My oldest was calm and attentive as a baby, except around vacuum cleaners. The machine’s sound made him scream with the sort of primal terror normally associated with death by predator. He had no previous experiences with loud sounds in his short life, good or bad. Except for surgery, performed when he was five weeks old, he’d had no bad experiences at all.
As a first time parent I turned his reaction into a giant philosophical issue. (Okay, maybe I turn everything into a giant philosophical issue.) Should we only vacuum when one of us took him out of the house until he somehow grew out of it? Or should we hold and reassure him when the vacuum had to be turned on? I was convinced whatever we decided would somehow have lifelong ramifications.
For a few months we relied on the first solution. The only vacuum sounds he heard were through open windows. Even outside, he listened on Baby High Alert status until it was turned off, with wide eyes and a stiff body. Fortunately the vacuum didn’t run long since our house was tiny. Then winter hit. It wasn’t easy to go outdoors simply to turn on the vacuum. Much as I appreciated any excuse to be slothful, I was still in the first child clean house stage (that ended resoundingly long before child number 4). So we tried desensitizing him to the Terror Machine sound. Although he initially screamed when I got it out and named it, he began to calm down as I did this day after day, naming it, then saying OFF and ON while performing those functions quickly. I was relieved when he no longer cried in nervous anticipation. Next I’d hold him as I pushed it around, doing one room before letting him turn it off. His tension dissipated and it became a favorite activity. Have you guessed? Mastery of fear led to fascination.
One of his first words was “vacuum.” He wanted to know all about them. He loved sale fliers with pictures of vacuums. I ended up cutting out all sorts of vacuum pictures to put in a photo album so he could flip through it, pointing and making “vroom” noises. Anything associated with vacuums, like hoses and plugs, also made his fascination list. An early talker, he memorized manufacturer names of vacuums and, like a household appliance geek, would quiz other people about vacuums. I recall one such incident when he was not quite two. We were at the park when my child tried to instigate a conversation with a fellow toddler. It didn’t seem the other little boy was a talker yet. Meanwhile my son, telegraphing his strange upbringing, was asking, “Do you have a Eureka vacuum at home? Do you have a Hoover? A Kirby?” When he saw the respondent didn’t understand, my son tried what he thought was an easier question. “Is your vacuum upright or canister?” Both little boys looked up at me with incredulous expressions, as if asking what was wrong with the other.
He often called his play “work” and was never happier than when he could contribute to real work. For his third birthday my son’s dearest wish was for a hand vac. And to go to Sears so he could hang out in the vacuum section. That’s what we did. Even his best buddy Sara, who had come along for the birthday excursion, patiently indulged him. She understood him well and when they played house she often had him fix pretend things or turn on pretend things, which always made him happy. That year he got a gift wrapped hand vac.
The vacuum obsession wasn’t his only early childhood weirdness. Once he figured out that bones have Latin names (I think a physician friend leaked this info) he insisted on memorizing those names. He liked to rescue bugs from situations he deemed dangerous, telling them “go in peace little brother,” a line he got from one of his favorite books. He preferred actual tools to toys, and before he was four he started building things out of scrap wood and nails, carefully hammering them into shapes almost as incomprehensible as his crayon drawings.
Around that time I read a fascinating book by James Hillman, The Soul’s Code. Hillman is a deep, insightful thinker. It has been a long time since I read the book, but I recall that it described each of us as coming into the world with a uniqueness that asks to be lived out, a sort of individual destiny, which he termed an “acorn.” It’s a remarkable lens to view who we are. A child’s destiny may show itself in all sorts of ways: in behaviors we call disobedience, in obsession with certain topics or activities, in a constant pull toward or away from something. Rather than steering a child to a particular outcome, Hillman asks parents to pay closer attention to who the child is and how the child shows his or her calling.
The examples Hillman gives are memorable. If I recall correctly, Itzhak Perlman, now one of the preeminent violinists of our time, became fascinated when he heard classical music on the radio as a three year old. He wanted to feel the same rich notes coming out of a violin in his hands. His parents lovingly presented him with a toy fiddle when he was four. He drew the bow across the strings and was horrified at the cheap squawk the toy made. Enraged, he threw the instrument across the room, breaking it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.” Another example is award-winning director Martin Scorcese. As a child he suffered from terrible asthma and wasn’t allowed to go out to play on the New York streets. So he watched the world framed by a window. He drew what was going on, making frame after frame of cartoons. He was teaching himself to create scenes and action, essentially tutoring himself in the basics of moviemaking. We’d normally consider his circumstances a form of deprivation. Reading Hillman’s book gave me insight into the acorn of my own fears, longings, and daydreams. It also helped me see my child’s interests with new eyes.
My firstborn is an adult now. He can weld and fabricate, repair tractors and cars, build additions on a home and turn a shell of a room into a working kitchen, drive heavy equipment, do complicated calculations in his head, make do on little, and work until everyone around him has long given up. He’s also witty, intelligent, and endlessly generous. I don’t know if those early vacuum terrors had anything to do with how he’s turned out, but I’m sure the child he was would be amazed at the man he has become.
What was your earliest fear, fascination, and other ways you may have shown the “acorn” of yourself?” What about the children in your life?
This article first appeared in Life Learning Magazine.