Spirituality and the Young Suburbanite

by Christine Adams Beckett

My toddler, Hannah, was eighteen months old at Christmas time, and at the stage of development when the typical toddler starts speaking more fluently.  The list of first words in her baby book was expanding like the Christmas goose, gaining new entries every day, and thrilling her two older siblings who very happily celebrated and recorded her advancement. Naturally, her vocabulary encompassed a variety of seasonal words of Yuletide, including tree, wreath and Santa. Surprisingly, they also included the names of the holy individuals of our crèche, the Nativity scene believed to be a toy placed on the coffee table for no one but her. She tripped over the pronunciation of “Balthazar” and found difficulty wrapping her tongue around “Gaspar” and “Melchior”, but “Baby Jesus” was belted out surely, ably and with conviction. Babies of all kinds were fascinating to her at this age and stage, and she somehow recognized that this figure was It: THE Baby of All Babies, being exalted appropriately by rays of light, a giant glowing star, and better yet: farm animals!

I have always wondered about a young child’s fascination with other babies: is it because they recognize that they have just abandoned that stage? That they too are in the earliest stages of life and therefore feel a sense of solidarity? Or like most of us, do they find those doughy bodies and enormous eyes too irresistible to let pass by without a (sometimes inappropriate) appreciation? Not sure what the correct answer is, only that my daughter was one of the many fascinated by infants.

Her older sister, Lizzie, was kind enough to bestow upon Hannah a bevy of baby dolls which no longer held the same appeal as the more age-appropriate American Girl doll.  The concept of imaginative play was certainly creeping into her stage of development. We delighted in her quieting, diapering (albeit with rudimentary skills) and feeding her favorite hand-me-down doll.

Sadistically, we also howled with laughter when she would throw her baby on its head whenever the next meal was ready or her father came home from the City. Of particular delight, too, was Baby’s trips down the plastic slide that is situated in our living room. Almost always, Baby would take a header off the top not being properly situated there. Lizzie would lend her voice to Baby, howling in pain and Hannah would comfort with a “Shhh, shhhh shhhh….” in response, only to dump him on his head again when her brother would arrive home from school or another toy captured her interest.

But Baby always held a particular appeal in Hannah’s play repertoire. She always returned to him. She more often than not would take him on outings, treated him to countless strolls in her tiny doll carriage and even began bathing him in the sink. Naturally, my 9 year-old daughter thought that her favorite doll should be assigned a name.

“What’s your baby’s name, Hannah?” asked Lizzie

“Baby Jesus,” she replied, without hesitation.

Lizzie looked over to me, paused quizzically and finally laughed, bowing her head and grabbing her stomach as she tried to catch her hysterical breath. Hannah, delighting in this most hearty response gave her more.

“Baby Jesus, Baby Jesus, Baby Jesus!” she yelled.

“Blasphemy” perhaps would be a new word to add to Hannah’s growing baby book word list. As it turned out, Jesus (in vain?) would not be the only impious word to add to her growing vocabulary. In fact, just that following week, after inflicting a most horrendous gash in the side of my car while exiting my own garage, passionate me yelled a certain four-letter word without acknowledgment of the giant ears that sat strapped in the car seat behind me.

Hannah mimicked me by repeating the word three times.  All I could say in response was, of course, the same explicative, this time slightly less vigorously.  And then I laughed, the worst thing I could have done.

Hannah echoed me with a giggle.  I bit my lips and waited for silence. I turned on her Music Together CD in hopes of distracting her, changing the subject abruptly.   I started to sing.

“Hello, Everybody!  It’s so nice to see you!”

Hannah repeated the word and laughed, in defiance.

I didn’t panic. I changed the subject again in hopes that her new word wouldn’t read its ugly head in music class, for all the other big ears to hear, and little lips to repeat. It didn’t, and I thanked God Himself. And Baby Jesus for good measure. He also happened to be riding shotgun, a witness to my verbal sins.

