When I served my 2-year-old son Raphael his dinner the other day, he surprised me with a speedy, "Thank you." We've been working on his manners, so this pleased me greatly, until he stopped me in my tracks with the rest of the sentence: "... you old mongrel." I looked incredulously at my daughter who confirmed the message: "Mom, he just called you an old mongrel."
At first, I was too shocked to say anything. On the one hand, "mongrel" is a pretty impressive word for a 2-year-old. On the other hand, it's a pretty annoying word, given that my entire day had been spent in the service of this tiny tot. It's certainly not a word we use around the house. When I finally regained my composure, I asked my daughter: "Where did he learn that word?"
"From one of Daddy's books," she replied.
When I told my husband what the precocious one had said, he could barely contain his glee.
"Go ahead and laugh then," I said, clearly not amused. "But what I want to know is, what have you been reading to our children?"
His eyes suddenly widened, "Oh, it was the Disney book! But, baby, it's a nice scene where some older dogs are trying to help the younger ones find their puppies … so I think it might be a term of endearment."
A term of endearment? How could my husband even get through that sentence with a straight face?
The next morning, I let the kids get my husband up while I stayed in bed reading his vintage 1965 Walt Disney storybook collection. There in the Twilight Bark scene of 101 Dalmatians, the distraught parents of the missing puppies bark their troubles into the night hoping to alert sympathetic canines, until finally:
In a London back alley, two old mongrels heard the message as they rummaged through the rubbish cans for food.
Upon hearing the upsetting news, the old mongrels leap into action, spreading the word to animals across England who deliver the happy ending. A lovely story. But what in the world could have connected in Raphael's brain about that scene and his mother making dinner? As I scurry around the kitchen, do I really come across like an alley mongrel rummaging through trash? Maybe so. Or was it just the toddler language acquisition machine randomly spitting out new words? Either way, his timing was impeccable.
People will tell you kids say the darnedest things, and it's true. But if I don't write them down, even the cutest sayings get forgotten. The lines that stick with me though, are the ones with the salty sweet mix of insult and amusement. Like the summer I was editing a documentary film and my daughter (around 3 at the time) announced: "I don't like your docu-memories, they've got too much blah, blah, blah!" Her innocent word stumble, combined with her keen observation that the film had too many interviews, delighted me.
When I finally emerged from my early morning read, I shuffled into the kitchen in need of coffee. Raphael was on the floor with a sippy cup and a dreamy smile. He looked into my eyes and surprised me with another phrase I'd never heard him say: "Hi sweetheart."
I guess that's me, just an old dog with a sweet heart, trying to help.
Cary Okoro is a Chicago-based writer, artist and filmmaker. She blogs at caryokoro.wordpress.com.