Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

What “housebreaking” really means, and other lessons from my latest adventures in aunt-ing

Late January found me and my parents at the home of my brother, L.J., in the suburbs of Atlanta, gearing up to spend a week watching my two little nephews while their parents took a brief vacation.

I always look forward to embedded aunt stints, which I have a chance to do once or twice a year with B and C. As I learned while living with the Roommates for nine months in 2011, doing everyday life stuff with kids lets you get to know them in a way that big family gatherings and high holiday celebrations just can’t. You find out which stuffed animals they like to cuddle with, which books are their favorite (hint: the ones that grate on your nerves the first time you read them aloud and, by the 132nd rendition, make you pray for spontaneous human combustion), that they would eat spaghetti and meatballs for dinner twelve days a week, and that a “Do Re Mi” sing-along sounds best when half the chorus is belting it out from the tub.

The boys are now far more self-sufficient than they were just two years ago, when I referred to their house as Camp Wipe Me. They’re potty-trained, can dress themselves (never mind that C occasionally puts his pants on backwards and likes to keep them that way, even when the drawstring sticks out from the back like a handle), and know which room to go to when you bring them to school.

Though the physical demands of the job have decreased, you still have to be pretty sharp mentally. The importance of the latter asserted itself on a Tuesday morning, two days into our stint, as I was hurrying to B out the door so he’d get to school on time. We were running five minutes late by the time we hopped into L.J. and Leslie’s SUV and got B buckled up. Having not slept all that well the night before, I was operating in a bit of a haze: C had woken up at 2 am, scared, and in a bid for reassurance, sprinted into the guest room and launched himself onto his sleeping aunt. (He found comfort quickly, but I’m still waiting for my heart rate to slow down.) Though less than fully alert, I’d been driving the SUV for two days and knew it was a tight fit in the garage. I also knew that I could get a bit of extra breathing room by hitting a button to fold back the side mirrors.

As I started the car, B, who’s very perceptive and may have noticed that his aunt’s cognitive wheels were turning slowly, reminded me to open the garage door before backing out.

“Thanks, buddy,” I said, hitting the correct button while I was thinking about it. I began to ease the car out of the garage.

Mom was standing at the door that leads from the house to the garage, waving goodbye to B, who said, “Roll the window down, Aunt Wheat!”

Wanting to wave goodbye to your grandmother struck me as perfectly reasonable, so I hunted around for the button to lower B’s window. In doing so, I diverted my attention from the job of backing up, a decision that now strikes me as less than reasonable. And speaking of striking, that’s exactly what I did to the frame of L.J. and Leslie’s garage door as I backed out.

The driver’s side mirror, which I’d forgotten to fold back, sent a big, white hunk of something –wood, plastic, I didn’t know –flying. Mortified, I gasped. My next thought was of B, whom I hoped hadn’t noticed. My nephew likes things just so, by which I mean intact, and this was the sort of thing that might upset him.

“YOU BROKE THE HOUSE!” B yelled, confirming that yes, he noticed. “What are we going to do?” He sounded on the verge of tears. On realizing I’d not only taken out a chunk of the house but also the mirror, I felt like crying, too. Yet I found it oddly comforting that B said “we,” as if he were somehow my accomplice rather than an eyewitness who could give seriously incriminating testimony.

“It’s okay, buddy,” I said, more to reassure myself than him. “I know just who to call to get it fixed, and I bet they can do it before Mommy and Daddy get back.” I meant it, too, because L.J. and Leslie had thought to leave the number of their go-to contractor in case anything went wrong with the house while they were away.

“Does that mean you’re not going to tell them?” B asked.

And there it was: a bona fide moment of truth. Would I be the aunt who taught my nephew a lesson in the value of invoking the Fifth Amendment? Or would I show him that taking responsibility for my mistake in this case meant not just fixing it but owning up to it? I had only a split second to decide.

“Of course I’ll tell them,” I said. “But not while they’re gone, because I don’t want them to worry about it, okay?” He nodded, seeming satisfied. Perhaps because I was so busy finding the high road, I missed the turn for the road to the school. B, who’s normally an expert navigator, hadn’t noticed, either, which told me just how much the garage episode concerned him.

“Oh no! We’re going to be late!” he said, his voice teetering towards tears again.

I glanced at the clock and said, “Nope, we’re not. And maybe that’ll be the last mistake I make today.” We weren’t late, but it also wasn’t the last mistake I made that day, not by a long shot. But thanks to the kindness of L.J. and Leslie’s contractor, I got the broken house fixed before they came home. (I had no such luck with the mirror.)

