Civilization or Bust

Ellie — Well, you’ve now come and gone again. It had been almost three months since your grandfather and I had seen you — and I was struck by how much you’ve changed. When you first saw us this time, you sat and regarded us calmly, your big blue eyes hardly blinking.

Look at those eyes!

Look at those eyes!

Over the next few days, we took you in a stroller on the Hike and Bike Trail, we watched you motor around in a crawl and pull yourself upright, we took you to a legendary Austin restaurant called Taco Deli, where you smeared refried black beans all over your face and hands and looked like you’d just bathed in an oil well.

You smiled, you laughed, you bellowed, you slept. Like any other 10-month-old, you did whatever you wanted when you wanted. If the rest of us didn’t like it, tough. But, of course, we’re your biggest fan club; we reliably love everything you do — marvel at it, in fact.

“Babies are so uncivilized,” your mother said. “I think it’s one of the things we all love most about them.”

She and I talked about that — how, as the nearby adults in your life, our responsibility is to civilize you,

Here you are, reading with your grandfather

Here you are, reading with your grandfather

among other things. Right now, your total incivility is charming; in a couple of years, it will be infuriating.

Currently, we all just exist to make you happy by keeping you safe, warm, well-slept, well-fed. There’s a certain simplicity to it. But this civilizing business: it’s a real trick for the rest of us, a delicate balance.

Ideally, we all want to bring up a child who’s sensitive to others, but with a strong sense of her own worth. Well-mannered, but independent. Sociable, but a good listener. Appreciative of beauty, but not forgetting how much struggle goes on around her. Also, with plenty of humor, since life is so much better when you can laugh at it and yourself and everything around you — but serious, since living is a serious business in this fraught and chaotic world.

Oh, good grief, Ellie. You see the problem. We, the adults, the “experts,” are still trying to find a balance in our own lives, still trying to make sense of the world and good, civilized people of ourselves. We know more than you do, since we’ve lived so much longer, but that doesn’t mean we know enough.

But that’s the way of the world. Parents are amateurs and grandparents are amateurs with wrinkles — and there’s nothing as humbling as trying to civilize a young child. But we do what we can. One lesson I learned raising children is that you mold us as much as we mold you.

You and your mother on your girls' trip

You and your mother on your girls’ trip

Anyway, your mother swept you up, along with a suitcase on wheels, a stroller, and an overnight bag, and boarded the flight back to Seattle. Thirty minutes into the flight, she reported later, you vomited all over another passenger and his computer. An hour later, another passenger fainted and had to be treated by a cardiologist on the plane, and the flight attendant reportedly looked as if she wanted to quit on the spot.

Fortunately, the vomited-on passenger turned out to have kids, which made your mother feel better, everyone forgot about the vomiting baby because of the drama of the fainting passenger, and the plane landed just fine. Hey — we call that a successful flight in this messy, civilized, grown-up world of ours. Priorities, priorities, and, as the philosopher said, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Love you, my darling girl, Coco

(Copyright 2016 by Ruth Pennebaker)



  1. Brette Sember · June 6, 2016

    So glad you got to spend time with that little girl. I suspect you will still be charmed by her even when she is infuriating.

  2. Roxanne · June 6, 2016

    Oh, poor Ellie. Planes are tough on tummies.

  3. Kerri @ Living Large · June 6, 2016

    Oh, my. What a trip. Sounds like you had a great visit, even if it was a little “uncivilized!” 🙂

  4. jeanine barone · June 6, 2016

    For sure: parents are amateurs. How true. We’re always learning and trying to get it right. The plane ride did sound like a crazy adventure.