Telling the story of how a wild toddler broke & remade me one day.

[When Kiki fed Kathy last year.]

Driving back and forth between Ohio and Virginia late last winter and into this spring, as I taught a short course in memoir at Virginia Tech, I thought of how I might write an essay about my granddaughter.

Or rather, about the twelve-plus hours in February when I had cared for her alone. Let me repeat and recast that: a guy in his sixties, with a bad back and a grumpy demeanor, was tasked with watching a toddler, then in the throes of the Terrible Twos, alone for over twelve hours.

Oh, she’s adorable—the cutest, sweetest, smartest kid on Earth—but she does something different every 30 seconds. A force of nature, she totally sets your agenda. And did I mention that she doesn’t nap when at home, only at daycare? That she’s in the Terrible Twos? For the uninformed, the latter means “no” is a fraught word. So I’d rolled with the punches, all 12.5 hours of them.

At the end, punch drunk, I possessed only two clear memories of that Saturday. A vivid one at the start and another indelible moment at the end. Two memories to work with. Which seemed great, in a way: open with the first and close with the second. A memoir sandwich. I steadily warmed to this, seeing how beautifully those two moments captured my and Little Kathy’s rollercoaster of emotions and activities. It was so intense, I have only two memories! She wiped my slate clean and almost killed me! Perfect. The problem, of course, emerged as I tried to write the essay. I have only two clear memories of that day.

Much spilled out for the middle, don’t get me wrong. As I said in my email to my memoir class for retirees that starts tonight, “After this class, should you choose, you’ll be well on your way to inflicting your own grandchild, dog . . . partner, self, or family on the unsuspecting world!” But it didn’t seem believable, even to me, that I couldn’t remember the long middle of our day. Part of the problem, which I wrote about, since it constitutes a memory in the form of negative space, is that I couldn’t get Kathy to the park she loves or even to her own backyard swingset. Both were unprecedented decisions on her part. Her toddler mind had decided it was an inside day.

So the middle is about toddlerhood, its impact on me, and the experience of grandparenthood in the arc of one’s life. I write about being ordered by Kathy’s parents, my daughter, Claire, and my son-in-law, David, to pick my grandparent name:

David’s family tradition had already acted: upon Kathy’s birth, his mother, Janet, became Mimi; his father, Bruce, became Bumper. I dithered, but my wife, little Kathy’s namesake, then known for convenience as Big Kathy, pounced. Doubtless she was eager to shed her Big Kathy handle.

Awakening one morning a week later, an inspired grandparent name floated into my cerebral cortex. Smokey Lonesome. He’s a character in the novel and movie Fried Green Tomatoes, though why I wanted to be named after an alcoholic hobo mystified everyone. Even me, at first.

[A musical Easter card from Bumper!]

Smokey Lonesome became Mokie, of course, and now I’m just Kiki.

Further fleshing out the essay’s middle, I also wrote about what I think Kathy and I probably did—I knew I’d fed her several times, that she’d likely painted, that she loves taking baths in purple-dyed water. What’s feeding a Little Grubby Goombah like? And living with a pint-sized artist with toddler-ADHD? Thus the essay’s intrinsic problem was slowly solved. And it brought forward my hopes and fears for her, based on my own disrupted toddlerhood and on my love of wildly expressive art.

The essay, “The Boom Boom Song,” appears today on Longreads. As with my essay they published last summer, “Why I Hate My Dog,” I worked with a talented editor and writer, Cheri Lucas Rowlands. She liked the humor in both essays. For “Boom Boom,” she sought illustrations, using an artist, Kate Gavino, who captured Kathy’s joyous spirit. Here’s Kate’s interpretation of Kathy’s use of her mother’s yoga mat to soothe herself in child’s pose on the day I watched her:

My and Dad’s close call with a bad cop becomes an essay.

[The scene today: Publix at Atlantic Plaza.]

Years ago, as we took a walk in our hometown, Satellite Beach, Florida, my father and I had an ugly little incident with a police officer. As we walked down the sidewalk in front of our local Publix Supermarket, closed down that Christmas day, the cop left his patrol car and demanded to know our purpose. “We’re walking,” Dad told him. Soon I realized this same cop had hassled me and my fellow bagboys at Winn Dixie, at the other end of Atlantic Plaza. One night after our shift, when we were saying goodbye out front, his car had come roaring across the lot at us. It skidded to a stop, and leaning out behind bright headlights, its driver commanded, “Move along.”