This did not stop B from announcing, mere minutes after his parents had gotten home, “Aunt Wheat broke the house!” I hadn’t planned to make my confession quite that soon, but I admitted guilt on the spot.

My brother’s reaction spoke volumes and didn’t surprise me in the least. “You didn’t break the kids,” he said, “so don’t worry about it.”

I did not, in fact, break the kids, though I may have given them an enduring case of garage door trauma. But I hope I somehow left those wonderful two little humans better than I found them, because they always do that for me.

 

When I wasn't backing into garages, I did some extreme fort-ing with the boys. I wish I could tell you this is the first time they've gotten me stuffed in a box.

When I wasn’t backing into garages, I did some extreme fort-ing with the boys. I wish I could tell you this is the first time they’ve gotten me stuffed in a box.

Greet 2018 with optimism, and maybe also some hand sanitizer

Many people like to celebrate New Year’s Day with traditions, like eating black-eyed peas or taking a flying leap into frigid water. I kicked off 2018 with a time-honored tradition of my own: a travel delay, courtesy of United Airlines.

When I arrived at Charleston International Airport at 9 a.m. on January 1, ninety minutes early like you’re supposed to, I learned from the departures board that my flight was delayed an hour. Most airlines would have texted or emailed this news immediately, but not United because, really, who wants to find out while they’re still at the hotel that they could steal an extra hour on New Year’s Day? It’s not like most of us were sleep-deprived after staying up late the night before or anything. And who wouldn’t prefer to spend extra time in the airport rather than in Charleston itself? Forget Rainbow Row, the Battery, and Fort Sumter: give me Gate 2B.

As the delay continued, United communicated with passengers only through the departures board, which, as reliability goes, more closely resembled a ouija board. Ultimately we left three hours late, and I found myself repeating a familiar refrain when it comes to my travels with United: at least we left.

After landing at Dulles, I headed to the above-ground garage at my office, where I had parked my car four days earlier. Because the temperature, like Trump’s approval ratings, was plummeting with no bottom in sight, my car quite reasonably decided it didn’t feel like moving under these conditions. I called roadside assistance. An hour later, they arrived, revived my car, and sent me on my way. I got home at 6:30 p.m., six hours behind schedule.

My Italian ancestors –people who believed eating pork on New Year’s Day would bring you good luck –might have seen these mishaps as an inauspicious start to 2018, but I didn’t. (Though I did eat bacon at breakfast, because you shouldn’t leave some things to chance.) Overall, I felt quite lucky: while at the airport, I knocked out a tedious work project I’d been dreading. Roadside assistance came pretty fast, especially on a holiday, and I waited for them in the warmth of my office, with snacks on hand in the kitchen. And though the delays caused me to miss the traditional New Year’s Day dinner with Mom and Dad, I still got home faster than it would have taken me to drive the whole trip. In sum, a few things went wrong, but they went wrong in all the right ways, so I’ll call that a win.

Some of you might read the preceding sentence as proof that, if 2017 taught us anything, it taught us to lower our standards. You could be right, but that’s not what I took away from last year. Yes, I despaired with everyone else at our country’s polarization, at the surfacing of murderous racism in Charlottesville, at natural disaster in Puerto Rico and Houston, and at the potential for manmade disaster because the U.S. head of state is an impulse-fueled narcissist who really puts the “twit” in Twitter. But 2017 also reinforced a belief I have long held: the best way to counter what feels like large-scale negativity is through small-scale action and small-scale optimism.

I went into last year conscious of all that I had to look forward to on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Those sources of happy anticipation really delivered, and a few unexpected ones popped up, too.

I made three trips to New York: one in January with my dear friend LC, her mom and my mom, ostensibly to see the Roundabout Theater Company do “Holiday Inn,” but it also gave us a chance to check out One World Trade Center and have afternoon tea with champagne at the Plaza Hotel; a second in October with Mom and my brother to see Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden, something I’ve wanted to do for years; and the third in November with my sisters and parents, to see “Hamilton” and put a happy exclamation point on our celebration of Suzi’s 50th birthday.

I participated in the Women’s March in DC on January 21 with Mom, LC and my good friend Tricia. One of 2017’s most memorable phrases describes the march’s impact best: still, it persists.

