Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

A word of advice for my nephew, the graduate

My eldest nephew, J.J., graduates high school tomorrow.

I was in the delivery room when he was born, but it didn’t occur to me to offer any words of wisdom as he entered the world. I was too busy recovering from having witnessed the “miracle” of life and wondering why, if my mother didn’t want me to have kids, she didn’t just say so.

Now, more than 18 years later, a second chance has come my way, and I’m not about to squander it.

After thinking long and hard about which words would best encapsulate the most important advice I could ever give my nephew, which words he would remember in times of need, I realized it actually comes down to one single word, and that word is: covfefe.

That’s right: a word that’s not even a word, a typo that tweeted itself onto the world stage, reveals what I consider to be a few of life’s most important lessons, which are:

  • Everyone covfefes. Like every other human on Earth, you, dear nephew, will make mistakes. Lots of ’em. Some will be so minor you’ll forget them in moments, others will make you cringe for years, and still others will be memorialized in a blog, but all of them offer you a chance to improve something about yourself if you’re paying attention.
  • Own your covfefes. How you respond to your mistakes reveals as much about you as the mistakes themselves, if not more. If you screw up and the whole world knows it, there’s no point in trying to hide it or in making someone else explain it away, so just admit it already. We’ll all respect you a lot more, I promise.
  • Laugh at your covfefe if it’s funny. Making a comical goof isn’t a sign of weakness, but being unable to laugh at it is. Not taking yourself too seriously, no matter your title or station in life, is a form of humility that tends to make people think more of you rather than less, even people who don’t like you. And laughter is one of the most powerful forms of connection we have, so seek it out whenever you can.
  • Take care of your relationships. When you covfefe bigly, you’re going to want to be surrounded by people you trust and love, such as your favorite aunt. Those people might not let you off the hook, because honesty is a big part of all close relationships, but we will try to help you navigate your way out of it and you won’t have to wonder whether we have your best interests in mind. Remember that you can’t demand trust any more than you can demand respect; you have to earn it. Consistent acts of kindness on any scale go a long way towards cultivating close relationships, and those relationships matter more than everything else in this life. Based on our relationship, I think you already know that.

I couldn’t be more proud of you or love you more, J.J. And when you walk across that stage tomorrow, I’ll be in your cheering section, just like I always am, fighting off tears and the urge to yell, “Covfefe!”

It was a smooth and dignified transition, unlike my nephew's shift from first gear to second.

Me and the graduate two years ago, cultivating closeness when I gave him my car.

 

What do you get a kid for his fifth birthday? An aunt in a box, of course.

I’m not claustrophobic. This has proven to be quite an asset at several points in my life, such last fall, when I got an MRI; or in mid-April, when I again donned the Easter Bunny suit; or this past weekend, when I went to Atlanta and let my brother tape me inside an Amazon box.

No, I was not belatedly fulfilling L.J.’s most heartfelt childhood wish: I wanted to surprise my nephew, B, who was celebrating his fifth birthday (though I’m sure my brother has waited his whole life for permission to stuff me into a box and tape it shut).

I had set a pretty high bar in the surprise department back in December, when I conspired with my sister-in-law and flew to Atlanta last-minute on a Friday so I could catch the opening of Rogue One with L.J., a Star Wars junkie. B and his little brother, C, had also gotten quite the surprise the next morning when they came downstairs to find me sitting on the couch. Now accustomed to the occasional random aunt sighting, I knew I would have to do something beyond just showing up and ringing the doorbell if I wanted to impress B.

My brother, sister-in-law and I started scheming and decided “your presence is your present” deserved to be more than just a goofy etiquette cliché. As luck would have it, the starter bike L.J. and Leslie ordered as a gift for B –the same gift I’d gotten on my fifth birthday, though my bike did not feature the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — had arrived at their home days earlier in a large box: perfect packaging for a special delivery aunt. 