After Dad answered the cop and kept walking, the cop jumped in his car and rammed it onto the sidewalk in front of us. As I write:

Now that officer was running at me and Dad. He pumped his arms and jerked his head. I was 16, a high school sophomore, and my stomach went hollow. Dad kept walking. We were almost on him, and I could see his red face and his eyes flashing white. He was young, I saw—maybe early 20s, I think now—and stood with legs planted, arms bent, glaring at Dad.

“I asked you what you were doing,” the cop said.

“I answered you,” Dad said, still moving, unruffled. “We’re walking.”

We walked right past the man, and he left. The fact that Dad didn’t seem angry or scared probably saved us from some harm. It surely helped that my father commanded respect. The way he handled the hyper kid cop made a huge impression on me as a teenager. To tell the truth, I’m still impressed by Dad’s calm and firm and yet non-confrontational manner. I wrote the story several years ago and filed it away.

I’ve thought of our encounter every time I’ve read lately about excessive police violence. After much brooding, I came up with a solution—a continuing education initiative for every badge in every police department in America. My idea is for ongoing post-academy education in law enforcement history, emotional self-management, and a nonviolent martial art like Aikido—with its ethos of actually protecting attackers as well as oneself from harm.

Admittedly, I’m no expert. And I heard doubts about my notion from an Ohio police chief I know and from one of my brothers who is doubly retired from police agencies where we grew up, in Brevard County, Florida. My brother lost six friends and colleagues in his career there: three to cars and three to bullets; our hometown, Satellite Beach itself, lost two officers to a drunken driver, on May 31, 1992. Most of us are unfamiliar with the harsh world that law officers face daily. The chief and my brother said essentially the same thing: find a way to hire good cops in the first place; and in your dealings with them, treat officers like you’d like to be treated. I worked their responses into an essay on my and Dad’s experience, “Insight From a Close Call With a Bad Cop,” published this past Sunday by The Good Men Project.

I linked the essay to my book’s Facebook page, and one commenter responded, “This can’t be fixed because they’re good people and they’re bad.” I agree the problem lies in human nature. At the same time, I wonder if there are actions that would still help. Can we try? We know different cultures have different characteristic behaviors, and police departments, like any institutions, seem to vary widely within that. Nudging a particular one that’s poorly led or toxic is what I’m talking about.

There are highly progressive police departments. The New York Times recently featured a video report, “In One Crime-Ridden City, Police Try a New Tactic: Patience,” about how officers are being trained in ultra-violent Camden, N.J., to “exercise restraint in situations where they may have previously resorted to deadly force.” So how do we scale Camden as a model? How can smaller, poorer police department be supported in being more humane?

I see an underlying cause of bad behavior among police and civilians: we’ve been at war for 15 years now. There has been so much “get tough” talk from the top regarding enemies, terrorists, criminals. Stomp the bad guys! Torture was even sanctioned under the George W. Bush administration and has been praised lately by Trump. Such policies, practices, and words have a wide effect. Like war itself, they come home.

[My childhood home today, 339 Norwood Avenue. Dad put up those numbers!]

9 Comments

  • Once again, I’m very glad you thought of Longreads as the home for your essay, Richard. Happy to interact and work with you over the past year on these two pieces.

  • This essay is French braided. :-)

  • Hi, Richard. I really enjoyed your essay about Kiki and Kathy. It reminded me of the days when my (now 14-year-old) nephew was a baby and I was taking care of him. I’d say and do the most nonsensical things to amuse him, and of course, I sang to him, something that I rarely do in front of other adult humans. When I’m in front of adults, I have a really strong tendency to go off-key and forget words and totally mess up the songs. One day, my nephew was in his hanging swing on the back porch of my brother’s house, and I was singing him old ballads (which would’ve made no sense to him, but he liked my voice), and I was (as far as I could tell) perfectly on key, and in full possession of my memory faculties. I sang and sang, until all of a sudden a certain premonition touched my awareness, and I looked around to find my brother out in the yard, standing as still as a post, and listening. Of course, that ended it, because I couldn’t keep going that way, but it just goes to show, I think, what different people we are with toddlers and babies than those hypersensitive or at least self-conscious people we are with other adults!

    • Richard says:

      Oh, Victoria, I love that image of you singing your head off and your brother, stunned! Aren’t those the moments!? I likewise treasure the transformation in me that children wreak, though I do admit that I often resist being wreaked. Little Kathy wreaks Kiki into being but, as I show in the essay, she often first wrecks me.

  • jzrart says:

    Oh what a wonderful essay about your time with your granddaughter! It made me think that I have to write the story about how my granddaughter named me Batty!

  • owen1936 says:

    Congratulations, Richard, on being included in Longreads. I enjoyed both essays, as well as the lightheartedness you are exuding today. Keep writing!

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