“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

Humble Pie

Which makes you fatter? Lemon pie or humble pie.

I’ve had plenty of both. Humble pie is dessert after a meal of eating your own words. It’s the prize for being wrong.

Which is harder? Going on a diet or facing your wrongness? Both, I guess.

It’s now almost a year since our granddaughter Joanna Leigh came to live at our home, which was several months prior to being awarded legal custody. She was 17 months old. Since she had been living in our house with her mother, our daughter, for the better part of those 17 months, she felt secure and happy here, reducing the harshness of such a change. We didn’t see any signs of distress in her sleeping, eating, or other behavior, despite being separated from her mother, who was again being ruled by her drug addictions.

Joanna Leigh was on time with repeating words at about a year old, with “ba-ba,” “dog,” “go,” and the infamous “NO!” She began quickly referring to my husband as “Papa.” She was not yet calling me anything in particular, even though I had begun referring to myself as “Mama Jo,” my other granddaughter’s name for me. Then the process quickly went to two-word combinations, like “my yogurt,” “my color.” The “mine” phase took on a life of its own, which I chronicled in two Words and Language posts, June 10 and July 9. (See the categories in the right sidebars.)

Then suddenly, Whammo, Bam, Pow: the trickle had turned into a torrent. Joanna Leigh was suddenly in the throes of learning language at about 150 miles an hour. We were flabbergasted daily.

When she was not speaking English sentences, she was babbling some other language, Jabberwocky, maybe. For practice, I guess.

But she still wasn’t really calling me anything. There were times when I thought she might be trying to call me “mama,” which, as it turns out, was feeding my misconceptions.

How toddlers begin using language is also humbling. According to Steven Pinker in his 1994 book, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, at about 18 months, toddlers’ language production “takes off.” Pinker says that language development goes from babbling at about eight months to “All Hell Breaks Loose” at this stage.

Vocabulary growth jumps to the new-word-every-two-hours minimum rate that the child will maintain through adolescence. And syntax begins, with string of the minimum length that allows it.

He also says that there is more going on in children’s minds than is revealed by what comes out of their mouths.

When children do put words together, the words seem to meet up with a bottleneck at the output end. Children’s two-and-three-word utterances look like samples drawn from longer potential sentences expressing a complete and more complicated idea.

My misconception began with believing I could protect Joanna Leigh from the hurt that would come with being separated from or even losing her mother.

Then I added to that the belief that I could be an adequate mother figure as her memory of her own mother began to change or even fade.

I was wrong on both counts.

In late April and early May, Joanna Leigh began seeing her mother periodically, while she was in a Birmingham treatment/housing facility for women. After several trips to the facility, Joanna Leigh woke up in the night crying for her “mommy.” The blow was hard and complete. I felt as if a tornado had spun out of nowhere, picked me up, and thrown me out into the backyard. I was afraid, sorrowful, distressed, and heartbroken for her.

It was a hard way to learn that I could not keep Joanna Leigh from hurt and to discover that she wasn’t calling me or thinking of me as “mama” or a mommy substitute. I realized she needed to see her mother.

She held the concepts in her mind, but she didn’t yet have the language to let them out. She needed her mommy and she needed me, Papa, and her home. It took language.

Right now, she sees her mother; it may or may not last. She thinks of this house, Mama Jo, Papa, Maggie, Patty, her toys, her stuffed friends in her room, all of it, as Home. This Home helps her feel secure, happy, and confident. When or if the time comes for hurt, all we can do is be here.

Language is humbling. It’s so built into us that we simply take it for granted.

Being so wrong about something so important to a child is humbling.

So I eat the Humble Pie. I need to find a way to stay off the lemon pie.

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