I try engaging my three-and-a-half year old son in conversation as we eat lunch at the kitchen table. What did you do this morning with the sitter? I ask what he thinks about the weather, or what he was watching on TV while I prepared our food. Most days, though, he’s not interested in talking to me.
“Make Buzz talk, Da-da,” my son says.
“Felix Lightyear!” I reply, my voice pitched deep. “What are you eating for lunch?”
My son addresses his Buzz Lightyear toy, perched on the seat across from him. “Grill cheese. What is Buzz having, Da-da? Make him talk.”
“I’m having soup, Space Ranger. We were trained in the Academy to eat only soup in space, which we suck through a straw in our suit.”
“You’re being silly, Buzz! You can’t have just soup. (Make him talk, Da-da.)”
And so it goes: a lengthy, repetitive, inane conversation with Buzz Lightyear about how he shouldn’t soak his sandwich in milk and blend it into a smoothie, even though that’s how Space Rangers eat, apparently. Soup’s easiest, when weightless.
My son loves the Toy Story characters, and he talks to them all. I love it too; I used to converse with my stuffed animals and figures as a kid. Thing is, I chatted with them on my own, while he wants me to speak for his toys.
I’ve developed voices for each figure. Woody drawls a bit like President George W. Bush. Little Woody – a small, plush version of the cowboy – talk-sings. Buzz is sonorous and confident. I took the voice of Jessie the Cowgirl, my son’s favorite character, from Clare Danes’ portrayal of Temple Grandin in the HBO movie of the same name. (It’s fitting: both are red-headed cowgirls.) He has a soft, stuffed version of Jesse too, who sounds just like her sister, so when a Jesse speaks, she must specify which one’s talking. Rex roars between words. Bullseye neighs. And the newest addition, Emperor Zurg, sounds like he’s eaten a monster.
I needed to distinguish them, because he likes having conversations with the whole gang – “my guys” – at once. “It’s Buzz’s birthday today! Jesse, what are you going to get him? (Make her talk, Da-da.)” And then, “What about you Woody?” And so on. After a couple hours of this, the command “Make him talk, Da-da,” causes my left eye to twitch.
A couple weeks back, I wrote about how I use a silly voice when we roughhouse. Well, here I am again, talking to myself, as it were, creating characters in my head. Perhaps I need to see someone about this.
Thing is, I use the guys to my advantage. I’m no longer a solo daddy at home with my son, now I’m legion. When Felix doesn’t want to go upstairs for quiet time, Buzz tells him he’s tired too, and Felix flies up the steps. Jesse assures him that he’s had enough TV, it’s time for lunch. “I’m hungry, Felix! Can you show me what we’re eating?” He’s at the table lickety-split. The Toy Story guys remind him to wash his hands, they sit with him while he cleans up his toys, and sometimes they admonish him to treat people kindly. The kid’s imagination and love for the characters runs so deep, he never questions them. They’ve become my comrades-in-arms; I co-parent even when alone.
Of course, as I have written before, he prefers Mommy to Daddy, and when Mommy comes home, only she can do the voices. Sometimes I’m in a groove, and when he asks Zurg a question, both my wife and I will respond at once. “No, no, Mommy!” he says. “She does the real voice.”
I’m ok with this. By 5pm, my throat needs a rest after all that method-acting.
One day, we hope, he’ll decide to speak for the guys himself. I look forward to spending time with him as just Brian, but I’ll miss my alter-egos too. Our family’s very full right now, in the imaginative sense.
Besides, sometimes I crack myself up, and anyone who has spent time at home alone with a toddler knows the importance of laughter. Like if I don’t respond fast enough, Felix will get loud. “Buzz! BUZZ! WHY AREN’T YOU ANSWERING!?”
“I’m sorry, Little Space Ranger, but you were yelling at me, and in space, no one can hear you scream.”
“Forget it, Little Space Ranger. I was just making a joke for your Daddy.”
“That’s weird, Buzz.”
Tell me about it.