As I gaze into the guileless blue eyes of my toddler son, much of the time I do not know who he really is.
I am not speaking metaphorically. I mean I have no idea what the hell he means when he cheerfully announces, mouth full of breakfast, "Charlie is Peter."
Peter Rabbit? Peter from The Snowy Day? Peter from The Plumply Dumply Pumpkin? You'd think I would know — Charlie thinks I know — but absent any other clues, I am utterly at a loss. Unless he's actively being pursued by a hoe-swinging maniac (Et tu, Mr. McGregor?) or going all Jack the Ripper on some innocent autumn gourd, I don't have anything to go on. "Peter Rabbit?" I venture, and of course I am wrong. "Petertellshismotherallabouthisadventures," Charlie tells me, "whileshetakesoffhiswetsocks." If he knew how much rolling his eyes would piss me off, I'm pretty sure he'd be doing it. The Snowy Day it is. Now what this has to do with sitting indoors on a day when no snow is falling, eating whole-grain waffles drizzled with maple syrup, I leave as an exercise for the reader, because I'm goddamned if I can figure it out.
Yesterday he stumped me. We were out in the driveway playing with sticks. (Pointy ones. We were running with them. In our mouths.) Charlie took one of my purple rubber work gloves and impaled it, then waved it high in the air. "Charlie is Bill!" he crowed.
"Bill!" he repeated, then looked at me expectantly, face alight with anticipation.
Bill. Bill...Bill. Biiiiill? BillBillBillBill...Bill. Bill?
Meanwhile, Charlie was still brandishing his stick, glove flapping at its end, face falling perceptibly with every second I failed to greet him properly. And then the penny dropped. Oh, Bill. Bill, the head of the Lower Trainswitch School for Trains, a crusty old engineer who keeps his protegé, the eponymous Tootle, on the straight and narrow, tirelessly admonishing him to Stay on the Rails No Matter What. And counseling him, as I fortunately remembered in time, to Stop for a Red Flag Waving. (Apparently this likeness was taken mere seconds before Bill met his untimely end at the wheels of an oppositional pupil.)
Or as my own two-year-old Bill would have it, stop for a purple rubber glove dangling from the end of a waterlogged stick.
A dozen times a day or more, Charlie is someone else. Sometimes guessing is easy. There aren't too many Babars lurching around the American northeast (although Charlie takes great pains to make it clear that he is speaking of the Babar who is "kingovvaelephants," to distinguish him, I suppose, from the Babar who plows our driveway in an oil-burning Chevy pickup). And it is always perfectly clear that when Charlie is Mr. Rogers, he is in fact the lovable icon from my own childhood, because Charlie only assumes his identity when he is a) brushing his teeth — the single episode we've watched involves Mr. Rogers going to the dentist — or b) taking off his winter boots and replacing them with his slippers. "Mr. Rogers is putting on his inside shoes!" he declares, and looks around for a kelly green zip-front cardigan to complete his amazing transformation.
If you do any reading about toddlers, you'll learn that it is perfectly normal for your two-year-old to seem at times like a weird little stranger. And that's a good thing, because he's definitely weird — "Charlie is Mothra," for God's sake. And he's sometimes pretty damned strange indeed. Does that seem like a harsh thing to say? Yes? Well, let me know if you change your mind once your kid starts announcing to the world, "Charlie is a Poisonous Dishcloth."