Dad of a Dry Dandy

Learning to love a landlubber

In the spring of 1990, my wife Michele and I became the proud parents of twin boys--identical amphibians. In the delivery room our doctor called out to one of the nurses: "How's that second one doing?" At the time, I could have sworn the nurse replied: "He's a little floppy." But in retrospect, I am sure she must have said: "He's a little froggy."

It didn't take us long to recognize their talent for turning rooms into marsh-like habitats. Liquids brought them alive, and liquefying anything and everything in their reach became the passion of their early years. I seriously considered putting a paper towel dispenser in every room of our home.

For years, we operated our dining room with a futile patch of linoleum underneath their high chairs in the vain hope that we could protect our area rug from their nightly sprayings. If it spilled, they tipped it. If it spilled and was gooey or greasy, Nick and Jake coated themselves with it.

One summer evening after a hard rain, I took them, clad in Pampers, to the park across the street. I was awakened from a momentary lapse in surveillance by a parent who announced: "I think your boys are about to sit in those puddles." Just as "Don't" emerged from my mouth, they straddled the puddles, bent over, and with great glee, dipped their heads into the muddy water.

Soon after their second birthdays, I had my first lesson in how amphibians negotiate. During another fresh-water excursion, Nicholas disappeared into the fountain in Northfield's town square. I stared into the bubbling waters, and was horrified to discover that he was completely submerged. In a panic, I yanked him out.

I pressed his dripping body to mine, and cried: "Are you okay?" As his sobbing subsided, he spit some water into my ear, and asked with remarkable composure: "Now, can we go to Dairy Queen?"

It was during those early years that they socialized me to dampness. Under their tutelage, I slowly learned that being wet, chilly, and uncomfortable was what separated true parents from casual caregivers. If I arrived at work without a huge stain on my shirt or gob of whatever on my pants, I felt guilty about not having said a full frontal good-bye to the boys.

Gradually my friendship patterns changed. I began to shun dads who wore ties. I found myself seeking out harried, unkempt, clammy-looking guys in t-shirts, guys who had towels sticking out of their back pockets. If they had a dried blob of catsup mousse in their hair, or fresh mucus on a kneecap--all the better. Dads with distressed wardrobes having bad hair days. Guys I could relate to.

Two years later when our third son was born without a tail or gills, we worried, as any parents would, but we were assured by our veterinarian that he would develop normally like his older brothers. But as time passed, the evidence became overwhelming. Our little Luke was a different species altogether.

I don't mean to suggest that he has some sort of phobia about water. He's just careful--very careful. He likes water in its place. Contained. He especially likes plastic bottles in which the juice fills up the hollow handle. That way he can actually grip the juice and keep his hand dry at the same time. A two-for.

Our household has been a hard place for someone with his sensibilities to grow up. Watching him maneuver has given me a better appreciation for how Noah must felt on the ark--caught in a flood, surrounded by pairs of creatures. At lunch one day, I observed him delicately squeezing the marinara sauce onto the wafer that Oscar Meyer packages with its Pizza Lunchable. He looked a bit upset, but I couldn't tell why: "Luke did you spill some of the sauce?" "No," he sighed. "But I did get some crumbs on my hand."

One night he called me into the bathroom with a faint note of complaint in his voice. He rose up out of the tub and said: "Can I have a towel? A drop of water is in my eye." He stepped around Jake who was busy ignoring him, and building another tier onto his bubble beehive hair-do with matching beard.

It has taken a few years, but Luke has finally worked through his butter dilemma. His first take on butter was disgust--a hunk of grease that got on your fingers while you were trying to enjoy a nice piece of dry toast. But then through carefully controlled experiments, he began to appreciate its advantages as an adhesive. As he explained to me one morning at breakfast: "It gives cinnamon something to stick to." On the stool next to him, Nick rolled his eyes and took another bite from his handful of tangerine pulp.

For Christmas, Luke asked for a "sippy bowl," an ingenious invention in which a plastic straw is fused to the inside rim of a conventional plastic cereal bowl. This clever contrivance allows "sippy" owners to sip rather than tip, when they want that last mouthful of milk. Luke likes to say: "You don't have to put your mouth on the bowl." "Sippy" is a cereal-only bowl. He has given us strict orders not to "gunk up the straw" with soup, or some god- awful mucilage like beef stew. Take care of "sippy," and it will take care of you.

Michele's theory is that any amphibiotic predispositions Luke had at birth were erased when he fell under the influence of Erika, the refined daughter of friends of ours. During the heyday of her toddler salon, Erika was the Miss Manners of the tea party set on our street. Luke and Erika played nicely together setting tables and washing dishes in the style of a middle-aged couple with a strong marriage. Nick and Jake started referring to Luke as Erika's husband.

And I have to admit, there is photographic evidence to support this explanation of Luke's scrupulous use of liquids. While flipping through our family album, we found of picture of Luke in Erika's playroom, holding an empty teacup toward the camera. It's as though he is showing for posterity the way a cup should look--full of nothing but air.

Then there's the "Cousin William" factor. Cousin William is the meticulous only child of one of Michele's older brothers. Cousin William has big-boy clothes that are too small for Nick and Jake. When the box of hand-me-down vests, "shiny shoes," and tennis sweaters arrive, they look brand new. Michele marvels: "I guess Cousin William isn't hard on clothes."

Luke calls the hand-me-downs "handsome." He likes to try on different ensembles and wear them around the house. Partly for the thrill of sporting unblemished big-boy clothes. Partly to goad us other guys out of our slovenly self-satisfaction.

There are some days when I think it is working. His brothers are proving more responsive to his influence than I ever imagined possible. Just the other day, Jake shot some juice down his sleeve, and it ran down his side and emerged at his hip. He shouted: "That's incredible. I'm going to show Mommy." But then he toweled himself off, and actually put on a clean shirt. And Nick washed--and dried!--his fingers of syrup before tickling the piano keys.

I'm the lone holdout. I must be in denial. I find myself staring into the closet at all of those dusty ties. I can't imagine wearing them again. I've lost the will, never had the energy to dance around the kitchen to keep neckwear clear of strawberry jam. I find myself wondering: "How did I--of all people--become dad to a trio of would-be gentlemen?"

John Ramsay lives in Northfield with his wife, Michele, and their three sons. He teaches educational studies at Carleton College and is a member of the Northfield school board. His essays and articles have appeared in numerous publications, including theStar Tribune andMinnesota Parent.

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