It’s true. I used to call kids of a certain age, even the ones I loved best, “little disease vectors.”
It was not without empirical evidence, of course. When my nieces were still at the hands-are-always-appallingly-sticky age, it wouldn’t take more than a gentle brush of an adorably tiny and pink fingertip to convey the entire biome of the elementary school around the corner, and I’d wake within days with that almost unnoticeable feeling in the back of my throat that meant I was destined for another cycle through the sore-throat-to-cough-to-head-cold circus. I’m finicky about sanitation, not a full-fledged mysophobe, but I’d grown accustomed to maintaining a no-man’s-land when it came to diplomatic relations with the wee ones.
Naturally, in the same way that cats and dogs seek out those most uncomfortable with their attention, tots would target me like a modern-day missile system, their longing for my return hug proportional to the dangling string of snot hanging from a half-clotted nostril, and in my day, I’d duck behind furniture to give them an enthusiastic wave as my family would snicker at the frantic dances of my escape attempts.
“She’s just trying to give you a kiss,” my father would say, with a low, hearty laugh as my niece that he called “Miss Sophie,” would careen my way, her snot string swinging like the more objectionable parts of a farm animal.
“Let me blow you one, hon,” I’d say, and mime the act.
“What are we having for breakfast, Joebie?”
“Processed food paste from a factory?”
Little Miss gave me the perfect Alex de Large look from the old yellow stepstool that is her throne from which to oversee the goings-on in the kitchen.
“I don’t want processed food paste from a factory!”
“So no packet of oatmeal?”
In truth, I was a little tired of pancakes, as I’m more prone to elaborate savories at daybreak, but I’d set a precedent, and continued to advance the art. Besides, how do you say no when yes is comparatively easy and comes with a smiling return that’s just…hard to describe.
“Silver dollars or face pancakes?”
I was well ahead of her, pulling out the little diner-style ketchup squirt bottle employed in such pursuits.
“I wanna help make it!”
Again, I’d assembled the dry ingredients in the big bowl, having learned that flour in the hands of a small child is a weapon of domestic destruction, and I’d assembled the wet ones into a measuring cup for her to assemble. She successfully dumped most in, then wiped up a spill with the side of her hand and shook it into the bowl.
Ohgodohgodohgod. Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
I handed her the big fork for mixing, and she floppily commenced to mix. I interrupt only to show her now and then how, when you grip the fork like this and hold the edge of the bowl like this, everything goes more smoothly, always seeking that balance of allowing natural discovery in her experimental process of becoming and avoiding tragedies ending in a dog fighting you for batter as you pick up broken bits of bowl. She mixed it up, I finished it off, filled the squirt bottle, and we set up to make faces. She dragged the yellow stepstool to the stove’s edge, I gave her my standard lecture on stove safety, and she used the bottle to draw a face, framed by a heart, on the cast iron pan.
I hover, in these moments, carefully keeping my hand between her arm and anything hot on the stove while yet allowing her freedom of design, and this often gets me curious welts in the shape of an arc when her enthusiastic painting pushes the back of my against against the rim of the skillet.
“Oh, hon, you gotta hold it up a bit, so you don’t burn me,” I said, short of even uttering an “ow.” She raised her arms, sketched out a smile on the sputtering black surface of the skillet with the bottle clutched tightly in both hands.
“Is that enough?” she asked, and I grinned at her, adding only a little parenthesis of a nose to the face right as she found the perfect moment to sneeze, filling the air with a cloud of fine particulates.
“Uh, bless you, darlin’,” I said, and kept on.
And the thing is, I stopped getting sick when I found myself with kids. Maybe Little Miss was slowly acclimating me to the local biome when she’d hand me the generous gift of her last cookie, a cookie I’d seen her drop on the floor at least once, with grime under her fingernails and stand there for a moment, feeling like a kid who’d somehow ended up on the highest diving board with a line of kids waiting behind me, wondering, do I have the nerve?
“Thank you, Little Miss,” I’d say, and she would watch me until I’d take a bite.
Sometimes, it’s just time to face into the fears you’ve been subject to since you can remember, almost like you’re strapped to the mast of a ship sailing into heavy seas, and keep on.
The waitress started collecting plates from the table where The Troubadour and Little Miss and I had shared a happy meal. Little Miss focused on her well-colored man with a red crayon, and as her plate was in line to be collected, I reached for the three homemade bread-and-butter pickles on the edge of her plate with my fork.
“Hon, do you mind if I take your pickles? I’d hate to waste them while people are starving in Detroit, Michigan.”
She looked up from her coloring, shrugged, and said, “Okay, Joebie.”
I speared the pickles, smiled at the waitress as she took the last plate, and was happily crunching through a mouthful of sweet, vinegary goodness when Little Miss offered an addendum.
“Yeah, I licked ’em all over, but they were tooo sour,” she said, casually.
I stopped chewing, my eyebrows tented with panic, looking to The Troubadour, who fought a smirk for supremacy and failed. I would be told later, as I related this moment to the friends and family who have been my counselors in late-in-life quasi-parenting, that this moment of discovery is officially called “ABC,” or “already been chewed,” and is a rite of passage in parenting. Without a further beat, I finished the pickles, which were, in fact, delicious.
Vinegar is an antibiotic of sorts, right?
© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall