Making an art of filling a niche

Indulgently we call Tyler the scullionm -- a title he accepts with dignity and four-year-old pride. He wears it as agreeably as the terry towel apron tied about his middle, slipping down over his no-hips and covering a multitude of -- drips. The word in a kindly, broad sense means one who works in a scullery, or kitchen, cleaning up dishes and pots and pans and whatever else might have been used in the preparation of a meal. All parents -- and more so grandparents -- pray that their offspring will grow up healthy, happy and (is it too much to ask?) successful. Meet my grandson, scullion par excellencem .

He may or may not acknowledge your salute. He's usually too engrossed to turn around, bent as he is on doing the best possible job. Standing on a chair, leaning over the second sink, he locks a finger into the handle of a china cup and crunches his towel inside. He twists it round and round. Then, holding firmly, he repeats the drying and polishing practice on the inside of the cup. Raising it to the light, squinting it, he finally decides that the cup is quite satisfactory. So he places it on the Formica counter, easing it along to make room for the next. There is no motion wasted, no purposeless gesture.

It must be gratifying to realize one has done one's finest, has had a vision and perfectly executed that vision. Tyler's moonface is a study of such success. But, ah-hah! He detects a speck that his less- than-perfect dish washerm -grandmother has overlooked. With a sigh of importance he leans on the faucet handle to rinse it off. The tap responds with tremendous force. Water splashes over everything -- counters, sinks, stacked dishes, window -- and startled scullion. His apologetic look begs that he not be replaced. When I smile forgivingly he braces his shoulders and silently reproaches me.Ifm I'd done a better job in the first instance, it wouldn't have happened. "It's a dumb faucet," he mumbles, sideswiping responsibility.

I laugh and mop up, him first, and the grimness fades. "One of these days," I promise, "we'll get it adjusted."

"When I'm 5, Gocky, OK?" my grandson, the scullion, hopes.

Still, as he finishes the plates and silver, I think about ambition in general. Dreams, goals, ideals -- all that other unpredictable stuff on which we build. Gossamer spider webs, most. We break them with a sigh, a sharp word, a lunge. We try on such titles vicariously: "My son, the doctor. My son, the lawyer. My son (grandson) company/union/nation's president." And he yawns, opting to be a mechanic or plumber or (perish the thought) a poet. Grandparents should know better than to interfere.

So when Tyler, scullion extraordinairem , polishes his profession, I'm merely patient. After all: his mother just has an automatic dishwasher. There's no chance of his practicing such skills at home. Only when he comes to our house is he able to pursue his important labor of love. I watch him shining a soup bowl, manfully clutching it, naming the songbird in its center -- ebullient robin. He flips it over, wipes the underside, gentles it along the counter to me, waiting to stack. He handles a knife with respect, laying it flat, deftly grasping the handle. "Ouch," he whispers, glancing slyly at me to let me know he's aware of its potential. "Ouch" and "ouch" again.

"You're a faker, Tyler."

"I know," he grins. "I'm very careful, Gocky." His towel-swathed finger traces the business-end of the knife. Up and down, under my vigilant gaze, up and down, ouch- ouch. He can see his image in it, fascinating, distorted. Many a chef of international repute started out just so.

Perfectionist that he is, I must still stand by, an alert if benign guardian angel whose permission might at any instant be withdrawn. A fragment of someone's definition of Success comes back: "He has achieved success who has . . . filled his niche and accomplished his purpose. . .." Something like that. My grandson, the scullion, standing on a kitchen chair, polishing the last gleaming sald fork, has mastered it at the age of 4.

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