In May I flew to Atlanta for my nephew’s fifth birthday and, with my brother’s help, surprised the birthday boy by popping out of an Amazon box. His younger brother will be in therapy for life as a result, but we all agree it was worth it.

My eldest nephew, J.J., graduated high school in June, which gave me an excuse to impart some words, or at least a word, of wisdom and to take him to Greece for two weeks, because that’s the kind of selfless aunt I am. We spent a week of our trip on Crete, where I became friends with someone who reignited my love for writing actual letters.

That trip was not all fun and games, mind you: it fell to me to teach the kid that you brush your teeth before you go to breakfast in public. Naturally, when December rolled around, J.J. got my name in the annual Yank Christmas gag gift exchange and got me a backup set of toothbrushes and toothpaste. Which I will absolutely pack when I take my nephew Casey on his graduation trip this year. (Destination: Iceland!)

Over the summer I started getting together with my friends Bud, who plays the guitar, and Vlada, who plays the violin, to collaborate on old jazz standards and some pop tunes. As much as I enjoy playing piano solo, nothing beats the joy of making music with friends, so I hope we get to do a whole lot more of it in 2018.

Our family celebrated my dad’s 75th birthday in August and gave Dad tickets to the Nats’ first playoff game, which I went to with him in September. We should’ve spent a little more and bought a victory, but Dad and I had a blast anyway.

And speaking of having a blast, in September, I took a trip with my boot camp pal Diane to see our friends and former boot-campers, Ted and Martha, who had moved to Durango, Colorado, a few months earlier. (Some people will do anything to get out of burpees.) Even if the altitude hadn’t left me breathless during our hikes, which it did, the gorgeous aspens and stunning vistas would have. I can’t wait to go back.

In November, electoral sanity returned to Virginia. (A bit of electoral insanity showed up in the Commonwealth this week when a tie in a House of Delegates race was settled by drawing names from a hat, but we won’t dwell on that.) And by way of teasers, something else really good happened in November that I might talk about on the podcast at some point.

In December, I got my parents’ console stereo fixed —one of my prize possessions –just in time for the voice of Johnny Mathis to make a Christmas cameo.

In sum, I experienced my fair share of joy in 2017, and I owe all of it to my friends and family. Those same people send me into 2018 with a healthy dose of optimism. And a flu shot, and Vitamin C, and copious hand sanitizer, because those things never hurt.

I hope 2018 brings you more than your fair share of joy. And may anything that goes wrong for you this year go wrong in all the right ways.

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When it comes to travel, the people make the place.

“The people make the place,” I told my nephew J.J. during our two-week trip to Greece last summer. He seemed to grasp this intuitively, loving Athens for the warmth of its inhabitants as much as the magnificence of the Acropolis. Yet I felt compelled to voice the thought anyway, because it encapsulates a travel and life philosophy I hoped he might adopt.

I’ve lived in the D.C. area for nearly all of my 46 years, and I have a long and dynamic list of things I love about the physical place, including: jogging the length of the Mall, strolling through the Cherry Blossoms in the spring, singing along to the likes of Barry Manilow at Wolf Trap, taking in any of the Smithsonian museums, having a lazy brunch somewhere on 8th Street and then wandering around Eastern Market, watching the Fourth of July fireworks at the Air Force Memorial, or driving 90 minutes west to hike Old Rag. It’s all familiar, in the best possible way.

But I also have a long-running list of beefs about this area, such as: traffic, soulless sprawl, politics, short-timing posers (you know the archetype: a windbag who isn’t actually from here and kicks off every conversation with, “What do you do?” as a way to gauge whether you’re worth talking to), short tempers, total inability to deal with more than three flakes of snow, and a ridiculously high cost of living. It’s all familiar, in the worst possible way. But even when the D.C. area serves up its very worst, it still has the greatest concentration of what matters to me most: my family and friends. Without those relationships, this place, while full of beauty, culture and history, would feel empty to me.

I take the same view when traveling: the way the people make me feel when I visit a place matters as much to me as the surroundings, if not more. Perhaps nowhere else in the world do the people enhance the enchantment of stunning scenery as they do on Crete. I wrote that Cretans are so genuinely friendly they make Athenians seem aloof, and it’s true. But of the people we encountered on Crete, my two favorites weren’t even from Greece, much less Crete. They were a pair of New Yorkers, Jennifer and Scott, who happened to be relaxing at our hotel’s seaside pool when I settled into an empty chaise lounge right next to them.

