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A crusty silverback reflects on Mother’s Day


Six months have passed, and it’s startling now to look back at the pictures.

At just under 6 pounds, I knew our grandson, Atticus, was smallish.

But I’d not been around newborns for a while.

So when he arrived before the polls opened on election day, Nov. 6, I didn’t know what normal was. That was a blessing.

The nurses assured us he was at the bottom end of normal birth weight; that he did not have what they clinically call low birth weight.

The dry erase board that recorded his weight in grams said the same thing.

And that allowed me to be awed and and a tad frightened by his tiny perfection.

I’m sure the nurses had a more dialed-in understanding when they noted his weight, updated daily and measured in grams.

But, in truth, they were nothing if not truthful.

We all had the sense he was on the border line for a while.

His appetite, upon which his health depended, was not healthy enough. Either that, or the new muscles needed to eat it were spent before his appetite was.

And so a shadow of worry hung over us like a silent, joyless mobile.

It appeared first in the hospital in which he was born, then in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit there. A week later, it followed us to the Nick-you, as the acronym is pronounced, at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

For some reason, when I think of that time of family closeness and worry, I remember two things: Meals in the first floor cafeteria at Children’s and walking into the silent nursery that awaited Atticus’ arrival.

He’s since turned into a thriving, healthy and ravenously eating infant, and storing the series of pictures I can produce to document his progress has become the major function of a cell phone I fumble with like a toddler.

Despite the disarming charm of many of them, it’s a picture from those earliest days that remains my favorite.

In it, Atticus is on the right side and a little dimly lit. He wears a tiny little white cap that helps keep him warm.

To my twisted grandfather mind he looks for all the world like a little monkey who has been rescued by animal right activists from the test lab of a cosmetics firm whose most profitable product is a lotion that helps women to remove unsightly facial hair.

I mean that, of course, with all the fondness of the crusty silverback gorilla of my clan.

To the left in the photo is neither Jane Goodall nor Dian Fossey, but rather my daughter, Christine. She’s wearing glasses, and her blondish hair is bathed in light, showing off its tangled texture.

Although both appear in side view, it’s not what’s happening with either that’s so striking. It’s what’s happening between them.

Had the picture involved the baby that doles out financial advice in the E-trade commercials, it would have followed a moment in which Atticus pointed two fingers toward his own eyes, then pointed them at Chris as a sign for her to pay attention.

But in the picture Atticus’ arms are immobilized, wrapped up with the rest of him in the snug cocoon of a blanket. And between cap and cocoon, his dark eyes look like tractor beams that have scanned the known universe and found their primary and only target: his mother’s face.

We commonly used the words “look to” to describe someone we depend on, trust or rely on. Atticus is “looking to” Christine in that sense in the most fundamental way. And she is looking back.

It’s not true of all fathers and grandfathers, of course. I say that because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years at the newspaper is that, as people, we are tremendously varied.

But for this silverback, who always feels slightly removed from the central action in his family, one of the pleasures of growing older is seeing the others in my clan love one another.

Before Atticus was born, I enjoyed seeing it in my son and wife.

When son Benjamin was in middle school and high school, I wondered as the woman who would no more watch professional wrestling with me than I would get a pedicure watched it so regularly with her son that she always knew what the Rock was cookin’.

These days, I find it something charming and utterly disarming about the way Christine looks at a fussing, whining Atticus and says “What’s the matter, buddy?” and how often it stops him in mid-sob.

There are many things to think about on Mother’s Day. But these are the things that will be on this crusty old silverback’s mind.


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