Up Front: January 2004
The little man and I had this routine. I’d shake my head, frown and mutter, “Can’t walk, can’t talk, ain’t got no teeth.” He’d wag his noggin, mocking me. It looked so natural: For most Kinney males, wallowing in self-pity is like sinking into a warm bath. But then he’d rare back and cackle or even bellow with glee. The little man is nothing if not a happy soul, a trait he must have inherited from his momma’s people or from my son through his own mother.
I am, people tell me, a good grandpa. I should be, if for no other reason than I’ve got more than enough guilt to invest in it. I can’t tell you exactly when my own children took their first steps, uttered their first words or cut their first teeth, but I know where I was when it happened — at work. At the time, I told myself I was doing it for them, working my ass off to make a better life for my family.
Looking back, though, I realize it was mostly for me, an exercise in ego gratification as I tried to prove something to myself and others. And in doing it, I lost as much as I gained. That frown my son — the publisher — sometimes sees when he leaves at 6 to have dinner with his wife and child has more to do with envy than disapproval.
So I try to make amends by mentoring the little man, teaching him some of the lessons ol’ Pappy learned in the school of hard knocks. For example, while babysitting the other week, I urged him to get off his knees and walk like a man. “You’re nearly 14 months old. I was walking at 10 months.” Squirming in my lap, he didn’t rise to the bait but just reached for the remote, a manly skill that, along with flirting with women, he’s already mastered.
“And remember, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, which puts you at a distinct advantage without any teeth.” He looked up and yelped, “Bap!” I don’t know whether he was trying to say “Pappy” or warning me, “Back off,” either of which I could proudly attribute to my tutelage.
Then, on Thanksgiving Day, one of his front teeth poked in. I immediately started worrying about how much braces will cost in 2015. Six days later, when I got home from work, my wife met me at the door, having just hung up the phone. “The Nubster just took his first steps on his own.”
For months now, he’d been pushing toys, high chairs and furniture through the house like a greed-crazed contestant propelling a shopping cart in a supermarket sweepstakes. But cop his prop, he’d plop. His attitude seemed to be, why try to totter like a drunken sailor on two limbs when you can scuttle like a ferret on four? This time, he had been pushing one of those big exercise balls, which rolled away, and without thinking about what he was doing, he started chasing it.
The following Saturday, Jane and I went to Ben and Charlotte’s house to see it with our own eyes. And over the course of four hours, he steadfastly refused to perform. Nothing we could do could coax him to walk. When we arrived back home, there was a message on the machine: No sooner had we left than he decided to stroll from the hamper to the dresser in his bedroom.
He’d walk when he damn well wanted to walk. I don’t know where he got such a mule-headed stubborn streak, but they do call him Pappy’s boy.