BAKERSFIELD, CALIFORNIA. — Oh the thumb-sucker's thumb
May look wrinkled and wet
And withered, and white as the snow,
But the taste of a thumb
Is the sweetest taste yet
(As only we thumb-suckers know).
A1 Shel Silverstein, ''Where the Sidewalk Ends'' HERBIE, our 6-year-old, has quit sucking his thumb and I'm probably not as happy as I should be.
It's one of those things that stretches way back to a few months after his birth, when we realized that the random stuffing of fingers and hands into his mouth during teething was not so random. The fingers and hands came out and the right thumb remained.
It was cute. It seemed to fit both his personality and his face. He's been round and affectionate from day one.
We had heard the warnings. You can't go anywhere with a thumb-sucker and not hear them. The advice is free, plentiful and usually unsolicited.
Wait until you get your first dentist bills, they'd whisper. It'll take a couple of years to get that mouth back in shape where he has caved it in. You'll pay for the new wing on your dentist's house. You have to do something about that before he reaches first grade. Classmates will tease him to death. Who would want that for a child?
If you are basically non-confrontational like most parents, you smile and take the advice like a kid takes a whipping.
I never thought about the orthodontist much. You are destined to give dentists a certain amount of money in your lifetime. To fight it seems unsporting. If we saved it here, we'd probably spend it on doctors.
You hear about the remedies. ''I rubbed some nasty-smelling cream on my son's thumb,'' one mother told me. ''He stopped.'' You hear about gloves. The idea is that it's a discipline problem that must be met with an iron fist.
I never saw it that way and still don't. To me, thumb-sucking has something to do with the desire to be secure, loved. Or maybe something that goes back to the womb. Every time I'd get ready to read Herbie a story, he would suck his thumb. Or during the morning cuddle in the big bed. Each time it was a palpable feeling of relaxation.
This is something I wanted to get rid of? It was so much a part of his overall being that it was hard to imagine him without his thumb in his mouth, sitting next to one of us, eyes fixed on the book. It was a package deal.
Not that I have any choice. Two weeks ago, during vacation, he walked out of the ocean and his thumb was raw and almost bleeding. The combination of the salt water and his habit had undone the calluses and was making it painful for him to continue.
''Do I have to suck my thumb?'' he asked with some consternation. ''Because it really hurts.''
Moving the decision along was an older boy on the trip who didn't. For a few days, he was poised on the edge, the thumb was unusable and the idea of being a big boy appealing. The older boy also had a game of Legos. I don't know how the two got tied together, but they did.
''I will buy you a start-up game of Legos, if you would like to stop,'' his mother said gently one day.
Done. He stopped on a dime. Even at night, his hands were by his side.
I know I should be happy, but it's the bittersweet kind. He seems to have taken a quantum leap since he stopped. He even looks a little different. He's growing up now, and we don't sit together as much in the yellow chair reading stories or just talking nonsense. I told you, it was a package deal.
Parents come to depend on the closeness with their children. They get us used to it and, one day, they give up their thumbs, their blankets or their bears and we're not far behind.
No mind. What I've had the last six years I wouldn't trade for all the perfect teeth in America.