January 1, 2010

Pity our poor dog Sammi. She’s a beagle, a breed with a proud lineage that stretches back to Great Britain at a time prior to the Roman conquest. Its first mention in English literature was in 1475, and King Edward III bred beagles specifically to hunt rabbits. Nowadays, beagles sniff out drugs or bombs at airports and help detect traces of flame accelerants at suspected arson sites.

Sammi, sadly, isn’t helping make the world safe from terrorists or solving crimes. She’s busy hiding from a two year old who’s trying to force her to wear a diaper.

Santa brought Penelope several toy diapers, hoping she’d stop taking the real, and oftentimes wet, ones off herself and putting them on her teddy bear. The toy diapers seemed like a good idea, but now Penelope has advanced from stuffed animals to living ones. On her first attempt, she almost managed to swing the diaper around Sammi’s back legs. If it’s possible for a beagle’s face to express surprise, then that’s how I’d describe Sammi’s look. She jumped a few feet forward, but a persistent Penelope pounced on her tail, and implored the puzzled pooch to “nay down.” All those centuries of highly attuned hunting instincts kicked in, and Sammi scampered to the safety of another room.

Sammi wasn’t the only victim of one of Penelope’s Christmas toys this year. Earlier this week after fixing the CD player, Penelope and I were bouncing around to Rilo Kiley. Penelope grabbed a pair of toy maracas. I cradled her in one arm while I shook a tambourine with the other like I was auditioning for Josie and the Pussycats. Unfortunately, I was looking away from the Peanut when she accidentally clocked me upside the head with her maraca. Hello, head-circling stars and tweety birds!

Bernadette arrived home a few minutes later, saw the lump by my eye and asked if she needed to take me to the emergency room. After a few moments of muddled pondering, I decided I’d rather risk the cranial bleed and pull a Bill Holden than suffer the embarrassment of explaining what happened to the ER nurse.

Despite the wounds to my head and Sammi’s dignity, our first Christmas together turned out quite wonderfully. We traveled back to Buffalo to visit Bern’s family. While there I learned a few things, namely: no matter how cold you think Buffalo is in December, it’s even colder; if you give already energetic kids enough Christmas presents and sugar cookies, they can actually be in three rooms at the same time; and a coffee maker works better when you remember to place the coffee pot under it.

Perhaps Penelope’s favorite Christmas presents are the kitchen set, and the assorted “Melissa and Doug” wooden food items (a pizza, stir fry, cookies and vegetables) and utensils. Her manner of playing has progressed in the past few weeks, and I’m fascinated watching her development. She has shifted gears from playing predominantly for physical development of motor skills and dexterity, to emotional development with pretend play.

Up until recently, Penelope’s idea of playing was to fill a container with blocks or puzzle pieces and dump them on the floor. Now, she’s standing in front of her stove, wearing an apron and slicing wooden vegetables and cooking eggs or pizza for me.

I pause and wonder if I’ve got a future Iron Chef living under our roof. Then the daydream ends: I hear a toy mixer running in the bathroom, and I know the mixing bowl is filled with water. Time to scurry off before I’m mopping the bathroom walls.

All She Wants for Christmas . . .

December 2009

On a blustery Saturday afternoon in December, one of Santa’s elves is teaching me a lesson on crowd control. I’m standing at a break in the line at the Macy’s in New York City waiting with my nephew David for the family to catch up to us. And, being a little bored and naturally curious, I start chatting with the 20-something elf as she keeps the line moving and prevents chiselers from slipping in undetected.

She laughs and shows me the proper way to pump your arm and to gently nudge stragglers along. I swing my arms around and jump up and down with the enthusiasm of a hungry beagle catching a whiff of cheese at supper time. The elf says I’m a quick learner and should go talk to Human Resources about a job.

Unfortunately, her boss isn’t impressed, and as he lifts his weary eyes from the clipboard balanced atop his protruding stomach to voice his displeasure, I consider asking him if he’s angling for Santa’s job once he pulls the enormous candy cane out of his behind. But I refrain in deference to my new elfin friend, and the fact that the good folks at Macy’s are kind and have allowed me to wait for my family at this juncture in the line. A few moments later, the family arrives.

This is the first year I’ve ever had a reason to visit Santa at Macy’s. I remember my parents taking me to see the inebriated Santa at Tepper’s Department Store in Plainfield when I was a tyke. Then we’d race out of town before someone threw a brick through the windshield of our Dodge Dart.

Since Penelope is only two years old, Bernadette and I would probably have waited another year before visiting. But our niece and nephew have five children, several of whom are the right age for visiting Santa, so we happily tagged along.

It takes an hour before we meet Santa, but along the way, a conductor ushers us into a train, and we stroll along a winding path decorated with Christmas trees, singing bears and skaters. The presentation is stunning.

We marvel at the decorations until the moment arrives when we meet the big guy. Penelope climbs onto Santa’s lap. He asks her what she wants for Christmas, and in that moment comes the highlight of my holiday: “APPLE JUICE!!!” she cheers. Someday, my daughter is going to ask for a cell phone, or a television for her bedroom, or a car, and I will wistfully recall the day when all she wanted was apple juice.

This incident led to a lengthy conversation between Bern and I about gifts for Penelope. My point in our discussion was simply that Penelope is a typical two year old when it comes to playing. If you give her a toy in a box, she’ll take the toy out of the box and play with the box. If you give her a puzzle, she’ll dump the pieces on the floor and walk into the kitchen to ask for an orange. I understand: She’s two; that’s her job.

So, I suggested rather than empty the shelves at Target, we buy Penelope the things a two year old enjoys playing with: an empty box, a dish rag, a roll of toilet paper, maybe a broken cell phone.

Needless to say, Bern didn’t exactly love the idea. “Twenty years from now our kid is going to be in therapy because you gave her an empty box for Christmas.”

“She will not,” was my less-than-snappy reply. “I wasn’t suggesting a crappy box from the liquor store. I was thinking more about re-wrapping that box that her Little Einstein bath toys came in and giving that to her.”

“She does play with that box every time I take her down to the basement, but no you cannot give our child an empty box for Christmas,” Bern said. “Twenty years from now when she’s in therapy, it’ll be your fault.”

Some discussions you know you’re going to lose even before they begin, and I had no doubt I was losing this one. Besides, I wasn’t serious about the idea. Just wondering. So, it’s off to Toys ‘R’ Us and after being in a toy store just before Christmas, perhaps a quick detour to Super Saver Liquors on the way home.

Oh, and of course, a final stop at ShopRite for that apple juice.