At 3.75, there is a certain way of running on the cratered surface of playground wood chips, with arms bent at the elbows like the upper limbs of a marsupial, tucked in and irrelevant. There is the forward motion -- toddling -- generated by legs swinging without hips to smooth them out, the torso upright and isolated from the movements of the lower half, so unlike the athletic movements of a 6 year old. At 3.75 persist the red apple spots on the cheeks of a boy that are the envy of passing women.
At 3.75, we are bent over, he more comfortably than I, examining what flora can survive the Park District's weekly motorized guillotine: thick blades of something resembling lawn grass, and the flowers of a common clover plant; bottle caps burrowing their way to archaeological posterity, and the locust seedpods that he collects into bundles because they rattle like plastic toys. At 3.75, I show him freshly shucked buckeyes, and he is not moved. Not much later I circle round a tree, harvesting cicada shells, which he drops from his hand as soon as I place them there.
When my son turns 3.75, as his father turns 41.5, our individual chronometers briefly stop, marking an absolute moment in time with two particular values. At that moment, in an empty playground between Lake Shore Drive on one side and a late-season pickup game on the other, we are visited by the daddy dialectic.
The dialectic is better known for its role in cosmic things, revealing its staging of history's greatest events in small and offhand ways, as when Alfred Hitchcock appears in a film of his own direction. For those who happen to be listening, perhaps writing a thesis in philosophy a few floors above, the morning echo of hooves through the streets of a German town, trailing behind the horse that carries Napoleon, announces that the world has changed forever.
The daddy dialectic produces revolutions of a smaller scale. When it visits us several weeks after the cicadas fall silent, it is not the insects but my son who has molted. I can see his transparent shell. It is in the baby swing, with the little rubber baskets for four-legged children. "Daddy, those swings are for babies," he tells me from the big-kids swing a few yards away. Then, realizing that he is now a creature with a past, no longer living in a uniform, timeless present: "I used to be a baby. Do you remember when I was a baby? Were you a baby, too, daddy?"
Yes, you used to be a baby, it was just yesterday and I remember it well. And of course, I used to be a baby too. But I don't remember that.
And so departed the daddy dialectic into the autumn afternoon. In my hands it deposited the worldly recollections of my son's first 3.75 years of life, like the molted cicada shells I had handed to him in August. I hold these moltings as if I had lived in them myself. But to him, they are the only signs of a first experience that will always be alien, reflected back to him by the others and objects he touched but does not remember: family albums, cell cam pics posted to Facebook, preschool artwork, stories we make a point to tell him or the ones we manage, haphazardly, to remember. What is clear and distinct to me in the run of those 3.75 years will be the hazy, enchanted, mythological prelude to his later life.
Of course I, who am interested enough in his childhood that for three years I have written about it on this blog, remember virtually none of my own. Sometimes, in the hallway at preschool, or on ever rarer occasions when I am alone in a cafe, I hear mothers trading stories about the wild animals trapped in their slings, the untrained or tranquilized primates that challenge and bewilder them, as if they had never been such very small children themselves. To hear and join in their chatter, the experience of an other's earliest youth unfolds as fresh and as rough as accounts of the first voyages of discovery, when continents and oceans were opened to Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama.
But the freshness of early childhood and voyages of discovery are only possible after a tremendous forgetting. What Columbus found had been there for some time, and others had come across it well before him. In laughing with and being charmed by small children, I am laughing with and being charmed by what I imagine I used to be, seizing on their image in order to resurrect vestiges of the toddler's neural architecture preserved within the later formations of my cerebrum. I hold in trust the memories of my son's first years, and he restores me to a semblance of my earliest self.
At 3.75, the days of October string out before us like a gallery of paper lanterns twirling slowly on a sagging rope. They filter dry light through draperies of cellulose, to enclose the world in glowing boxes or orange, red, and gold. At the end of this collapsing gallery that arches above our sidewalk waits November and, not far beyond, birthday number 4. For the first time, he knows his birthday is approaching. And he knows that it will be followed by another one with yet another number, the way he now knows that fall is a season that is followed by winter, the way he used to be a baby, and now is not.