Jennifer said a friendly “hello” immediately, a scary opener to an introvert like me, who doesn’t always relish small talk with strangers. But after nearly two weeks in the company of an 18 year-old, I felt a bit starved for peer conversation and engaged without hesitation. It soon proved to be one of my better decisions. When I explained that I was traveling with my nephew, she wanted to know all about J.J. and listened intently as I gushed about how lucky I feel to be his aunt. Then we got to talking about the market near the hotel and discovered we both love to go to little local stores like that and shop for regular stuff, like toothpaste.

“I just like to see how it’s different,” I said.

The words were barely out of my mouth when she said, “Me too!”

Scott heard this, shook his head, and chuckled. We were off to the races.

Jennifer and I soon learned we also share a love of  handwritten letters and beautiful paper. When I write a letter by hand, I choose the writing surface carefully, the thoughts I place on it even more carefully, and the recipient most carefully of all. It takes time and effort, making it one of my favorite and most heartfelt ways to express affection. I cranked out letters weekly until the early 2000s, when the digital age nudged most of my correspondents, and me, in the direction of emails and texts. Jennifer bucked that tide. For her entire adult life, she’s been writing letters, notes and postcards to let people know that she cares about them, that she cherishes their connection.

In 1988, while traveling with Scott in Malaysia, Jennifer wrote a thank-you note on a postcard of New York for the kindly rickshaw driver who’d taken them on a tour through a town called Melaka. The impact of that note rippled beyond the driver, who saved it, and extended all the way to Rolf Potts, an accomplished travel writer who encountered both driver and postcard nearly twenty years later. Rolf relays the story, and its significance, beautifully:

Early in 1988, a newlywed couple from the States was traveling in Malaysia. While in the ethnically diverse, historical treasure-trove of a town called Malacca (Melaka), they hired the services of a 60-year-old rickshaw driver named Peter Ong. Thanks to a simple act of thoughtfulness on their part, Peter remembers them still today.

I met Peter myself in late 2007, when he also offered his rickshaw services to me. Pulling out a handful of postcards from previous customers, he seemed particularly happy with one from New York and invited me to check out the back, which read:

Dear Mr. Ong,

You’ve been a wonderful and knowledgeable tour guide through Melaka. You were kind and thoughtful (thanks for the bag of bananas!).

Thanks for recommending Chang Hoe Hotel.

Best Wishes,
Scott & Jennifer Ingber
New York USA

The card was dated January 30, 1988, and friction had so worn the front cover that New York’s skyscrapers seemed to be chain smoking. Though I didn’t take Peter up on his offer—I needed to stay on foot to get the pictures I was after—we did talk for several minutes while waiting under an awning for a rain shower to pass. I learned that Peter was born in January 1928, that he’d been driving a rickshaw for 40 years, and that he had seven grown kids living in Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.

Months later I would google Scott and Jennifer and see their 1987 wedding announcement in the New York Times. Other than what I read there—he was a doctor and she a nurse—I know nothing about them. Except, I suppose, that their tangible thoughtfulness is still remembered two decades later by a man in Malacca, and has probably helped that man grow his business.

When Peter Ong holds up his postcard, then, he is not just showing us New York; he is reminding us that in travel, even when we give in small ways in a town through which we are so briefly passing, it matters.

I read the blog post while sitting next to Jennifer, its insightful last lines completing the lesson I hoped to impart to my nephew. I told J.J. the story over dinner that night.

“Are you serious?” he said, his face a study in astonishment. “That’s pretty damned amazing.” J.J. had liked Jennifer and Scott –they were the rare adults who managed to show interest in him without being nosy –and I could tell the story raised their stock in his eyes exponentially.

I pulled up Rolf’s blog post on my phone, read the final paragraph aloud, and said, “Remember what I said about how the people make the place?” J.J. nodded. “Well, those people who make a place special won’t know they did that for you unless you tell them. So whenever you can, find a way to let them know they made a difference.”

I resolved to redouble my own efforts in that department. After Jennifer and I became friends on Facebook, we cemented the connection by going old-school and exchanging home addresses. Since July, a trip to the mailbox holds the prospect of not just another $5 coupon from Bed, Bath & Beyond but also one of Jennifer’s wonderful notes. Any time one arrives, I’m transported to Crete for a few happy moments and reminded that friendship borne out of travel is an incomparable souvenir.

A recent gem...

A recent Jennifer gem…

 

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.