The three of us had just sat down to dinner when Katie asked, "Do you know what the biggest city in Kansas is?"
Will and I replied simultaneously, "Wichita."
Katie opened her mouth in a smile that was half proud-my-parents-are-smart, and half aww-shucks-I-wanted-to-trick-them.
"Yeah, I know, right? It's weird to think that the biggest city in Kansas isn't Kansas City, isn't it? But most of Kansas City is in Missouri," I said. I dipped my grilled cheese sandwich into my bowl of tomato soup and took a bite. After over a decade of marriage I've finally become quite the domestic goddess. I used to struggle making canned tomato soup, but after years of practice I now know the precise water-to-milk ratio to add to make it taste the best. In another ten years I might have discovered the perfect amount of time to microwave peas.
"Yeah," Katie smiled as if she agreed, but then she caught herself and said, "Actually, I thought Topeka was the biggest city in Kansas. I got that question wrong on our test today."
"Oh yeah, it's easy to think that since it's our state capitol. It's big in politics but not population," I said.
"Yeah, Wichita has the most people," Will said.
I needed to let Will do more of the talking. He had already eaten most of his grilled cheese and I'd only taken one bite of mine. I have a tendency to get lost talking and forget to eat, which is a terrible thing to do at the dinner table. There is nothing worse than a cold grilled cheese sandwich. And a conversation hog.
"Did you know Grandpa Carleton is from a town close to Wichita?" I asked, hoping that would spark a discussion between Will and Katie about his side of the family so I could focus on the hot, buttery crunch of my grilled cheese.
Will told Katie the story of how his dad's family moved from Missouri to New Mexico back to Missouri and then to a small town near Wichita.
"Why did they move?" Katie asked.
"I think they moved to Kansas because of Grandpa Dick's job," Will said.
"Grandpa Dick?" Katie asked, scrunching her nose.
"Yeah, good ole Grandpa Dick," Will said, louder and with a mischievous grin.
Katie could not control the giggles that had erupted within her.
I giggled too. Then I started to wonder if she got the joke. I said, "Katie, do you know what a 'dick' is?"
Katie rolled her eyes and smiled. She looked embarrassed, like she didn't want to say it in front of her parents. "You know," she said, pointing toward her crotch. "It's a bad word for a boy's--"
When she didn't say the word after a few moments, I helped her out. "A boy's penis."
Katie looked back down and across the table at me and smiled like thanks, Mom. "Yeah. A boy's penis."
Will and I smiled at her. Let her know we're cool with it.
"Now, you know not to say 'dick' at school, right?" I asked.
"Yeah, Mom, I know," she said like duh.
"Hey, how did you know that 'dick' is another word for 'penis'?" I asked.
Without missing a beat our sweet little eight-year-old girl said, "Mom, I'm kinda an expert in the Cuss language."
"The 'Cuss' language? Oh my gosh, that's a good one," I laughed. "I gotta write that one on the calendar so I remember to post it on Facebook!" I said, rising from the table to grab a pen.
"Yeah, I'm full of good jokes tonight!" Katie boasted.
When I sat back down at the table I took my last bite of grilled cheese. I could talk now. "Dick is a nickname for Richard," I explained.
Katie looked at me like she was trying to assess whether or not I was pulling her leg. "Dick is a nickname for Richard?" she asked.
Will laughed and looked at me, then looked at Katie and said, "Yep."
"Why?" Katie asked, still giggling.
"I don't know. It used to be a really common nickname for Richard," I said.
"You mean like Richard Nixon?!" Katie exclaimed.
Don't worry. She's less of a precocious political junkie and more of a precocious "Futurama" watcher. President Nixon's head plays a big part in that animated TV show which is really for adults, but Katie loves it, even if she doesn't get all the jokes.
"Yep, like Richard Nixon," I said.
"Well I know why he didn't go by Dick Nixon," Katie said out of the side of her mouth like she was some sort of silent movie comedian. I expected her to wiggle her eyebrows and ash her cigar.
Will and I burst out laughing, then Katie's giggles evolved into guffaws. Then Will had to throw us over the edge by shouting out, "Tricky Dick!"
"Yeah, that's right," I said. "Tricky Dick was one of his nicknames, wasn't it?"
"I know why he was called Tricky Dick," Katie announced.
"Because he was a very bad president!" Katie shouted.
Then, in the next moment, Katie immediately stopped laughing and looked at us both like she wanted to make sure she had said the right thing. Richard Nixon's the bad one, right?
Try as I might to raise her to have a mind of her own, at eight-years-old Katie is still quite malleable and often just goes along with whatever Will or I say. Even though we're not super bossy parents, she often says and does what she thinks we'll like simply because she admires us. It's super flattering, but a tad bit scary since I'm often uncertain myself. Being a parent is wonderful and nerve-wracking. It's best to prepare to flex your leadership skills, even if you feel like more of a coach than a micro-manager. During countless parenting fails over the years I've caught myself thinking, "Who put me in charge?"
"Richard Nixon was not a great president, but he wasn't the worst president either," I said.
"Who was the worst president?" Katie asked.
Will and I looked at each other and shrugged. "It's hard to say."
"Well who do YOU think is the worst president?" she pressed.
"Oh, I dunno. There have been many presidents who have made bad decisions and done stupid things, but I can't say one of them was worse than any of the others--"
Katie cut me off, clearly annoyed with my ambivalence, "Well who do YOU think were SOME of the worst presidents?"
Will and I looked at each other and started rattling off names, talking over each other. "Oh, you know, Bush, Nixon, Hoover, some of the ones at the beginning of the 19th century, some of the ones at the end of the 19th century--"
We grew silent for a moment, figuring we'd covered our bases when Will blurted out, "Ronald Reagan!"
"Oh! Oh!" I shouted as if we were teammates in a game. "Yes! Ronald Reagan! I can't believe I didn't think of HIM!"
"Why was Ronald Reagan so bad?" Katie asked.
I mentioned Star Wars and Iran-Contra and other defense shenanigans.
"He was super militaristic," Will said.
"Super paranoid," I said. "But you know what I think is the worst thing about Reagan's presidency?"
"What?" Katie asked, eyes wide. She's a kid. She still loves stories of good vs. evil. She hasn't caught on yet that the world doesn't work that way. It's not that simple. Now that I think of it, Ronald Reagan's presidency was kinda like having an eight-year-old child in charge.
"The worst thing I think is how he ignored a horrible public health crisis that started when he was president," I explained. "You see there was this virus that broke out. It's called HIV. And it causes a horrible sickness called AIDS, which you can die from. And President Reagan did virtually nothing the whole time he was president to help these people who were sick and dying. And do you know why?"
"Because the disease was first discovered in gay men. And President Reagan was just like, "What? It's just gay men. Who cares?"
Katie could not hold back any longer. Her face full of righteous indignation, she shouted, "But I love gay men! They started the YMCA, right?!"
"Well, sorta," I laughed, looking at Will.
"They started the song," Will offered.
"Yeah, that song was popular when I was your age. I loved to roller skate to it at skate parties," I said.
"Oh it's still fun to skate to 'YMCA'" Will said. "Who doesn't love to skate to 'YMCA?'"
I smiled and kept my mouth shut. I came *this* close to saying, "Ronald Reagan," but I was tired of talking politics with our eight-year-old and let the conversation carry us in a different direction.