When Maggie was very young her response to people thanking her for something was to beam and say proudly, “no pleasure.”
She had mashed up the two responses she had often heard from me and Kim and combined “no problem” and “my pleasure” in her own way.
I love these little phrases that we hear each day from our children, friends, and colleagues. I always mean to write them down but sometimes forget. Time passes and I don’t get them exactly right. These phrases are never as good once our mind has smoothed them out as they were raw and in context.
I once stopped a class to write down a response to a correction I made. A student had told me “I be going to factor the polynomial.”
“Be going?” I asked.
“I know,” she said, “be be in all my sentences.”
Maggie loved to tell secrets before she was two. She loved the intimacy of walking up and whispering in someone’s ear. It was somehow a private moment in public. The problem was that she didn’t know any secrets. So she would walk up to me or Kim and cup her hands around our ears and whisper “wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.” Kim was able to maintain a serious look and nod her head as if receiving a very important secret. Me, I would giggle and give her a hug. Maybe I’m not good at keeping secrets.
Maggie loved homonyms and words that could mean different things in different contexts. That’s great for joke telling as so many early jokes for children turn on words that can have two different meanings. Maggie would show us something and we’d say “that’s great.”
“Great great” she’d ask, “or great great?” Her intonation indicated that she was trying to determine whether we meant great as in that’s fantastic or great in a sarcastic sense as in “oh great you spilled again.”
Elena was fascinated with sarcasm. She loved the fact that you could take a phrase and say it with a different intonation and people would understand you meant the opposite. She didn’t quite get it at first and would try to say phrases like “I am five years old” in a sarcastic voice not understanding why it wasn’t working for her. But soon she became fond of delivering complements with a sarcastic voice.
“Maggie, you look nice today,” she would say. She was never trusted that we would pick up on the sarcasm so she would raise her hands to gesture air quotes around the word “nice” and announce to the room, “I was being sarcastic.”
Thankfully, she outgrew that stage. She also went through a phase that she learned at school. This was the “no offense” stage. She’d seen people say horrible things and then follow them with “no offense” so she thought you were supposed to do this. She’d say, “dad, your belly is as big as a cow. No offense.”
I’d have to explain, “Elena, you say no offense when you have accidentally said something that someone might take the wrong way. You don’t use it on purpose to allow yourself to say something mean.” One of her best qualities was her sensitivity to others. As much as she loved the “no offense” tool, she quickly gave it up so as not to hurt others’ feelings.
Elena loved to sing and, like all children, often got the wrong lyrics stuck in her head. The words didn’t have to even make sense. She would sing them loud and wrong. “Little red caboose, little red caboose, little red caboose behind the train. Comin’ down the track, Moosebees on its back, Little red caboose behind the train.”
“What’s a Moose bee?”
“I dunno. It’s something on the train.”
Maggie would roll her eyes and say, “Elena, it’s a ‘smokestack on its back’ there’s no such thing as a Moose bee.”
Elena would laugh long and hard. “Moosebee”. But every time she would sing the song from then on she would punch the word “Moosebees” just a little bit harder – especially if Maggie was nearby. Mistakes like that drove Maggie nuts.
Elena would come into a room where I was working and say, “Knock knock”.
“Who’s there Elena?”
“Moosebees who, remember how I get the little red caboose song wrong with the word Moosebees? That’s who.” She’d laugh all over again. No one told a knock knock joke worse than Elena.
I’d call home whenever I was on the road both at night and in the morning. At night I’d say to Elena, “knock knock.”
“Who’s there daddy?”
“Go to bed.”
She laughed at that one for almost a year before she understood it.
There was almost exactly two and a half years between Maggie and Elena. Their birthdays were September second and March third so we celebrated each’s half birthday on the other’s birthday. Maggie was older by enough that she could pretend to be superior because she wasn’t making the mistakes that Elena made.
In fact, they’d always made different sorts of mistakes. Maggie was such a good reader early that she got lazy about sounding words out and would just assume she knew a word without looking closely enough on it. When she was three she was proudly reading every sign she could. We’d pull into a parking lot and she would read everything in sight. One day we stopped to get coffee for me and hot chocolate for her and she pointed at the sign in the space next to ours that read “No parking any time.”
“Look dad,” she said, “No parking Amy Tan.”