I had booked a flight scheduled to leave National Airport at 6 a.m. Saturday morning. I can’t say that it looked good on paper — a 6 a.m. departure looks hideous on any surface –but I thought it wise to build in some wiggle room because, as regular readers know, I’ve encountered my fair share of travel debacles en route to Atlanta. I planned to arrive at the airport at 4:30 a.m. just to be on the safe side.

Regular readers also know I also have my fair share of sleeping struggles. Those tend to get worse if I have something on my mind, such as getting to the airport on time for a very important flight. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to bolt awake at 2:45 a.m., totally raring to go. I was packed and out of the house by 3:45 a.m., through airport security by 4:25 a.m., and standing in line for a vanilla latte at 4:30 a.m. (The airport Starbucks opens at 4:30; I think this makes them a very strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.)

I landed in Atlanta 15 minutes ahead of schedule, which was downright disconcerting. L.J. picked me up 20 minutes later. We spent the trip to his house discussing the details of our plan as if we were launching a rocket for NASA rather than a birthday surprise for a five year-old.

He told me Leslie would be watching the boys who, with luck, would be playing inside or in the backyard and away from any of the possible vantage points.

“You stay in the car while I get the box and some tape,” L.J. said. “Then I’ll walk back out with the box and you can sort of hide behind it and follow me up the steps to the door. You’ll get in, I’ll tape it shut, put the bow on it and ring the doorbell.”

It seemed foolproof, or at least reasonably likely to fool anyone who hasn’t graduated kindergarten, so I said, “Sounds good.”

Then I saw the box–estimated dimensions 4′ long x 2.5′ wide x 1′ deep —  and was instantly reminded of the “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene from Jaws.

This hunk of cardboard looked as incapable of fitting a great white aunt as that vessel did a great white shark, but we’d gone too far to turn back. My brother plodded up the stairs with the box in hand as I crouch-walked behind it. He put it on the stoop and held it open so I could get in.

When the situation is dire, people sometimes perform superhuman feats, and I pulled off nothing less than a triumph of human origami to get into that box. Had I not eaten a few too many peanut M&Ms the night before, the top flaps might have closed together perfectly, but it was close enough. L.J. started to put tape across the flaps, at which point the full absurdity of the situation hit us simultaneously and we were seized by a massive attack of the giggles.

We got ourselves under control – our plan only called for one five year-old, after all –and L.J. rang the doorbell. I heard him tell B he had a package and then read aloud the short poem-riddle I’d written for the occasion. The box flaps opened and I sat up, arms wide open in a gesture that would either give B a smile that would last forever or a lifetime of Zombie Aunt Apocalypse nightmares. He was surprised, and in a good way, once he realized what was going on and heard his mom and dad cracking up. B’s little brother ran off at top speed, which, in fairness, is what anyone should do if faced with a lawyer springing out of a box.

B, who was by now beside himself with excitement, grabbed my hands to help pull me the rest of the way out of the box and said, “How did you get here?”

“I came in the mail!” I said.Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 8.01.15 PM

When I told him I actually flew down on a plane, he seemed disappointed to learn even Amazon Prime has its limits. But our fun knew no limits on Saturday: we went to Legoland, partied it up with B and C’s friends and some superheroes, and knocked the stuffing out of a Spider Man piñata. It was pretty much perfect.

I have no idea how my brother and I will top this one, but I do know one thing: we’re gonna need a bigger box.

It’s not Easter without my Peeps.

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.  Timo

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 made “records” out of furniture pads. DJ Dr PeepAnd, because women always outnumber men in DC, we added a wallflower peep, hanging out next to a planter o’ jellybeans.

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.”Peep to Peep

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. 

 

 

 

Road tripping to Allentown: another entry from the “I’ve gone further for less” file

Today’s post will be short because I’m taking my niece and nephew, aka the Roommates, on a road trip to Allentown, Pennsylvania.

“What’s in Allentown?” you ask. A Mack Truck museum, a fish hatchery, and a whole bunch of my relatives. We don’t intend to visit any of them, however. We’re headed up there to buy bacon-scented shirts.

