You can call me Bal…please? For forever?
When my youngest cousin was little,* he called me Ballerina. My name is Valerie, and that initial V sound can be tricky for some really young kids. So, you know, Balerie…Ballerina–it was a logical jump for a toddler to make.
I spent the summer after my junior year of college working as a nanny for a little boy** who was around 15 months old when I started. By that time I’d pretty much dropped the last two syllables of my name and went by Val. Whenever other kids wanted attention from me, this little guy would remind everyone (with varying levels of shouting and/or shrieking) that I was “his Val.” Except since he was so young, it would come out, “Dats MY Bal. My Baaaaaaaaaaaal.”***
I didn’t get called Bal again until several years later—not until my friends started having kids and those kids started talking. The parents refer to me as Miss Val or just Val, but without fail each child goes through a multi-year phase of substituting that V sound for a B.
“Happy birfday to Ba-aaaaaal,” chirps out from video messages and Instagram posts.
A chorus of “HI, MISS BAL!” greets me as my son and I make our way from the parking lot to the playground to spend time with friends.
“Miss Bal, when you come see mah kiss-muss tee?” a two-year-old asks, his eyebrows raised expectantly.
“I sorry, Bal…Bal, you fuh-gib me?” is wailed at me after I’ve been beaned (probably accidentally…probably) by a Hot Wheels car while working in the church nursery.
It’s always a little bittersweet to me when I realize a kid has figured out how to bring that bottom lip up to those top teeth, making that vvvvvv sound that is so elusive for toddlers. I gush with pride (internally, of course) and curse Father Time (that S.O.B.) in the same breath. Because I love being Bal. I love that there is a time in their lives when I am there to be Bal for them.
I always knew when I became a parent that I’d love my child. What I didn’t anticipate is how much I’d love my friends’ kids, too. When you meet and get to know a little person who came from people you also love? Man. For me, that feeling is just shy of what it’s like to watch the personality of your own child start to come out. It’s a privilege to be in these kids’ lives. To live alongside them and their parents as we all try to figure out what “family” means for each of us. To be there for boo-boos, illness, and hard losses. To celebrate baptisms, holidays, birthdays, first steps, lost teeth, and potty-training successes. To watch them grow into who they are and who they’re going to be—even if growing means being able to say my name correctly.
(Shout out to those big kids who still throw me a bone and call me Bal every now and then. And lest you ever get too big for your britches, just remember: there’s a good chance I changed at least one of your diapers.)
*He’s now in his mid-20s and approximately 10 feet tall. I hate it.
**He’s now a teenager and also approximately 10 feet tall. I hate that, too.
***I, however, do not hate typing out toddler-speech.