On Being William

HE is just about to pass out of the stage of trotting freely under the dining table. His blond hair, when slightly fluffed up, brushes the under surface already, and in a matter of days he will be in a position to scrape his head. He won’t actually scrape it, though. William is an astoundingly canny fellow when it comes to anticipating His own limitations. I, in middle life, continue to gouge my scalp on things just over seventy-two inches up, but my youngest can be relied upon to take no abrasion from the things just under twenty-eight. He has now turned fourteen. I am talking, you understand, in months.

William’s older sister — she has almost attained the ripe age of seventy-five, also in months — lately came back to us from sojourn in a large modern hospital. The essentials of recent history there and here having been suitably covered, one of us thought to ask her: ‘And did you see any babies as pretty as William?’ The answer was a shock to parental illusions and sensibilities. ‘Oh yes,’ this young woman of the larger world assured us breezily; ‘lots of them.’ Perhaps she felt that we were slightly taken aback; perhaps she was merely in the clutch of a feminine instinct to make all disclosures cut both ways, every answer a Yes-and-No answer. Anyway, she added with explosive earnestness: ‘But none so characteristic! ‘

We hadn’t known she had the word; we never do know she is loaded with any of her new words until she pulls the lanyard. As a rule they explode pretty close to the target, and this one was no exception. You couldn’t, in five syllables, draw a sharper bead on the mysterious independence and secrecy of William’s everyday process of being William.

Long before he had recognizable words of his own he made some of his fundamental characteristics as clear as they would ever be. One of them is intolerance of all well-meaning help about the problems he knows a man ought to solve for himself. We observed it some weeks before he mastered his version of crawling — which turned out to be, not orthodox hands-and-knees crawling, but scampering on all fours, like a bear. He would rear himself into position to begin, on palms and soles, and rock hopefully forward and back in an effort to make himself go; and when it dawned at last that mere vigor and even desperation could make nothing come of it he howled. This disappointment put him into the nearest approach to a rage we had seen in him as yet. But it was nothing to the tantrum that followed when we tried to take hold and show him how to advance his members for getting ahead in the world. He put on, in fact, an exhibition entirely unsuited to one with deep blue eyes behind almost unnaturally long gold lashes. The attempt to assist merely drove him into concealment. Only when our backs were turned would he practise — try and howl, try again and howl again. When one of us came upon him suddenly he would stop short and pretend that crawling was the very last project in his mind. He didn’t bring his aspiration into the open again until he could scurry all over the place in his spider’s scamper. The implication was that he had always done it as easily as the youngest duckling swims.

He — and we — had the same cycle to go through about his standing alone, and then about his walking alone. His sister and his brother, on the verge of walking, would clutch their mother’s skirt or my trousers and shuffle along behind, all around the house and back, and, when we were exhausted, tease for more. Not William: at the first step he would let go, sit down with a thump, and howl. Standing, he would put his weight on one foot and with the other tap, tap, and tap; and when the miracle of locomotion just wouldn’t come off, again he would howl. He retired into privacy once more; and we often caught him walking fluently as a secret vice in the two weeks before he made any overt admission that he could do it. Today he can climb up a much higher step than he can back down, but when someone has to help him back down he becomes as frenzied as a kitten at the top of a telephone pole, and you could hardly conceive then that his temper is prevailingly of the sunniest.

Of speech, too, he makes persistent little games of hide-and-seek, some of them elaborately mysterious inventions. Though he knows the names of most common objects and actions and has a precocious endowment of grammar, — for instance, his answer to ‘Are you hungry, William?’ is ‘I am,’ — he likes to make long speeches, with sweeping gestures, in a gobble-gobble or jabber-jabber language devoid of identifiable words. This is his invitation to you to imitate him, and as soon as you begin to do it he goes into paroxysms of delight. He and his mother sat the other day on a five-sided bench built around an elm tree, tossing back and forth to each other the pretense that neither could talk except in monkey gabble. It seemed that he could never tire of it; that he had, in fact, no inkling of another mode of communication. But in the end he laid a hand on the rough bark behind him, looked up with his most deviously roguish expression, and said ‘Tree?’—meaning ‘Don’t you think we have made fools of ourselves long enough for one time?’

There are some words that for reasons of his own — perhaps because he has a passion for them — he has never said and can’t be brought to say. One is ‘nose.’ He will put a forefinger on your nose and ask successively if it is an eye, an ear, a chin, a knee, a button. At some point of the list you are supposed to assure him solemnly: ‘Yes, William, it’s a button’ (or whatever). Whereupon he goes off into a conniption that shows he thinks this is practically the funniest joke ever cracked.

To those who have brought up children with their own hands and wits such a combination of independence with deviosity will perhaps faintly suggest some of the difficulties of getting its possessor creditably housebroken by any of the standard formulæ. Weeks ago, in one of those something-hasgot-to-be-done revulsions that clench parental jaws from time to time, we rigged William comfortably but immovably and vowed that, ruat cœlum, he should sit there until — But there was no outcome whatever except the outcry. We stood it for a solid hour, until all hands were exhausted. When we turned him loose he was immediately sunny again. He toddled off into the living room. After a moment he came out to the kitchen, where we were helping each other shake off our trauma, and helped himself to a certain cloth from the drying rod behind the stove. He carried it into the living room, and we then heard a distinct betrayal of mopping-up operations. Presently William came marching back and hung up the mussed cloth exactly where he had got it. Up to that point he had not given us a look. His behavior said, indeed, that there was no one else on the premises, no one for miles in any direction. But now he shot a glance at us — a characteristic glance.

His expression can only be described as a leer.