Right now some of you are shaking your heads, but c’mon, don’t act like you wouldn’t jump at the chance to drive 200 miles one-way just to purchase a garment that smells like breakfast meat. Sure, maybe you could buy it on line, but that’s not the point. Ownership of a pre-funked shirt is a privilege, not a right, and you have to earn it. And boy are we earning it.

We hadn’t even heard about bacon shirts until two weeks ago, when my Aunt Elaine, who lives near Allentown, happened to mention them during dinner before the Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga concert. (Only before a Lady Gaga concert would the topic of meat clothing arise naturally.) The shirts, she told us, are the trademark of the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, a AAA baseball team that’s renowned for showing its fans a good time. We had to go.

The question of when resolved itself in short order when the kids’ schedules opened up for this weekend. As I talked to Emily and Timothy about the trip, I mentioned the game was at night, so we might as well stay at a hotel.

“Could it have room service?” Emily asked. Timothy nodded, in a rare show of respect for his sister’s questioning skills.

Room service? For a bacon shirt-focused overnighter? If my siblings and I had posed a question like that to my father when we were kids, he’d have had a two-part response, where part one was, “Are you sh*ting me?” and part two was, “Hell no.”

So I said, “Of course.”

Due to our last-minute planning and the Pigs’ popularity, I couldn’t even buy three tickets in the same section on the team website. I had to go to StubHub. That’s right: I paid a premium to be able to walk into a sporting venue and buy a smelly shirt. I look forward to paying $6 for a bottle of water.

And since our route to the Iron Pigs takes us right past Dorney Park, a decent-sized amusement park, I decided we might as well go whole hog (har!) and squeeze in a few hours of roller-coastering while we’re at it.

Don’t tell me I don’t know how to bring home the bacon.

The official team logo, courtesy of trendingtoplists.com (http://www.trendingtoplists.com/top-10-minor-league-baseball-team-nicknames)

 

 

 

 

November 24: one of my calendar favorites ever since 1998

November 24 is a big deal, in case you didn’t know.  On this particular day, Mount Vesuvius erupted (1759), Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published (1859), and, most importantly, my nephew J.J. was born (1998).

November 24, 1998, was a Tuesday. As I had on many Tuesdays before it, I was staring down a full day at the Department of Defense agency where I worked, topped off with four hours of classes at the George Mason University School of Law. I was a first year law student struggling to juggle work, classes and studying, a process that consisted of figuring out which ball was the best one to drop on any given day.

I gave no thought to any of that when I got the call that my sister Suzi –the first of me and my siblings to start a family –had gone into labor. I just hopped in the car and made a beeline for Johnston Willis Hospital in Midlothian, about 90 miles south of my office. My parents were in the waiting room when I arrived. According to their update, things were progressing quickly, so I’d gotten there just in time. My mother mentioned that, under hospital protocol, two people were allowed to be in the delivery room with my sister. My then-brother-in-law was already in there, so I assumed Mom would join him.

Before I could even voice that thought, she looked at me and said, “I think you should go.”   Mom had always epitomized selflessness, but letting me witness the birth of the first Yankosky grandchild instead of her truly took the cake. Like any good daughter would, I ran out of the waiting room without giving her a chance to reconsider.

I suited up, scrubbed down, and went in.

If I were to describe the room in geographical terms, I’d say that my brother-in-law had stationed himself in the Northern Hemisphere, somewhere near San Diego. I stood guard on the coast of Ecuador, which I thought was prime real estate until something in the Southern Hemisphere erupted. I can’t say for sure what happened, but if it’s what I thought it was, I would not have described it as “miraculous.” I told my brother-in-law to stay right where he was.

Moments later, a nurse brought the doctor a very serious-looking pair of scissors. As soon as I realized they weren’t meant to cut fabric, I looked at the nurse, pointed at my sister and blurted out, “Does she have any idea how much that’s gonna hurt?”

Had her hands not been sterilized and otherwise occupied, I’m pretty sure the nurse would have slapped me. Instead, she said in a very stern voice, “That’s not helpful, ma’am.” I decided to let my sister be the judge of that.

