Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

A picture that’s worth at least 700 words

I just finished another Aunt In Residence stint with my Atlanta nephews, B and C, while my brother and his wife took a brief and well-deserved breather. B is nearly four and has an insatiable appetite for stories and humor, a combination that makes him one of my favorite victims. One evening, B and I got to chatting about his recent adventures snow-tubing at Stone Mountain. This led me to tell him the story of my sister Lynne’s and my fateful trip down a slope known in family folklore as “Fox Hill.” The words and hand gestures I used to tell the tale (which I posted here last year) weren’t enough for B to get the picture, so I decided to draw it.

As befits a classic, I’m re-releasing it, this time featuring an exciting, new illustration!

Mother Nature went easy on D.C. when she sprinkled some confectioners sugar-weight snow on us yesterday. The accumulation totaled 5-8″, enough to trigger our collective Panic And Close reflex, but not so much that we couldn’t enjoy it, especially once the sun came out and temperatures rose into the 30s.

My friend Bud and I met up and took a late afternoon stroll along the Washington & Old Dominion trail. We pit-stopped at various points to take photos, make snow angels, and live vicariously as dozens of kids sledded down a hill of moderate steepness that ends in a park.

Though a respectable hill by any measure, it pales in comparison to Fox Hill, a three-tiered beauty of a slope near my late grandmother’s home in West Pittston, Pennsylvania. My father grew up sledding on Fox Hill and made sure my siblings and I got to enjoy the fun any time it snowed while we were visiting Nana. I have Fox Hill to thank for the most memorable sledding experience of my life, which occurred when I was eleven or twelve.

At the time, my family had four pieces of sledding equipment: two Flexible Flyers, one plastic saucer, and a waxy, blue, plastic rug of a thing that retailers would have called a “toboggan.”  Our family never used that term, perhaps because it implied structural soundness and amenities such as steering. In our house, the waxy, plastic rug thing was known simply as the “Sheet,” which is also a word for the linen that would cover your corpse after the Sheet was done with you. The Sheet was a ruthless disciple of the “every man for himself” school of thought. It frequently ejected its cargo without notice so it could continue its merry journey down the hill unburdened. This made it the vehicle of last resort for the four Yankosky sledders, except when the need for an adrenaline rush seized one of us.

On the day in question, such a need took hold of me and my sister Lynne simultaneously. Hours of sledding had caused the little plateaus between each of Fox Hill’s tiers to become icy ramps. After attempting some quick physics calculations, Lynne and I suspected that, if we rode together, we might be able to hit those ramps with enough speed to catch air. It would also require us to ride the thing that gave us the largest, slickest surface area: the Sheet. Being even less skilled at performing cost-benefit analysis than physics calculations, we concluded it was worth the risk and we boarded.

Our descent had barely begun when the Sheet turned us one hundred and eighty degrees. We approached the first ramp backwards, which is also the direction we were facing when we went airborne. The Sheet probably thought that act would be enough to get rid of us. I, however, had grown wise to the Sheet’s ejection tactics over the years and had its plastic handle in a death grip that I reflexively maintained. I held on even after we landed with such violence that it felt like we’d been dropped out of a tenth story window and onto a sidewalk.

My stubbornness angered the Sheet. As we crested the next ramp, still accelerating, the Sheet sent us sideways. We found ourselves careening away from the sledding course  and straight towards a clump of enormous wooden spools that sat at the border between Fox Hill and the adjacent property.

Our only hope for avoiding a crash was to let go of the Sheet, which I promptly did. This altered the Sheet’s trajectory, but not mine and Lynne’s. We ran straight into a spool, caromed off of it, and landed in a dazed heap. The Sheet, meanwhile, continued down Fox Hill without a care in the world, whistling the “Andy Griffith” theme song as it went.

As I lay on the ground, I saw birds circling above. Whether they were cartoon sparrows or vultures preparing to claim their carrion I will never know, because my father appeared and dragged us off.

Watching those sledders yesterday brought back the memory of that day on Fox Hill, in all its concussive glory. No wonder I attempted nothing more dangerous than a snow angel.

This picture is worth at least 700 words, right??

This picture is worth at least 700 words, right??

Writing hangovers, embedded aunt-ing, and other excuses for a nearly post-free month

Posting every day in August left me with a writing hangover, which is one of two reasons you haven’t been seeing much from me (though I did write another piece for washingtonpost.com, so I’m gonna count that). Family travel is the other.

I spent Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, visiting my brother, sister-in-law, and my two youngest nephews. Things have changed a lot since last summer, when I embedded for a couple of weeks at Camp Wipe Me. Baby C was an infant at the time. Now he’s 14 months old and walking with an alarming degree of both confidence and oblivion.

