Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Jus' Gus
by Kelly Bertram

Gus wakes up like a seed sprouting each morning.  The second his eyes open he looks around the room, shoots out of bed and stumbles down the hall, blinking bleary-eyed, sometimes running into doors or walls, until he finds me.  As soon as he sees me he gets that heart-melting smile, reaches his arms out and runs into mine.  Just three-years-old, Gus is the owl-eyed baby of the family.  And yet, there are times when I wonder about Gus; times when he’ll do or say something that causes me to flash forward to a close-up of him at 30, doing pull-ups in his prison cell, a “Mom” tattoo bulging on his bicep.  

Gus was an angelic baby -- never crying or fussing without reason. He was one of those happy, dopey-smiled cooers, so we had no warning.  It was when he first learned to walk (and climb) that the metamorphosis began.  He was still as sweet natured as ever, just in a dangerous fashion.  Like many babies, Gus loved balls and throwing, and especially seemed to delight in heavy objects aimed at our heads.  By the age of 1½ he’d acquired the nickname “Odd Job” (side kick of the 007 villain Gold Finger, with the propensity for decapitating people with the throw of his hat). Many were the mornings we'd wake up to that feeling of being watched.  We’d open our eyes and look straight up into Gus’ lovely starry-blue gaze; an interested expression on his face as he'd drop a boot or book onto one of our heads.  

I always say that Gus is my guilt-free child.  My oldest son was the only child, the only person really, in my life until he was three-years-old.  Then I got married and pregnant again around the same time, and by four-years-old he was adjusting to a whole new family order.  My daughter, the middle child, was only sixteen-months-old when her little brother was born. She had to adjust to both weaning and having her rightful place as baby-of-the-family usurped all at once.  Both kids appear to have turned out just fine, but I have motherly guilt about them not getting as much exclusive baby time as they should have.  Gus, as the youngest, has come out unscathed by that guilt.  He is baby not only to me, but to his siblings as well, and his self-identity and family position have always been clear.  From the age of two he referred to himself in the third person as “Gussy Holden” and up until recently would state very proudly that he was still a baby.  

Nonchalantly riding in the car playing with his sock one evening, Gus quietly stated from the backseat, “When I’m a teenager I’m going to stab daddy and kill him.”  Amused, but not wanting to actually encourage any stabbing, I turn around and reply straight-faced, “Gus, I don’t want to hear any more talk about stabbing people. It’s not alright to hurt anyone, okay?”  But secretly I giggled about it all the way home, and once the kids were in bed Ron and I shared a good laugh; one of those that is hysterical and boy is my child a freak! kind of laughs.  Three-years-old seems a bit young, but the first thing that came to mind was Oedipus.  

And seemingly right on cue, Gus began an intense only mama will do phase: to take him to the potty, to pick him up, to kiss him goodnight, to buckle his car seat, to scoot in his chair, and so on.  His siblings are allowed a select few of these privileges, but daddy is absolutely barred from almost all contact, with the exception of occasionally being allowed to toss Gus up in the air.  The only game he consistently allows his daddy to play with him is one in which he, Gus, has superhuman psychokinetic strength.  He flings his arm through the air, similar to an energetic orchestra conductor, aims it at his father, and laughs gleefully as daddy tumbles backwards - doing slapstick rolls, falls and crashes all the way out the bedroom door, kicking it shut with Gus’ final fling.  This is a regular bedtime ritual and Gus loves it.  It almost makes up for, and I think is his response to, the unwanted bedtime kiss daddy insists on giving him. Then come the dreams. 

Gus wakes up yelling or crying at least once most nights. But his nightmares aren’t from the fairy tales that we frequently read before bed -- no skeletons, monsters or bears wake him in the night.  When he was younger, his dreams were about loss.  He’d only half-wake then, sobbing that he couldn’t find something, a stuffed animal, or that he didn’t have enough of something, that he’d eaten all his cookies.  I would pat him on the back, murmuring “Here it is Gus, here it is” and he’d drift back to sleep, comforted, his dream salvaged that easily.  Gus’ dreams are still centered on loss, but these days they’re full of outrage, littered with people -- family members specifically -- who’ve taken things away from him: marshmallows, endless favorite toys, art supplies, his spot by the window.  And he isn’t so easily appeased, no longer am I able to steal into his dreams and make repairs.  Instead I groggily lean out of bed, physically haul his tortured and very heavy self out of his blankets and into mine, and then hug him tight until he tearfully settles back to sleep.  

A few days ago I read a book excerpt by an author and mother on the topic of respect in young children.  She gave a glowing description of her own young son -- what a gentle child he had been: kind to all animals (including bugs), always shared, never ripped anything up nor raised his voice or hand to harm, etc.  His little friend, on the other hand, liked to pull the legs off of unfortunate insects, periodically destroyed the personal property of others, yelled at people, etc.  The author concluded that a child who behaves in such a way has no respect for his or her environment.  Of course, when she was describing her little boy’s friend I immediately thought of Gus, and there was a brief moment where my worst paranoid-mother fears were founded -– there was something wrong with my child!  Here was the proof, in print.  But then rational, and next sarcastic, thought took hold and I realized that I completely disagreed.  Despite my sporadic worries that I’m raising a future societal misfit, I found her theory harsh at best.  The behavior she described seemed pretty on-par for most kids under the age of five.  I’ve often thought that the “terrible twos” should be re-named to include the terrible threes, fours and fives.  

Gus is probably just immensely intelligent or creative – isn’t that what mothers say to explain their children’s menacing tendencies?  He’s a loving little boy (which also comes out sounding a lot like an exemption), equally happy playing princesses, ponies, or evil dinos with his brother and sister.  Although neither of his siblings ever stomped ants with quite the enthusiasm that Gus does, nor were they so enamored with the resident rollie bugs and earthworms that Gus carries around the garden until they’re practically loved to death.  True, they never silently stacked library books into gravity-defying towers the way he does, climbing them to reach items purposely placed out of reach, but he does share the prize with them once he attains it.  Nor were they anywhere near as methodically destructive as this child can be (or as easily hurt by a reprimand, or as quick to give an apology.)  I guess what it comes down to is that there is no comparison, and that there shouldn’t be.  Gus is his own small person, and not necessarily destined to be a criminal either.  He’s got his alter ego down pat – maybe he’ll grow up to be a super hero.  

We were at the kids’ grandparents’ house, and I took the opportunity for a short nap while grandma started dinner.  45 minutes into a deep sleep and I’m suddenly awakened by a small warm body clamoring under the covers with me.  I feel soft sticky fingers on my face, around my neck, the sweet clinging smell of fresh pineapple.  “Grandma wants me to wash my hands!” he cries, with the glee of having outwitted grandma.  I hug him tight and breathe him in.  My willing prisoner.  My Greek tragedy.  My three-year-old boy.
Kelly Bertram currently lives, writes and gardens in Olympia , WA , where she'll be returning to Evergreen State College in the fall (after a six-year parenting hiatus.)  She is mama to three unschooled kids, married to one photographer husband and working on a new zine: "Milk and Blackberries."