A most unkind cut was made, and shortly thereafter, my nephew made his debut on Planet Earth. A combination of blind, pure, unconditional love and unbridled happiness expressed itself in the tears that made their way down my cheeks. It was the most frightening, beautiful, astonishing thing I’d ever seen in my life.

The fact that, after seeing that, I chose to remain childless? Pure coincidence, I assure you.

Happy 16th birthday, J.J. You are one of my favorite people in the world and easily the most gifted sewer-diver I know. I love you!

JJ baby picz

If Mothers Know Best, What the Heck Does a Childless Aunt Know?

Two days after officiating my friends’ wedding, I hopped on a plane for Atlanta.

My brother and his wife live in the suburbs there and welcomed their son, Baby C, just four weeks ago. Since they already have a two year-old boy, B, running around, I figured they could use an extra set of hands around the house.

I was right.  My hands have been put to immediate use here at Camp Wipe Me, where I currently serve as Deputy Toddler Wrangler and Backup Infant Handler. (As far as I can tell, the only qualifications for this job are opposable thumbs and willingness to buy a plane ticket.)

B and I have spent some quality time together over the past two years, so I was excited to have another chance to hang out with him.  I was surprised to learn that the kid now speaks in complete sentences. Of course, most of them are incomprehensible thanks to my brother’s belief that there’s no need to talk down to toddlers. Two of my nephew’s recent words of the day are “unorthodox” and “excavator.”

But this morning, my conversation with B didn’t include any exotic words and instead centered on my suitcase. He noticed that it was empty.  I explained that, since I was staying awhile, I had unpacked all of my clothes and put them in a chest of drawers. B is a firm believer in “trust, but verify,” so he headed straight to the dresser.

He opened the drawers as fast as he could and started pulling out random articles of clothes.  And then he began to put them on.  All of them.  At once.  He was clad simultaneously in a pair of my shorts, capri pants and a skirt before Daddy showed up and ruined the fun.

When I mentioned this episode to my mother, she said, “Why didn’t you take a picture?” I would have if I could have, trust me, but I had my hands full trying to get Tootsie to put my pants on one leg at a time.

Since I last spent time with him, B has also become a devotee of scatology.  As I changed him this morning, he yelled, “I wanna see it!”

That makes one of us, kid.

Anyway, my hands don’t have a whole lot of non-work time to type at the moment, so I’m blogging less. (Hey, at least it’s a new excuse.)  But I will be back here on Sunday. It happens to be Dad’s birthday, so the Camp Wipe Me inmates and I will be posting a special tribute.

Don’t worry, everything’s under control.

 

 

 

Letting go of love…it’s a white-knuckle experience

Few things are harder than letting go of a true love. I know, because I just did it.

A few weeks ago, I was forced to end a relationship that had been a source of stability and almost never caused me stress. I had to end it even though we were both content and nothing was wrong.

Because I’d known from day one that this relationship, wonderful though it was, couldn’t last forever, I had a long time to prepare for the end.  But that still didn’t make it any easier.  You never really know what goodbye will feel like until the moment is upon you.

And when the moment came, I felt like sobbing.

Somehow I managed to hold back my tears as I handed the keys to my blue, 2004 six-speed Acura RSX Type-S to my nephew, who had just gotten his learner’s permit.  I had no idea that letting go would be so hard when I promised the car to J.J. a decade earlier.  (Promises are easy to make when the probability and date of execution both seem remote.)

Oh, the places we’d gone, that little blue car and I.  It took me to Hilton Head and back to visit a long-distance boyfriend.  It helped a dear friend race to the hospital to see his father, who’d just had a stroke. It made dozens of trips to fields and gyms across Virginia to watch various family sporting events. It held my belongings when I decided to leave my husband and the Yuppie Prison in July of 2011.  That car was the one thing that felt a little bit normal as the rest of my life was falling apart around me.

