My father was not easily flustered. He survived the German bombing of London during World War II and later escaped the Kremlin with only an ulcer. He went on to become managing editor of The New York Times, marry a president’s daughter and raise four sons.
He survived into grandfatherhood only to be undone by something he thought he had put well behind him: potty training.
The fall of 1990, Dad and Mom came to dinner at our house in Wilmington, N.C. They were in town from New York for the weekend to visit their grandchildren, something they did several times a year.
They loved their grandchildren and doted on them. But they always stayed at a bed and breakfast a few miles away. At the end of the day, they needed a place to hide from the little monsters.
During dinner that night, I sat at one end of the table, my wife, Polly, at the other, with Mom and Dad on my left. Opposite them were Aimee and Wesley, each within easy reach of a parent in case they tried something spectacular with the food. Aimee, 3, was sitting in a booster seat on one of the dining room chairs. Wesley, 1, was strapped into a baby chair that clamped onto the table.
We had finished the main course and were in the middle of dessert and coffee when Dad stood up and said, “Can someone point me in the direction of the little boys’ room?”
He always used that euphemism around children—and occasionally around adults.
I’ll show you, Grandpa
Aimee volunteered. She was, after all, in the middle of potty training. For weeks, whenever her face clouded and she started looking for privacy behind furniture, she had been shepherded to the bathroom and showered with applause and chants of, “Good girl, Aimee! Good girl!”
As far as she was concerned, she knew everything there was to know about the bathrooms.
“I’ll show you, Grandpa,” she said as she wriggled out of her booster seat.
Dad was delighted to have a granddaughter. In anticipation of Aimee’s birth, he had waxed poetic in a column in the Times about the mere possibility of having a granddaughter. He imagined shopping for little dresses and buying toys that didn’t explode or ooze. Though he’d never admit it to our faces, he’d always wished one of us had been a girl. I still remember the day I found a dress in the bottom drawer of my bureau and asked whose it was.
“Yours,” my mother said.
So Dad, having finally gotten a granddaughter, was only too willing to let her lead him around.
Aimee, apparently, had other ideas. The bathroom had become a major focus in her life and a trip there was not to be taken lightly. Potty training had taught her that you didn’t go to the bathroom simply to wash your hands or hang out—you went on business.
After leading Dad into the downstairs bathroom and gesturing grandly at the toilet, she hiked up her dress, dropped her underpants and sat down.
It’s all about appearances
I can only imagine Dad’s initial reaction. This was a man for whom appearance and personal comportment were paramount. You couldn’t get him to spend more than $50 on a stereo, but he’d blow hundreds at Brooks Brothers. He wore a suit every working day of his life and often on weekends. He always had a handkerchief folded neatly into the breast pocket of his jacket. Suspenders held up his pants, elastic garters held up his socks and I suspect he ironed his boxers.
Even the title of the memoir he wrote about his career as a foreign correspondent was straitlaced: Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Whatever his reaction to Aimee’s breach of comportment, by the time he returned to the dining room table he was red-faced and flustered.
“Someone needs to, um … she, uh …” he said.
Polly knew immediately what had happened and sprang from the table, apologizing as she ran toward the bathroom. Dad, meanwhile, sat down to compose himself while Mom, no doubt, made a mental note to wait until she got back to the bed and breakfast.
Polly returned, apologized again, and put Aimee back in her chair. Dad waited a minute or two, until his granddaughter seemed thoroughly engrossed in her cake and ice cream, then quietly left the table.
I did not anticipate Aimee’s next move. Though I had been in on the potty training, I did not realize how much Aimee enjoyed it. Had I also known she’d become a zealot about sharing the praise and encouragement, I would have sprinted after her the second I noticed she was gone from the table.
On the other side of the house, in the downstairs bathroom, Dad was attending to business, unaware that he had not locked the door.
It swung back suddenly on its hinges to reveal his granddaughter, staring right at him, smiling from ear to ear, her mouth and her bib smeared with ice cream, clapping her hands.
“Good boy, Grandpa!” she yelled. “Good boy!”
Clifton Truman Daniel is the director of public relations at Truman College in Chicago. He also is the author of Growing Up with My Grandfather: Memories of Harry S. Truman.