When my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, I daydreamed constantly about her growing up and being old enough to talk. I could not wait for her to tell me what happened at school, at her friend’s house, at the playground, whatever. I have spent my career talking to people to uncover their stories, and hers was the one I most wanted to know. What would she be like? What would I be like? What would we be like?
As the months went on, and my wife’s belly grew along with the baby inside it, my desire for those conversations became almost overpowering. I gave them places and context. She was about 10, and we were standing in a kitchen (though not any kitchen I’ve ever had) and she always had on a black t-shirt. She had blonde hair (which turned out to be true) and was, um, short (ditto.)
All along, I imagined those conversations would be in English.
Then she was born, and she started talking, and I didn’t know what the heck language she was speaking.
My daughter opened her mouth, as if to speak. I leaned close. And then, in a voice just above a whisper, she said, mysteriously, impenetrably, conspiratorially: “hockamomo.”
I used to think my friends who translated what their kids said were faking it. How did you get that from that? Not anymore. I figured out that “payguns” meant grapes. I figured out that she had one word that covered hamburgers and octopus (though how and why those two became one I have no idea). I figured out that “mo-goose” meant either Mother Goose or marshmallow, depending on the context. But context can also be deceiving. Witness the following exchange, which hand on the Bible happened:
Me: “Do you want milk?”
And there was one word that I never figured out: hockamomo. Hockamomo means something. It means something big, something fabulous, something mind-blowingly important. And because she has long since stopped saying it, I’ll never know what that something is. But it won’t be for a lack of effort.
When she began saying it at around 18 months old, I became obsessed. I turned hockamomo into a song, the sole lyrics of which were, “hocka mo, hocka hocka mo mo. Hocka mo, hocka hocka mo mo.” I tried to break hockamomo down, syllable by syllable. I gave that up as a fool’s errand because she pronounced Jim as Nimanimnim.
Did she like to eat hockamomo? Listen to it? Play with it? Though she could not yet answer or understand questions, I asked them anyway. She looked me dead in the eye. She opened her mouth, as if to speak. I leaned close. And then, in a voice just above a whisper, she said, mysteriously, impenetrably, conspiratorially: “hockamomo.”
So much for my dreams about conversations.
I don’t know how the word “pacifier” still exists because there doesn’t appear to be a family in America that calls pacifiers by that name.
I asked my Facebook friends about the rise and fall of their own familial dead languages and the thread was funny to the point of bizarre. I discovered almost as many names for grandma and grandpa—Mimi, Nana, Big Chair(?), Hello (??), Morning (???)—as there are grandmas and grandpas. I don’t know how the word “pacifier” still exists because there doesn’t appear to be a family in America that calls pacifiers by that name.
One friend’s daughter called his stubbly facial hair farks, which he thinks might have been a variation of forks, which perhaps his sharp whiskers reminded her of.
Many children (innocently) turn (innocent) words into f-bombs. Fork sounds especially like that word, and it’s even funnier when a kid drops a fork, points to it, and says, loudly, “fork.” One friend’s son pronounced Shrek so it sounded exactly like the Queen Mother of Dirty Words, and I can only imagine the look on his Mimi’s face if she asked Junior what he wanted to watch on TV and he said Shrek.
Another friend’s daughter had an entire language he called “Erinese.” Her version of hockamomo was “I shucked me a hahn.” The valedictorian of my high school class never figured out what his now 11-year-old son meant by “Salami Dar.” I can offer no help translating it, but I capitalized it because it sounds like the home planet of the next Star Wars villain.
The “we” I longed for us to become is not perfect, of course. I wish I had more patience, I wish I listened better, I wish I wasn’t so distracted all the time. In my imagined conversations, my daughter always had my full attention. Now that I think of it, she didn’t mouth off in those daydreams, either.
I have a second daughter. I did not imagine conversations with her, and I could have never guessed the places her little brain takes us anyway. She’s 6, and we eat breakfast and play Uno every morning before her mom and sister wake up. Talking to her is like listening to someone’s inner thoughts on shuffle.
Yesterday, without taking a breath, she flitted from dogs to cats to Minions to how many feet in a mile to a hayride to a birthday present she made for me that a) she forgot to give to me b) would give to me now but c) she didn’t know what it was even though, as I said, she had made it. (It was a blue straw with blue ribbons on it that I pointed at my head and said was a thinking stick.) Today she wanted to know whether pandas can hurt you.
My older daughter, who is now 10, was always far more serious than that. She outgrew the nonsensical words long ago, of course, which is simultaneously an incredible bummer and totally perfect. The gibberish has been replaced by the conversations I so longed for before she was born. We talk about what she did that day, about books, about her friends, whatever. “Hi, Daddy,” are two of the greatest words in the English language. When I call from the road I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get her off the phone.
The “we” I longed for us to become is not perfect, of course. I wish I had more patience, I wish I listened better, I wish I wasn’t so distracted all the time. In my imagined conversations, she always had my full attention. Now that I think of it, she didn’t mouth off in those daydreams, either.
For now, at least, she still listens to me. She still trusts me. She still laughs at (some of) my jokes. I know time for this phase is short. I like to think I’m enjoying those moments with her, that I’m savoring this latest stage of communication as it slowly morphs into the next one.
But I’ve also noticed my daydreaming about talking to her hasn’t stopped—it’s just moved forward in time. Sometimes, at dinner, as she talks about, say, what she’s learning in math, I catch myself wondering what she’s going to tell me about when she’s in, say, law school.
What will she be like then? What will I be like? What will we be like?=
Before we get there, though, we have to survive her teenage years. I fear that will be seven years of total farking gibberish.
Learn more about new Made Man contributor Matt Crossman here.