Ickum-sweetums? Not a real word

When my father, like most men of his generation, is confronted by small children, two things happen: First, his voice climbs multiple octaves, and he sounds like a Teletubbie. This is true even now when he is talking to my daughter — his granddaughter — who is 13. Next, he retreats as fast as he can into Grownup World, which in his corner of South Florida means lengthy discussions of golf and colonoscopies.
He is flirting with 80, but he still can play an excellent game of golf and hold his own in poker. His poker would be on a par with his golf, but I’m not sure he sees most of the cards most of the time. Those kings and queens do a fair amount of gender-bending when your eyesight isn’t quite what it was in the Truman Administration.
In any case, these days little terrifies him more than the prospect of 40 minutes inside a Toys R Us, or having to play with Barbies or plastic trolls with some neighbor’s or niece’s very small child. Of course, since his vision is about the same as a rhinoceros’s — and a rhino, I gather, can’t tell a man from a tree at 15 feet — he probably doesn’t distinguish between Barbies and trolls.
But he wasn’t always unsure about what to say and do with small children. As I recall, when I was a boy, he had the parenting drill down. Certainly the photos from my childhood suggest that he did just fine with the preschool crowd, even if the degree of difficulty was low because he was male and he only had sons. This meant that he was always surrounded by boys, and all he had to do with my brother and me was play baseball. He never had to make the leap across the great gender chasm and have a tea party with either of us.
Still, I think he would have given tea parties a shot if my brother or I had ever wanted to host one.
Given the reality that my own daughter is now a teenager, I don’t believe I’ve played with Barbies (or had a tea party) since cell phones were the size of shoeboxes. But, once, I was as capable as the next parent when it came to playing with Barbies and trolls. Barbies were especially easy because there were only two scenarios. Barbie was Cinderalla or Barbie was an orphan. Either way, she was surrounded by an evil stepmother (or Miss Hannigan) and a variety of evil stepsisters (or orphan bullies). When one of us was getting bored, I would step on a small plastic Barbie shoe with a point sharp enough to kill, scream like a gored animal, and a good time would be had by all.
Trolls were harder. I actually had to invent stories about woodland creatures. Besides, the arms and legs of the trolls didn’t move, and so I couldn’t entertain myself when my daughter wasn’t looking by putting them in filthy positions the way I could Barbies, and have them violate the Barbie Doll Blue Laws.
Now that I have some distance on those games, I wonder how good I would be if, suddenly, I had to spend a few hours playing Barbie. I know, for instance, that I am not nearly as comfortable allowing an infant to drool on my shoulder as I was years ago. Good Lord, in 1994 I didn’t care when my daughter peed in my lap or burped up Gerber creamed spinach all over my neck.
My point? Things change. We change. And when I make fun of my father’s colossal terror when confronted by toddlers — or when I realize he is speaking to his teenage granddaughter in a voice that would be more suitable for a conversation with Barney and Baby Bop — a part of me wonders if someday this will be me.
I hope not, but you never know. Perhaps when I’m 79, I, too, will be replacing “little” with “ittle,” or forgetting that “ickum-sweetums” isn’t a real word.
Happy Father’s Day.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on June 17.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Ickum-sweetums? Not a real word

  1. LittleMe says:

    Around animals and babies (and toddlers) I feel, of course, compelled to talk “babytalk”. But, wouldn’t it be fun if, as a gag, a person had enough nerve to go through one full day of interaction, in the outside world, speaking *nothing* but babytalk to the likes of salespeople, clerks, cops (god forbid) and so forth? That would be great (if also quite deranged). Sadly, I lack courage in many ways, and certainly in this way. I’m sure I will look back and regret not doing this someday. Sheesh. When I’m in my dotage, it will hardly matter, as people will probably expect this of me, anyway.

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