By Mark St. John Erickson, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
Owen the ogre made his first appearance at his grandmother’s dining table.
Bellowing like a beast, he reared back in his high chair, then slapped away at his mother’s offer of scrambled eggs with a horrid grimace of contempt and indignation.
Seconds later, his happy grunts and coos made it pretty clear that his up-and-down love affair with his evening meal had entered another, much more satisfying chapter.
But Miriam and I just looked at each other — then at my mom — and wondered how we had spawned such a pint-sized caveman.
For most of the past 14 months, we’ve been blessedly spared from dealing with the boorish sorts of baby behavior that many other parents consider pretty normal.
Owen was just 1 week old, in fact, when we wrapped him up and took him to his grandmother’s church, where he not only failed to whine or fuss but also listened unfazed to the congratulatory applause of the congregation.
A week or two later, he was equally imperturbable when we bundled him up again and ventured into another potentially problematic shrine — this time the commotion-filled dining room at Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que outside Williamsburg.
Though greeted with worried looks as we sat down among the crowded booths, we were surrounded by the smiles of his newly won admirers within a few minutes.
No rhyme or reason sparked these tests of his behavioral mettle. But in the weeks that followed, baby Owen scored still more triumphs while visiting a busy Virginia Beach diner for breakfast, a casual downtown Hampton wine and cheese shop for lunch and the more formal yacht club just down the street for dinner.
More ambitious and frequent excursions followed in short order — and soon the curiosity, patience and composure with which he handled each new outing became so commonplace that one of our sharp-tongued friends began referring to Miriam and me as “the parents of the world’s worst baby.”
Month after month he extended this enviable record, responding to all sorts of trials — including those of Christmas and grocery shopping — in a way that was practically unblemished. But even as Owen’s keepers in day care praised his sterling demeanor — and Miriam and I grew bolder and more proud — we were headed for a comeuppance.
We probably should have suspected something just before the beginning of the summer, when Owen began sobbing and fussing at mealtime. No matter what we fed him, two or three bites from a spoon was all it took to set him off — until Miriam discovered that all he really wanted was the chance to handle his own food and feed himself.
Still, it took us nearly all of a bewilderingly unhappy weekend to decipher his inarticulate complaints, most of which were rooted in frustration. So we have to wonder what we might be failing to understand now, including the possibility that all the natural poise he seemed to show as a well-behaved infant may have been no more than the prelude to some new, much darker career as an untamed toddler.
Luckily for us, the primary arena for his churlish antics has been at home — and almost always at the dining table. And we may be seeing some small window of improvement start to open as we find ways to make it easier for our little cave kid to communicate.
In recent days, Owen’s learned to point and bark at the same time, usually in the direction of the things he sees on somebody else’s plate. So now we point to what we think he wants, then look back at him for some sort of growling confirmation.
When all goes well, his yelps are short if sharp, especially when they steer us in the right direction. He’s even shown a primitive kind of patience at times, scaling back his full-throated baby roar to a quarter yap as we trace his hungry gaze to the right place on the table.
Still, there’s no doubt that he’s now half wild — and not likely to be domesticated any time in the near future. So it will probably be a while before we venture to eat out again at anything other than a pretty casual restaurant.
Until then, we’ll sit and wait, honing our pointing and guessing skills until our little ape man learns to string a few words together into a meaningful sentence. Even then, we’re not fooling ourselves. That’s when his Cro Magnon table manners may become more interesting still.
Erickson’s column on his adventures as a first-time dad alternates with that of fellow Daily Press reporter and first-time mom Nicole Paitsel.