The sound of a child

Yesterday afternoon Caroline, Jay, and Wally were in the car driving to Trader Joe’s.  As they turned into the shopping plaza Jay piped up from the backseat: “I want to push a small cart in the store.”

And indeed, pushing one of Trader Joe’s kid-sized carts has been a dream of Jay’s ever since we moved to Ann Arbor.  Many times Jay has sprinted through the store’s automatic doors to the small line of small carts back by the customer service desk. Always I’ve caught him, instructed him about the dangers of running away, and told him that it would be too hard for me to push my cart and keep an eye on him with his at the same time.  His was a dream deferred.

But maybe Jay thought Caroline was an easier mark, and yesterday he used a better tactic: He tried to establish expectations ahead of time.  That’s one of my and Caroline’s favorite tricks.  About a year ago we realized that it was hard to bring Jay’s behavior in line once we were actually in a restaurant, say, but pretty easy to tame him if we laid our expectations while he was still in his car seat and he had time to adjust his mindset accordingly.

And yesterday afternoon Jay turned the tables on us.  It’s so much harder to say ‘no’ to his requests when he has the presence of mind to lodge them so far in advance of the moment of intended realization: His forward planning has the effect of emphasizing just how much he wants something and also suggests a degree of thoughtfulness and maturity that convince us he can handle responsibly whatever small privilege it is that he covets.

So Caroline said yes to the cart, contingent on her own set of expectations: that Jay stick close to her in the store and not pull food off the shelves.  The three of them arrived in the store and Caroline told Jay she didn’t know where the little carts were.  He had no problem showing her the way.

Jay turns three on the last day of May, which has had me thinking about the time right after he was born, before he’d gotten quite so good at working things to his advantage.  When he was three days old I walked him home from the hospital, fourteen blocks, asleep in the carrier against my chest.  Halfway home we go caught in a rain squall and I took cover beneath the awning of a pizza parlor, afraid that even a drop of water might be too much for his new skin to handle.  While waiting for the storm to pass I chatted with a young couple who’d been eating at a sidewalk table when it had started to rain.  Their faces went wide when I told them that as recently as that past Saturday, Jay had not fully been alive.

My short conversation with that couple under the awning was my introduction to the mesmeric quality babies have on other people. Walking proudly through Rittenhouse Square after Jay was born (and again two years later when Wally came along), I quickly noticed the way people we passed craned their heads for a better view, and tapped their companions on the shoulders: Oh my God, look at that baby.

Around that same time I noticed something else: That there was no similar gawking over the older boys in the park. It seemed that at a certain point that very little kids outgrew their magic.  I realized that eventually Jay would not be quite as captivating to the outside world, and I was curious to see exactly when that transition would take place.

Well, he’s now almost three and the transition is well underway if not nearly complete. This weekend we spent a day with a pair of good friends passing through from out of town. They were kind and wonderful to both Jay and Wally, but after they’d left Caroline and I remarked to each other, nearly at once, that there had been a noticeable difference in the way our friends had approached our two boys: They had kicked the soccer ball with Jay because they knew how much he’d like it; they’d scooped up the crawling Wally (who’s technically in infant for one more month) because, really, who can resist something that cute.

The change in Jay’s standing with the public reminds me a little of the children’s Christmas book The Polar Express.  The boy in the story, if you don’t remember, takes a magical Christmas Eve train ride to the North Pole where he’s chosen out of all the assembled children to receive the first gift of Christmas.  After a moment of thought he decides to ask for a single silver bell, snipped from the reindeers’ harnesses.

As he travels back home with the bell the boys narrates that the bell made the most beautiful sound.  He also remarks, looking back in time now, that over time the number of people who could hear the bell ring slowly shrank: At first all children could hear it; then just he and his sister could; and finally, when they were all grown up, the bell rang only for him.

Stories like the one with which I opened, about Jay and the small cart at Trader Joe’s, are filled with the kind of nuance and are situated in a life-historical trajectory that it’s hard for anyone but Jay’s very closest observers to appreciate.  It occurs to me that kids are magical in kind of the same way that the bell in The Polar Express was magical: At first they’re wondrous even to complete strangers but over time the circle shrinks. I have a feeling, though, that for as long as Caroline and I are alive and as old as they get, Jay and Wally will never cease to ring for us.