink, this is the best you’re going to get.” Then I got into the driver’s seat and backed down the driveway.
Now, irrational tantrums are nothing new from Jay. What’s different, though, was the way he acted next.
As we drove the short distance to the store, Jay got real quiet in the backseat. I glanced back a few times and saw him sitting there with what I took to be chagrin on his face. The third time I looked back he caught my eye and said, “Hi Daddy,” in a sweet, soft voice. Then he reached down into the folds of his car seat, produced a Matchbox car, and offered it to me.
“Hi Jay,” I said glancing back in the rear view mirror, my heart breaking a little at the sight of his hand, up in the air, holding a little white sedan, and at the thought that he cared so much about regaining my favor.
That same type of scene has happened a few times. This morning I went down to the basement to put clothes in the dryer and when I came up Jay was crying because I hadn’t asked him to come with me. I ignored his tears and instead went over to unload the dishwasher. After a minute Jay came over to help me. “Here Daddy” he said in his most chipper voice, handing me a fork and two spoons while flashing a grin that was so sweet it nearly hurt my teeth.
In both these instances—the scene in the car and the scene by the dishwasher—I’m tempted to chalk Jay’s behavior up to his particular stage of life. But at the same time, and what strikes me more, is how universal to any age his actions are: He has desires, he’s frustrated when the world doesn’t meet them, he feels shame when he doesn’t act the way he knows he should, he covets the favor of the people closest to him.
In that way, you could say that even at just a hair over two-and-a-half feet tall, the pieces of a full-blown personality are already in place.