Once when my friend Woozle was outdoors burning trash, his daughter
Anna pointed to the exact spot where she wanted him to put an "attic."
Then her small body surged with anger and frustration as he tried
to explain that attics only come with houses screwed in beneath.
Finally, after much discussion, and persistent attempts at reasoning,
he figured out that she meant "hammock."
"I got car pee on my dress," Anna said to her parents
as they walked through a used car lot after rain. Later, noticing
that "car pee" rhymes with "harpy," I believed
I'd stumbled upon material for two-thirds of the perfect limerick.
Five-year-olds wrestle so earnestly with the rules of literal meaning
that riddles seem obscenely funny. Yet when I included a joke for
Anna as a postscript in an e-mail for her dad (What did the mermaid
named Cinderella wear to the ball? Glass flippers) she was unimpressed.
Instead of giggling, she spouted her own instructive catalogue of
Why do they call it Coke? Because
you can't cope with it.
Why do they call it Sprite? Because
Why do they call it bunny? Because
it always goes, "Bunny! Bunny! Bunny!"
Why do they call it TV? Because vampires.
Woozle tried to play along, offering,
"Why do they call it teriyaki? Because it's so yucky."
"I get it, but it's not funny,"
she said sternly, adding, "No more jokes. No jokes . . . Just
Of course I respect her associative
leaps and willingness to tread the waters of internal rhyme. But
I love best the lawyerly way she clarified that though dad should
shut up (basically), if by chance this was the first moment in the
history of time when he felt like making a good poop joke, no need
to hold back.
As Anna muddled impatiently through her last week of being three,
she held tightly to the belief that she'd be able to read any book
she opened on her fourth birthday--as if "four" were not
a descriptive adjective so much as some sort of license or certification.
When the day came she was bewildered as well as disappointed to
find that the awkward, uncomprehending feeling of "being three"
still stuck to her face and body like a greasy film.
"Handle that carefully, maybe you'd better put it down, it's
fragile." From many such admonitions, Anna deduced that
"fragile" means not "delicate, breakable," but
something more like "deserving special attention, fraught with
importance." She called the thigh bone of a cow her father
found while digging in the yard "fragile," as well as
the restaurant-sized egg beater she brought to preschool for show-and-tell.
When Anna's mom, Livia, said "a case of the bugs" was
circulating through preschool, Anna said--in a tone of proverb or
admonishment--"If you share other people's combs and brushes,
you might get head lights." So now I imagine head lights sprouting
like antlers from the ears of careless children and can't stop wondering
what the simile "caught like a deer in the head lice"
might ever possibly mean.
I don't know what Anna meant when she said clam shells washed up
on the shore were "inspicable."
When Matt and Woozle and Livia and I unveiled red Jell-O molded
in the shape of the entire United States on the Fourth of July,
Anna was beside herself with joy and fascination. With hushed politeness
she asked to touch it while her parents earnestly pointed out where
"on the Jell-O" each of her grandparents lived. Livia
carved out Texas to take next door to Mubby, her ailing grandmother,
and the Grand Canyon turned up in more or less the right place of
its own accord. I had New Mexico. For weeks Anna said "it's
Jell-O!" with fond matter-of-factness every time she saw a
weather map on TV.
Opening a hymnal during a power outage, Anna said "Once upon
a time it was the 1980s but then there was a big storm so it moved,
and now it's the 1680s."
At two, Anna's word for penis was "potty nipple," a coinage
which brilliantly ignores Freud's habit of defining female anatomy
as the absence or diminution of what would exist if the girl was
Anna's attachment to a preschool teacher named Sven grew by bounds
and squiggles when her dad moved to Wisconsin for nine months to
program the guts of fire trucks. A year later, perhaps unrelatedly,
she debuted the following joke at a school talent show:
As we parked outside the plant where Woozle worked extracting Y2K
compliance from refrigerated trucks, Anna called her mom "unintentionable."
When I asked what this meant, she said, "not allowed in the
front door of that building." When Wooz emerged, we drove to
McDonald's because Anna wanted the teeny Beanie Baby ostrich. (I
just wanted to bounce around in the car with all of them for as
long as possible.)