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Everyone who sees my daughter Eliza shake her head "no" laughs and tries to imitate her. We all wag our head side to side and simultaneously shimmy our bodies from the waist up. But no one ever gets it right. Our bodies respond stiffly and we simply can't replay her eighteen-month-old fluidity of movement or capture that combination of sauciness and innocence, goofiness and grace.
Now I'm afraid Eliza is going to lose her wonderful wiggle because, just the other day, she actually said "no." I worry that her access to words will make body language less essential. But the concern came later. At the moment she said it, as we were walking down the hall to her bedroom and I asked her if she wanted me to change her diaper, my heart beat faster and a huge smile broke across my face. "Did you say 'no?'" I asked excitedly. Eliza smiled up at me (she can't say "yes" yet). "Are you sure you want to encourage that?" my husband Benjamin inquired from the kitchen, where he was washing dishes. I gave Eliza a big hug.
I realize, of course, that Eliza is hurtling toward the "terrible twos" and that soon I may well become exasperated by her growing "negativity." But my thrilled reaction to hearing her say "no" for the first time came straight from my gut. It was partly, of course, a parent's joy at their child's growing mastery of vocabulary. But "no" is different than "doggie" or "ducky" or "apple." I was rejoicing at my daughter's increasing ability to voice her own innermost thoughts, and to make the world know her opinion.
I remember two things most clearly from the moments after Eliza was born. She was apparently a little blue in the face, so they whisked her over to the warming table in the hospital room and gave her some oxygen as they rubbed her down. I couldn't see her, but I have a clear memory of hearing her cry and the nurse saying, "Well, she's definitely one who lets you know if she doesn't like something." Then they brought her over to Benjamin and me and the nurse held her up for us to see. My next clear memory is of how she stunned us both, because she stopped crying, opened her eyes, and looked quietly all around the room, taking note of each fuzzy person there.
There was something in her expression that took us by surprise. That kind of intense observation did not fit our image of a newborn. The nurses and doctors remarked on her alertness, and attributed it to the lack of painkilling drugs in my--and therefore, her--system. I felt then, and am sure now, that it was our first glimpse of our little girl's true nature. At her very core, Eliza is an intensely observant and vociferously opinionated person.
My mother-in-law laughs when she remembers telephoning us in those first few weeks. We would say, "We're giving Eliza her first bath. She doesn't like it." "We're trying out Eliza's new infant seat. She doesn't like it." Grandma Jeanette loved it that her grandbaby had such strong opinions on these matters.
We would try to describe to our parents how Eliza looked at things, but it wasn't until they visited that any of them really understood the intensity of their grandchild's gaze. We have pictures of her, tiny in her too-big, wildly colored baby clothes, with her little furrowed brow and decidedly set mouth, staring at something outside the frame. Or looking up at her grandfather, their eyes locking, my Dad's filled with tears.
Now that she can run and laugh, I know that Eliza is fun-loving and that she has a great sense of humor. She has entered day care, and I can see she is brave and adaptable, and also that she gets aggressive when she feels overwhelmed. Since the day of Eliza's birth, though, those two aforementioned characteristics--opinionated and observant--have remained the best ways of describing her.
Recently Eliza has started "babbling." A few weeks ago Benjamin told me that as she stood near the window, Eliza gave him a long exposition on the history and use of Venetian blinds. This morning as she inspected my necklace, she told me a long story about, I am sure, the distant lands from which the lapis lazuli stones come. I could listen to her "talk" for hours. I am constantly amazed by the intricacy of her diction and intonation, and especially by the intensity of her eyes as she watches me, making sure I am understanding her. I can only hope I'm saying the right thing, and that she believes me, when I tell her, "I'm sure you're absolutely right about that." Much as I love these moments, I eagerly await the day when I will understand her and be able to reply more appropriately.
So, while I don't want her to lose her whole-body-and-head shaking "no," I greet the arrival of the word itself with a sense of celebration, mixed, I suppose, with a little trepidation. For eighteen months I have watched Eliza watching the world, and I have loved seeing her thoughts played out across her features. I have witnessed with excitement her increasing ability to act on her desires, and to hear her discuss her thoughts in such expressive, albeit unintelligible, detail. But now, with the arrival of "no," and all the other words soon to follow, I feel a thrill of privilege as I realize that soon I will learn even more about all the wonderful activity going on in my daughter's observant and opinionated little head.
Rachel Seidman teaches history at Carleton College. This is her first contribution to Minnesota Parent. In the year since this piece was first written, Eliza has continued to thrill her mother with increasingly detailed accounts of her observations and opinions.