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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Of life, death and a first smile

By David Shapiro

I was throwing my best material at my new granddaughter, Sloane, trying desperately to keep her amused before one of the women removed her from my lap at the first whimper.

I made silly faces at her, wiggled my fingers, made funny noises, wiggled her fingers, tickled her chin.

But she squirmed with a look of suspicious grump, her little brow furrowed and her face scrunched and ready to break into full wail at any moment.

Babies usually start to smile between four and six weeks. Sloane was at five weeks and had yet to yield her first grin. She showed no sign of being ready to break her streak of newborn crankiness for me.

I was having a crabby day myself — behind in my work, dealing with a costly auto repair and suffering the after-effects of an unpleasant medical procedure.

Mostly, I think I was out of sorts that I was about to turn 55, often considered the official start of senior citizenship.

Whatever was eating at me, I needed to get a smile out of this baby.

One of the women offered a pumpkin cream puff to distract me, so Sloane could be snatched from my arms.

"Just a minute," I said.

The cream puff was covered with powdered sugar, into which I dipped the tip of my pinky finger and moved my hand toward Sloane's mouth.

My daughter was aghast at what I was about to do. The baby had never tasted anything but milk and the residue from her brother Corwin's nacho-flavored corn chips.

I was unconcerned that a dab of sugar would harm the baby. Heck, fussy infants in my day were mollified with bottles of sugar water, and we lived. Never mind the 200 bazillion fat cells that attached to my body from all that sugar.

I touched my pinky to Sloane's lips, and her tiny tongue darted out to explore. She smacked a couple of times in perplexity — and then broke into the most beautiful smile I'll ever see.

She swept her tongue over her lips again to collect the remaining sprinkles of sugar and beamed once more.

It was as though her entire personality changed in an instant.

I know, I cheated.

The first smile is supposed to go to the mother, who endures the pain of childbirth and then enters into weeks of sleepless slavery without reward. The first smile is her payoff, and I stole it.

My daughter gave me her unmistakable look of displeasure that I have known all too well since she was Sloane's age. I could only chuckle.

Sloane looks so much like her mother did as an infant that it's difficult to tell some of their baby pictures apart. The similarity in disposition is uncanny.

I got to remember all over again what it was like to be a young father holding my first child in my arms and resorting to cheap tricks to coax a smile.

Grandchildren project us into the future as powerfully as they connect us to the past.

I saw this when talk turned to Sloane's grandmother on her father's side, who died young of cancer and didn't get to see all of her children grow up, much less meet her grandchildren.

There's cosmic comfort in knowing that she's got a quarter share of herself in Corwin and Sloane, just like me.

And I realized there are worse things than becoming a senior citizen — such as never getting the chance to become a senior citizen.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.