When I moved in with my sister and her family that summer, I carted my seven and nine year-old Roommates all over the place in my two-door delight. They always sat in the incredibly cramped backseat and couldn’t get out unless I pressed a lever that pushed the front seat forward a few inches. They soon realized that, if they wrapped their arms around the passenger seat while I pressed the lever, they could shoot forward with the seat, a game they loved.  Sometimes I launched them five or six times before we even left the driveway.  Once we got going, we would sing pop atrocities like “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz at the top of our lungs.  When I think back to that summer, happy memories of these sing-along ride-alongs crowd out the misery of extricating myself from a terrible marriage.

But after ten years, the time had come for me and my car to set each other free.

Just before dusk a few Sundays ago, I drove my eldest nephew to a large, deserted, and hilly church parking lot.  After I parked the car and shut off the ignition, we switched places. It took me more than a few minutes to adjust to the view from the passenger seat, a role I wasn’t used to.

As we buckled our seatbelts, I realized I had given no thought whatsoever to how to teach stick shift to J.J.  (We childless aunts aren’t usually entrusted with teaching nieces and nephews anything other than curse words.) My mind raced back to the two-phase approach that had been used when I learned how to drive stick at age 23.

Phase one consisted of a very brief lesson administered by my father in the Lake Braddock Secondary School parking lot. After I’d managed to get the car in gear and moving forward successfully twice, he pronounced me ready to hit the road.  I disproved the pronouncement almost immediately by stalling four times in a row. On a hill. In traffic.  After the fourth stall, I came unglued, yanked the emergency brake, stormed out of the car, and yelled, “YOU DRIVE! I’M WALKING HOME!”

Phase two was conducted a few days later by my nineteen year-old brother.  Perhaps because he hadn’t expected to find himself in a teaching role, his instruction consisted of one sentence: “It’s like walking in slow-motion: as you put your left foot down on the clutch, you lift your right foot off of the gas, and then reverse it.”  If my brother was short on advice, he was long on patience, so eventually I got it.

At the risk of depriving my nephew of an important educational experience, I decided that we could skip phase one and go straight to phase two.  I passed down my brother’s one-sentence pearl of wisdom and hoped it would be enough. I felt surprisingly calm, considering that neither J.J. nor I knew what we were doing.

Right away, J.J. stalled, as most people do when learning to drive stick.  Three or four additional stalls allowed me to diagnose the problem. “Give it more gas,” I said, my Zen state undisturbed.

The stalling continued. I decided to try coaching J.J. while he was in the process of shifting.

“Gas,” I said, calmly. He gave it a little more juice, but I knew we were still on the brink. “Gas,” I said again, the prospect of another stall becoming imminent.  I started to lose my Zen and began repeating that one word, increasing the speed and volume of my speech until I could have passed for a World Cup commentator.

Five solid minutes of “Gas…gas…gas gas gas gas GAS GAS GAS!” must have done the trick, because pretty soon, J.J. got it.

We spent another half hour in the parking lot executing all sorts of maneuvers, only a few of which sent me lurching forward in the seat like a cat in the throes of a hairball.  I decided we were ready to take on the streets of Arlington.

“Just remember two things, J.J.,” I said. “Rule number one: stay calm. Rule number two: gas. Gas gas gas gas gas.”

And we were off.  For the next forty-five minutes, my nephew drove well and uneventfully, stalling only once and recovering right away.  We decided to head back home. I thought we were in the clear until an aggressive driver tailgated and then passed my nephew on a one-lane road a few blocks from my house.

J.J. was rattled, which I realized only as he was pulling the car into the driveway.  My driveway is a flat surface except for the concrete apron that leads to it. That apron, which rises two inches at its peak, might as well have been Mount Everest. J.J. stalled once. Twice. Three times.

After the fourth, I caught a whiff of an unfamiliar odor. It smelled vaguely like formaldehyde, a scent I associate more with funeral homes than driveways. It took me a second to realize the stench emanated from my burning clutch.  Suddenly the funeral connection seemed apropos. Tears sprang to my eyes and I resorted to mouth-breathing.

“Oh my GOD, Aunt Wheat. I can’t do it,” J.J. said, making me fear that we might end up going through phase one after all.  I couldn’t let it happen.