B is three. He continues to wow me with his expansive vocabulary—his verbal prowess really shines when he’s in the bathroom, a place from which he has delivered many a thoughtful soliloquy– his inexhaustible curiosity, and his tireless tirelessness. The Camp Wipe Me wardens manage on their own just fine, but since the job demands the negotiation skills of Henry Kissinger and the stamina of the Energizer Bunny, they always appreciate an extra set of hands.

Two weeks later, I was in Richmond, helping Mom hold down the fort at my sister Suzi’s house. (After 11 years of marriage, Suzi and her husband finally decided to take a honeymoon trip. I’m all in favor of delayed gratification, but if I’d waited so much as 11 months to go on my honeymoon, I’d have missed out on the highlight of my marriage.) The fort’s other occupants included three boys, ages 10, 15 and 16, and two portly beagle-ish hounds. In short, Mom and I were surrounded by hairy creatures who would pee anywhere if you let them. Unlike B and C, these boys had no need for an entertainer or supervisor, they just needed an Uber driver with basic cooking skills.

Based on my stints in both locations, I’ve observed a few things:

  • No matter the ages of the boys, you expend most of your energy in the same two areas: food and sleep. When it comes to food, you struggle to get the toddlers to eat enough of what’s on the table to keep them going. With teenagers, you struggle to put enough food on the table to keep them going. And you must always remember that both categories of boys will consider eating what’s on the floor. Toddlers see it as a first resort and teenagers a last, but it remains an option for both, making this the one area where the dogs can add serious value. Sleep offers another study in contrasts: with toddlers, you have to coax them to get into the bed and stay there, whereas teenagers have to be coaxed out of it.
  • Embedding with the kids is a huge privilege. Being there for the day-to-day, as opposed to a special occasion, presents a natural opportunity to gain all sorts of little insights into who they are. During a quick trip in the car, you might overhear conversations about girls they like, classes they hate, and who they follow on Instagram. When you pack their lunches, you learn about their food quirks, not to mention their sense of humor. As Mom and I were packing lunches for the teenagers on the first day of our stay, my mother, who can be as wickedly funny as she is sweet, said, “You should cut their sandwiches in the shape of hearts.” It was a diabolical idea and I loved it. Being the stellar aunt that I am, though, I decided my amusement might not be worth their long-term psychological trauma. I grabbed a tiny post-it note, wrote, “I almost cut this in the shape of a heart. You’re welcome,” and stuck it to the bags that held their sandwiches. To my and Mom’s surprise, the boys thought it was hilarious, and so did their friends. My eldest nephew, J.J., even saved the note, so I wrote a new one every day.
  • Sometimes the kids you embed with end up taking care of you. When I lived with my sister Lynne and her family during my divorce, my niece and nephew, aka the Roommates, kept a constant eye on me. My nine year-old niece joined me as I went out to buy laundry hampers and other nits I needed for my new life in her basement. Her sunny disposition converted a dreaded shopping trip to one of my favorite memories from that time. My seven year-old nephew, a kid whose gift for sarcasm kept him in constant danger of not making it to eight, showed incredible sensitivity when it came to my emotions. I tried to conceal my sadness, but my failure would reveal itself as a look of concern in his huge blue eyes or a drive-by, ostensibly random, hug. He didn’t have to understand my pain for it to be his pain. Realizing that he was suffering for me steeled my resolve to focus on the abundant good in my life instead of my misery. When I was in Richmond just a few days ago, J.J. and I landed on the topic of relationships while I was cooking dinner. I offered a bit of advice and then said, “On the other hand, what do I know? I’ve screwed up in all kinds of ways.” I expected him to say, “I know, right?” since he witnessed my marital debacle up close. Instead, he said, “That’s not how it looks to me. It seems like you always get it right.” The tear that came to my eye had nothing to do with the onions I’d just chopped and everything to do with this kid’s unwavering faith in me. He doesn’t care whether I made the wrong decision by getting married, he just knows I made the right one by leaving. It’s an honor to have that kid’s back, and to know that he’s behind me.
Luckily the Grinch and the sock monkey don't eat very much.

Fortunately, everyone in this photo is housebroken.

Seis de Mayo: one day later and a whole lot louder

My nephew Timothy turned 11 today and asked me to come and have lunch with him at his school. I was so happy to learn the “cool aunt” bubble hadn’t yet burst that I agreed without considering that lunch with him really meant lunch with him and a few hundred elementary schoolers.

At high noon, armed with nothing more than a kids’ meal from Chick-Fil-A and an Oreo-topped cupcake bigger than Timothy’s head, I went in.

The ear-splitting din of little kid voices sent me reeling. I staggered and might have bitten the dust altogether had I not happened to fall into the chair next to Timothy’s. It was set at regulation Elementary School Height, which meant the tater tot-smeared floor was only 4 inches away, but disaster was averted nonetheless.

