In Time & Tune with Charlie (#118)

We woke up to the sound of Charlie singing and then of him bonking the downstairs furniture with his boomwhackers. These are a set of plastic tubes in different lengths that, when whacked together or on something, produce different musical notes–rhythm sticks on steroids. As I wrote yesterday, Charlie found them in our basement and spent the rest of the evening making “whacky” music. He was so quickly attached to his newfound instrument that he loaded the red and orange ones into the backseat of the black car, along with his more prized possessions: blue blanket, black dog, big brown dog, Bunny (who is green), a box of ABC stencils, and two photos, one taken of him, Jim, and me in front of a carousel in St. Louis some five years ago.

It was at least two years ago that I bought Charlie the boomwhackers. With my mom sending him 95% of his wardrobe, my sister sending regular holiday gifts and cards (“for my nephew”), various relatives sending him presents and more cards, and me buying him flashcards, timers, supplements of Culturelle, and the occasional toy, Charlie gets quite a few packages addressed to him. “Look, it’s for you!” I’ll proclaim in my best WOW WAY COOL voice; Charlie glances at the box and goes back to his business.

Charlie has always warmed up slower than slow to anything new, from sushi to Alphabert the toy computer to songs that are now favorites (“Let’s Get Together” from the original Parent Trap) to this house (which we have lived in for something more than 2 1/2 years, longer than the three of us have lived in any one place). Over the past two years, I stopped buying him toys. There were so many things on his shelves that he never even poked a finger at, and the effort to teach him to play with anything new, even a toy truck, brought cries of “no” and “ah dunn,” swats at the toy, full-out tantrums. We had become well-aware of Charlie’s marked preference for the habitual and his rejection of the new, but it was certainly discouraging. I had no idea what to tell relatives asking “what would Charlie like” for his birthday or Christmas.

It was a revelation, then, to hear the sound of the boomwhackers and the cheery melody Charlie sang to his own accompaniment. “What tune is that?” I asked Jim as Charlie produced a series of sliding notes a few times over. “It’s Sugarcane Harris from the car,” said Jim. “Hey Cholly, what’s one of our new favorite tunes?” Jim whistled a few notes, which Charlie immediately imitated on his way out of the kitchen. “It’s Song For My Father, my favorite!” said Jim. It was several months earlier this year that Jim had mentioned this late jazz violinist who reminded him of the ’70s. Charlie has been singing the rather rough, exuberant high notes of the violin; he has been listening with a certain slant-eyed attentiveness and, with some coaching from Jim, sings “Where’s my su-unshine” on cue to the last track. “Way to go, Cholly boy!” Jim calls out.
The sun was with us all day. “Swide,” said Charlie mid-morning, pointing his finger towards the way we walk a half-hour to his favorite playground. This past July we had a highly unfun incident that left both of us dripping with sweat, tears, and tanbark, all because the slide was wet from a previous rain and Charlie became enraged when he could not climb up it as he intended. Today, Charlie dragged his feet away from puddles at my behest. He quickly discovered that the slide was, again, too wet for climbing and crouched at the bottom, picking up an earthworm and holding the slimey thing between his fingers. We swung for a bit and ran straight for the black car when Jim drove up.
Nourished with white rice, peas, hot dogs, and an apple (“Cholly, you are packing it in,” Jim laughed), the two of them went on a long bike ride. “He’s learned how to use the left hand-brake!” Jim called out as they rode up after an hour. “Yallow bike, bike ride,” said Charlie. “Helmet on.” “You mean helmet off,” I said. “Ellmet off!” Jim proceeded to rake leaves while Charlie loaded up the car with the aforementioned list of favorite things. He hopped into the green car which Jim had loaded down with the raked-up leaves and grass clippings for recycling.
They had been gone for ten minutes when Jim called me. “Does he have a rain coat or something? Let’s go on a canoe ride! This is the last week it’s open.” A small river runs through the middle of our town and you can rent a canoe or a kayak and paddle round the bends. Charlie ran excitedly on the wooden dock and smiled as the canoe owner zipped up his lifevest. He paddled a bit from his spot at the front of the boat, then sat quietly as we bobbed through the water and under a series of bridges. He only emitted a nervous cry at the end when we passed the boathouse and Jim kept going, with the purpose of turning the boat around. After a hot shower, Charlie looked me seriously in the eye and said “McDonalls.” Jim was back working in the yard; “can’t we go just go now?” I asked. “For Charlie, yessss,” said Jim.

Maybe it’s those fluorescent lights at the king of fast-food chains, but Charlie takes some fine photos at the home of the golden arches (like the one at the top of this post). He sat down in his accustomed booth and leaned over the garbage can as I ordered. He ate quickly, then carried his water cup into the play area and set it, as I directed, on a windowsill. “McDonalds!” he called out to me, standing straight and still, eyes looking into mine. “We’re at McDonalds playground,” I said. “Playground! Kristy blue car Kisty dives a blue car!” he called out and was off up the tube slide. I leaned against the wall and remembered other McDonalds–the two on Manchester Road in Missouri, the one in Castro Valley in California near where my dad used to work, another in Bergen County where the three of us sat on little colored stools on a rain-dreary day. “Time to head home,” said Jim and Charlie went, holding his dad’s hand.

After a fast trip to Target for some odds and ends (during which Charlie became briefly fretful in the DVD aisle, calling out “all done Gong Gong Po Po all done all done cake fork”), we met my parents at the airport. Charlie continued to hold tightly to Jim’s hand and to look shyly at his grandparents who, aware of how he warms up to them slowly, smiled back and gave him gentle hugs. Back home, still wearing his fleece jacket and his shoes, he pulled his blue blanket over him and went up to bed without one word of protest.
With Charlie, who walked late (15 months), talked later, and adjusts so slowly to the new and then with many aftershocks, the wait is always worth it. It is always a fine thing to spend a day on Charlie-time, with his voice and words as the background music.


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