I grabbed the emergency brake and put the car in neutral.

“Don’t worry, pal,” I said.  “You’re totally okay. I know that guy threw you off, but you did absolutely nothing wrong, except you forgot rule number one.  Which is…?”

He let out an exasperated sigh. “Stay calm,” he said, only it came out as, “Steh hahm,” because his teeth were gritted.

“And rule number two?”

“Gas,” he said.  He paused for a split second and then added, “Gas gas gas gas GAS GAS GAS!” in his best World Cup Announcer voice.  We cracked up.

When we got ahold of ourselves, I said, “Okay, give it another shot.”  This time, he remained calm. And boy, did he ever remember to give it gas. We rocketed into the driveway so fast I thought we might break the sound barrier, or at least the gate to my backyard.

After a hearty laugh and a change of underwear, my nephew and I agreed that, even if we didn’t go all that far, we had definitely turned a corner together.

It was as smooth and dignified transition as my nephew’s shift from first gear to second.

 

Gifted and Talent-less

When I lived with my sister and her family last year, doing fun stuff for my niece and nephew (aka the “roommates”) on holidays was a piece of cake.  Now it requires a little more thought and planning.  I’m good at the first but less competent at the second.

While driving to my sister’s house for bus duty last week, which I do every other Thursday, I realized I would miss Valentine’s Day with the kids this year.  If I wanted to do something fun for them in person, I had to act fast.

I stopped at the grocery store (as I do always do to pick up the ritual Skinny Cow ice cream treats and pizza fixins) and decided to look for inspiration there, even though I knew it was an unlikely source.

The seasonal aisle, packed floor to ceiling with red boxes of chocolatey, sugary goodness, was a dentist’s dream and a parent’s nightmare. While I believe it’s my job as an aunt to educate the kids in the classics, my sister might not have forgiven me if I’d picked this year to introduce them to the wonder of the Whitman’s Sampler.

My eyes continued to scan the shelves for something that wouldn’t require a Ritalin antidote and landed on these.

The stuffed animals met my lofty standards– “within arm’s reach and under $10”–  so I grabbed them and drove to the bus stop.

I set the dog in the front seat, where my ten year-old niece sits, and the bear in the back for my eight year-old nephew. I could hardly wait for my roommates to find their Valentine’s Day surprises, so much so that I told them some goodies awaited as we walked the short distance from the bus stop to my car.

They were surprised, all right.

“You got us these last year,” Timothy said.

I smacked my forehead, finding no solace in the fact that my taste in Valentine’s Day gifts was at least consistent.

Emily tried to make me feel better.  “It’s okay, Wheatie Bo, Timothy and I can trade.” I was starting to perk up until she added, “Besides, Mommy made us pack up the ones from last year anyway.”

Apparently consistency does not guarantee quality when it comes to gift taste.

Emily’s comment struck a blow to my pride but I recovered the instant I realized the stuffed animals could still be put to good use.

“Guys, I have an idea,” I said. They were all eyes and ears.  “Let’s give ‘em to Mommy and Daddy.”  The kids thought this was a grand plan.  As soon as we got home, we displayed the gifts on the kitchen counter, where they would be seen as soon as Lynne walked through the door.  And then we waited in eager anticipation of my sister’s reaction to our double dog re-gift.

Lynne showed up just after five.  The look on her face as she laid eyes on the stuffed animals was priceless, as was her awkward, “Oh…wow… That was really nice of you, Wheatie Bo.”

Timothy cracked right away. “No it wasn’t, Mom.  She gave ‘em to us first, but we already had ‘em.”  Clearly the kid still has a thing or two to learn about proper execution of a practical joke.

But I know he’s in very good hands, because my sister responded without missing a beat, “Let’s wrap ‘em up and give ‘em to Nano and Granddad.”

My sister and I are two fruits who didn’t fall far from the family tree.  If I know my parents, before the week is out these five dollar tchotchkes will have made it all the way to my brother in Atlanta.