I describe the child-free aunt experience as “all the joy of grand-parenting without the hassle of parenthood.” I don’t punish the niece and nephews, I’ve never had to conduct potty training, and none of my siblings has been foolish enough to put me in charge of a “Birds and Bees” talk. Yet. But every now and then, I get sucked into performing a distinctly parental function.
In 2013, for example, I took my niece to her cheerleading competition in Virginia Beach when her mother and father claimed to be on a trip in the Dominican Republic (I suspected they were really just in Fairfax, wandering the aisles of Wegmans, but I never could prove it). In 2014, I gave my eldest nephew lessons in driving stick shift. And just a few weekends ago, I wound up deep in the arts and crafts trenches with my nephew Timothy, suffering an acute attack of Science Fair Project Syndrome (“SFPS”).
I could blame my sister Lynne for inflicting SFPS on me, but in truth, it was my mother’s fault. I had gone to my parents’ house to cook dinner one Saturday night. I knew Timothy didn’t have plans, so I’d told Lynne to bring him over if he wanted to come. Not only did he want to, but he showed up with an overnight bag so he could come back to my house for a sleepover afterwards. I was thrilled, even though there hadn’t been time to plan the sort of special activity that’s the hallmark of my niece/nephew Date Nights.
When I mentioned this to Timothy, he said, “Too bad we can’t make another gingerbread house.”
Our last gingerbread house had gone entirely too well, so I’d have loved a chance to redeem myself and was about to say so when my mother said, “Hey, what about the Peeps?”
I knew Mom meant the Washington Post’s annual Peeps diorama contest. Timothy, a connoisseur of both sugary treats and slapstick, was all over it. Mom, Timothy and I brainstormed while we washed dishes. By the time Timothy and I settled on the idea of depicting a typical D.C. black-tie gala and calling it “Dancing Peep to Peep,” it was already 7:30 p.m. I had plans to leave town by 9 the next morning and the contest deadline was Monday. The realization that we had less than 14 hours in total to complete the project brought on the first stirrings of SFPS, an intense panic caused by extreme deficiencies in time, materials, and expertise.
Mom recognized the signs right away, having survived dozens of bouts with SFPS herself, and tried to help. She ran to the basement and returned with a Nordstrom box. Its fold-up lid offered the makings of a ballroom floor and a back wall. Timothy and I grabbed the box, hightailed it out of my parents’ house, and headed to Target, making a mental shopping list as we went.
I should note here that Timothy and I are not arts and crafts people. We derive no joy from working with glue at any temperature. Months ago I wrote that if you were to create a Fantasy Christmas Decorating League and draft players from my family, I would get picked last. This is true, but only if we limit the team to adults. If we expand it to include minors, I would get drafted just ahead of Timothy, and neither of us would put our team in any danger of hitting a salary cap.
Timothy and I arrived at Target half an hour before the 9 p.m. closing, knowing we needed Peeps, materials to cover the dance floor, and glue. Timothy solved the dance floor problem when he spotted rolls of patterned tape in the school supplies aisle.
Pointing to a roll of 1/2″-wide blue tape that featured a very busy white pattern, he said, “That looks like the carpet at cotillion.” Timothy isn’t cotillion people, either, and his remark confirmed what I’ve long suspected: he spends most of his time looking at the rug. But it was a brilliant choice as dance floor coverings go.
Being long on vision and short on realism, Timothy and I thought we could jazz up the ballroom by adding columns and making a ceiling from which to hang a disco ball. (Your better art revolves around a disco ball. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Regardless, a disco ball is always involved.) We found no suitable column materials at Target. I promised him we’d find something at my house, though I had my doubts. My home is full of things that come in handy when you want to hit the Pinot Grigio, not the Pinterest.
By 9:15 p.m., diorama construction had begun. I handed the dance floor tape to Timothy and he went to work. I watched as he lavished on the diorama a level of attention his math homework will never see. But even with his heightened focus, the “carpet” had been laid down in a way that might make you question the sobriety of the installer.
Those who’ve suffered from SFPS know this is precisely when one of its most vexing symptoms –a powerful urge to take over the project–manifests, emanating from a deep desire to win and/or get at least 2 hours of sleep. I tried to keep it at bay by going off in search of column materials. I opened a closet, spotted several wire dry cleaner hangers and realized the white cardboard cylinders around the base of the hangers would work perfectly.
I returned to the kitchen, hangers in hand. Moments later, one of those hangers was really in hand: I sustained a flesh wound while separating the cardboard cylinders from the hangers. As I bled copiously on our project and scanned the kitchen for tourniquet materials, I abandoned the idea of columns.
Just then, Timothy said, “How will we split the prize, Aunt Wheat?” I had no answer, focused as I was on having split my thumb.
I got Timothy’s consent to revise our architectural plans. We agreed to concentrate on the details that would make the project special, or at least funny. I made a mini disco ball from a wad of tinfoil and we suspended it from a string of tiny LED lights we’d found at Target. We added a DJ Peep who wore headphones, which we made by cutting two small circles out of my Jambox case and connecting them with the loopy wire from a wine glass charm. (I had plenty of those to spare.)
We quit at 11 p.m. and returned to the job site 8 hours later.
I had felt we should clothe the Peeps, though a literal interpretation of “strictly black tie” had its appeal. With no time to get fabric, we devised outfits from some heavy-duty, patterned construction paper I happened to have. The patterns added some pizazz but the paper was rather rigid, making the female Peeps look like they’re wearing fashion cowbells.
We did what we could and then I headed out of town. As I prepared to submit our entry after work the next day, I was seized by a powerful perfectionistic urge, the most painful symptom of SFPS by far. I tried to subdue it but could not resist adding back panels to two Peep dresses that lacked them. (Never mind that most black-tie events would benefit from a good, old-fashioned mooning.) I snapped photos of our work, uploaded them to the Post site, and clicked “submit.”
The winners were announced this week. If only the Post had included a “sprint” category, we might have made it onto the podium. But Timothy and I had so much fun, I bet we’ll do it again next year, assuming I’ve recovered from my SFPS by then.