For the next 15 minutes, Timothy, his friends and I shouted in each other’s general direction. Eventually they ceased to find my conversational contributions fascinating –a table full of 11 year-old boys is a tough audience –and looked for something to explode. On not finding anything suitable for pyrotechnics, they took two chocolate milk cartons and started ramming them together, apparently hoping at least for a dairy disaster.

I hadn’t felt such apprehension since 1990, when I was substituting for a history teacher, drew cafeteria duty on what happened to be Mexican Food Day, and wound up in the middle of a burrito bombing.

I was desperate for a diversion and one arrived when a buddy of Timothy’s decided to conduct an opinion poll on the topic of “family ed” class.

One boy after another, they shouted, “I HATE IT!” and made faces to prove their point. They registered particularly intense dislike for the session that occurred on a day when their teacher was sick, which meant it was taught by…a girl.

Speaking of girls, the question eventually worked its way around to me.

“Did they have Family Ed when you were a kid, Aunt Wheat?” Timothy asked.

Striving for a brief, yet comprehensive answer, I said, “They didn’t have the internet when I was your age, Timothy.” This satisfied them completely, being of a generation that believes nothing of any consequence (and certainly nothing as minor as reproduction) happened before the internet.

Moments before the lunch period ended, an adult authority figure turned out the lights in the cafeteria, silencing the room as effectively if he’d hit the mute button on a remote. If only I had known.

As I left, I felt an overwhelming urge to find someplace quiet to decompress, like the engine of a 747 in flight. Instead, I went back to work, glad to experience a little situational deafness in exchange for a huge smile on the face of a newly minted 11 year-old.

 

Stopping at the Chick-Fil-A before lunch, when I could still hear well enough to place an order.

Stopping at the Chick-Fil-A before lunch, when I could still hear well enough to place an order.

 

Aunts Marching

Many people have asked how I fared during my four-day stint as solo sub parent to Baby B, my 13 month-old nephew.  It was incredible, exhilarating, exhausting, interminable, and brief, sometimes all at once.

In-person opportunities to assert my presence in B’s life are relatively few because of geography, so I feel real pressure to make the most of them.

Hallmark and other purveyors of sap pile on to the expectations load with sayings like, “Everything is nicer when shared with an aunt,” and “Aunt, without you there were many occasions I would have missed, and things I could not have achieved. I don’t think I would have grown into the person I am without your influence.”  (This last one is a lovely sentiment unless you happen to be Charles Manson’s aunt.)

So when I wasn’t busy boarding, re-planing and re-planing at National Airport last Thursday, I was thinking about how I would use this time with B to make a lasting impression. I envisioned being there when he rolled out a new word or gesture, maybe even one I’d imparted to him.  We would do puzzles and other brain-stimulating activities together.

I saw myself taking him to the pool and playground and cementing my image as the aunt who brings laughter to his life.  And we’d both be so tired from our days together that we’d sleep straight through the night. That’s how I saw this going.

And I’m proud to report I was right about one thing: We both slept straight through the night, every night.

Taking pantry inventory is on Mensa’s list of “Signs Your Nephew Is a Genius,” right?

Beyond that, the utopian Aunt/Nephew bonding script got torn into tiny little shreds of realism, which I have distilled into the following observations.

  • No matter what Hallmark says, B did not seem to think the diaper experience was improved by sharing it with me.
  • It’s a good thing B didn’t pick up any new words or gestures from me, because most of the ones I used hailed from a street other than Sesame.
  • B is aware that he has “parts.”  When they’re exposed to daylight, B, like pretty much all men, feels the need to do a manual check and make sure everything is still there.  On one occasion, the timing of this particular inspection resulted in my having to launder two towels, a blanket, and a sock monkey, and to hose myself down with Clorox.
  • When playing, B quickly became frustrated with the wooden puzzle that required him to fit various construction vehicles into their designated spots.  He instead showed much greater interest in moving two large plastic tubs full of clothes that my brother had used to B-proof parts of the playroom. B didn’t want to open them or dump them out, he just wanted to move them around.  Lest he pull it down on his head, I pulled one down for him and he proceeded to spend the next 10 minutes pushing it around the room, as if it were a rug Zamboni. I followed closely behind him in a half-crouch, ever mindful of my brother’s observation that watching a 13 month-old, posture-wise, is like constantly playing defense against the Lakers.  After doing a few circuits of what I came to refer to as “Lumbago Laps,” I collapsed on the floor and let out a loud sigh of exhaustion.  B found this hilarious and launched himself at me like a giggly missile.  If you’ve ever babysat a toddler, you just experienced a sinking feeling because you know B’s reaction could mean only one thing: endless repetition.

 

I hadn’t been home for a day before I contacted my brother and asked if I could do it again in six months.