Loose Ends: Watching our words

“How big is baby?” are the breathless words every baby loves to hear. They learn to throw out their arms then shout out “SOOOO Big!” in reply. This is a common childhood game played by most every family with a little one. I continue to hear it and it always reminds me of playing this game with all the babies in my extended family. I got used to someone putting a value on my growth and size from the start.

Big is not always better. It often grows into a misuse of power and strength. if it precedes our memory of the experience, we learn to preen and show off to our fellow age-mates, strutting around and reminding everyone of how big we have gotten since they last had a glimpse of us. Strangers exclaim openly about our size, and often appear to be surprised by how much we have grown. They may laugh and smile often apologizing for not recognizing this fact.

An adult conversation that opens with a version of this greeting may not be received so well. One might not have seen a child for years, yet it seems to repeated again and again by family friends and relatives. “You have gotten SO big” should not be said by anyone to someone ever. The vertical measurement of growth is not used for adults, unless one is in a doctor’s office or sports’ facility or one is getting a yearly physical in a doctor’s office or an athletic facility. 

I am not happy to report that it gets reinstated much later in life when the littlest in one’s life begin to sprout and begins to beg all of the adults in the family to stand back-to-back to see who is still taller. As the youngest in a family of seven, I required this futile exercise be performed regularly. I kept that hope alive through college, as my siblings suffered from late development and were often bullied or called names like “peanut” or “pipsqueak. I knew I had a chance at being the tallest one someday. Unfortunately, this dream ended by the time I finished my first year at college and tested out my latest growth measurement using the traditional pencil-in-the-closet method. My dream was crushed when I noticed the latest lines penciled in by my brothers and sisters at close to or above six feet. 

Years ago, my eldest sister was so disappointed when she realized her width exceeded her girth. A beloved family friend blurted out, “You are so fat!” and alerted us to the fact that none of us would be continue to be sized-up in the same way. We had been taught early on that commenting upon one’s size in this way was impolite. Certain words were not allowed as the meaning changed and implied so much more. 

It is different in every family and often dependent on the customs of the community in which an individual is raised. This particular woman’s family had been raised in poverty, so that when she rushed toward us, she just could not stop exclaiming how much we had all grown since she saw us the last time. As she moved forward to give my sister a hug, she only made things worse. She extended her tiny arms up and around my sister’s taller and wider frame. It became apparent that she meant the words big and fat as a compliment. It had been so long since she had seen all of us that none of us appeared as our youthful, skinny selves. This was one touchy family memory we learned not to mention ever again.

Height and weight have ceased to be a good measurement of a happy life. “Do I look too big in these pants?” is one loaded question. The use of it recognizes the development of more than one’s size. The confidence displayed in addition to one’s maturity become part of the picture. Anyone that has grown up in a big family with a rudimentary growth chart penciled on a hidden wall learns this daily. The youngest often remains the smallest in size unwillingly. It becomes one more reminder that bigger kids have the power and the strength to enforce the rules.

This is important, as once a child reaches school age and is measured regularly, acceptance of one’s physical characteristics becomes critical. Height and weight too often dictate how we all appear to each other. It is hard enough to remain the baby of the family for a lifetime. As one’s older siblings grow, many become the active enforcers and pull rank on the younger ones for power. I don’t have many good memories or words I can use to describe that experience more succinctly. 

While I continue to remember my own childhood as happy, I also hear the voices of those closest to me teasing me with some pretty awful nicknames. It didn’t help by the time I went to school. I haven’t heard of any cutesy phrase such as “How big are you?” used as a surefire conversation starter lately, have you?

Author and storyteller Dolly Viscardi’s books are available on her website https://www.allaroundreading.com

By DOLLY VISCARDI – Special to the Herald Times