Later that month, we visited my parents for a Sunday supper.  Hannah sat opposite my father, at the head of the table, proud of her unexpected graduation to a regular chair since no booster was available to her. She was not strapped down, and drunk with freedom and power, she celebrated by showing Baby Jesus how to properly sit in a “big guhl chairuh.”  As my parents remarked about the personality of my child making itself more apparent, I relayed the story of her new-found vocabulary taught by her one-and-only mother, proof everlasting of my superlative parenting skills.  I of course substituted the swear for a more appropriate euphemism.  Hannah would have nothing of it, though, and interjected the inappropriate word with her mouth full of potato, in just the right place, grinning sheepishly with a crinkled nose grin, an expression that has become her trademark.

Just so she could be sure that her mother knew of her deep understanding of the word: later that week, again, “feces” crept into her daily banter again. As she was bathing baby Jesus in the bathroom sink and I put away the clean towels, she dropped sliver of the soap, which floated in arcs to the bottom of the bowl, just out of her grasp. Her grunts grew louder, until she finally was reduced to, yes, the explicative I ably taught her while not-so-ably backing my car out of the garage.

I had learned my lesson and did not responded to her cursing like a sailor. Any reaction is just positive reinforcement for repetition, so I will never again repeat the story in her presence. Besides, why in hell is it that everyone, including me, finds a cherubic, chubby, blue-eyed baby cursing like a truck driver so deliciously hysterical? Juxtaposition of expectations? Apparently, my sense of humor has not progressed beyond overweight fat frat boys dancing to Olivia Newton John’s Lets Get Physical for the charity show in the College Union Building.

On a later trip to our Music Class, she insisted on bringing Baby Jesus along. Knowing full well it would be trouble, I gave in, exhausted and knowing there would be a host of other toddler battles to choose from later that day, and this wasn’t one to take. For weeks, she had been pretending that Jesus was a student in the class, tucking him into her lap and belting out, “Hello, to Baby Jesus! Nice see you!!” I knew she just wanted to show Him the real thing. I was also aware it wasn’t customary to bring a “transitional object” to music class and wondered what was in store for poor Jesus.

As expected, Jesus’s presence in the class was most certainly noted amongst the other toddlers in the group. All came over to quietly and with awe inspect his Truthful eyes, his all-knowing look. They touched his garments and were struck by his Beauty. They had to have Jesus for themselves! My Hannah panicked and grasped onto Jesus’s leg and wouldn’t let go. Her lower lip pouted in protest, a warning sign for the outburst that was soon to come. No one sang the Hello song. In fact, no one paid any attention to the boisterous instructor at all. Who could, with Jesus in the room?

Our teacher was a substitute that day, and not knowing Hannah was quick to sweep in and quietly take Jesus from her arms, simply stating “Baby can wait on the shelf until the end of class, OK Hannah?”

Not OK. It was the Massacre of the Innocents. “BABY JESUS!! JEEEEESUS!!!!!” Hannah shrieked.

“Did she just say Jesus?” the mother next to me asked. She was heavily pregnant with a 2 year-old on her lap, and burst out laughing. The entire class followed, as our Queen Herod substitute teacher came swooping down, saving Baby Jesus and placing him safely back in Hannah’s lap.

“She sure did,” I responded and wondered how hot it actually is in hell. Perhaps all those elementary school cracks about my red hair and Satan spawn really held weight. Did the Department of Youth and Family Services respond to complaints about toddlers who take the Lord’s name in vain? And used other four-letter words, taught by her own mother?

Later that afternoon during a welcomed quieter moment, as we played in the family room and awaited her brother’s arrival home, Hannah picked up Jesus and smelled his back end, a gesture she has experienced herself before. She crinkled her nose and said, “Jesus is poopy.”

She opened up his changing pad, stripped him of his swaddling clothes, and doused him with no less than 150 baby wipes. Exhausted and sipping tea, I imagined Hannah as a mother herself: fiercely loyal, funny, strong and attentive. A holy vessel for God’s word, like Mary? Maybe not in the same way that the King James bible would relay, but the Goodness in her eyes is evident. Kids play what they become, they say. And if that’s the case for Hannah, there are great things in store: motherhood.   Or: the high-strung, cussing Chief Operating Officer of a Fortune 500 company.

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