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.

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.

Child’s Play

I recently made another trip to Atlanta to watch my 19 month-old nephew, B, while his parents went to Las Vegas for a few days.  Atlanta usually enjoys pretty mild winters, but this year even it didn’t manage to dodge ice, snow and frigid temps.  Forecasters predicted continued cold for my time there.

Since the weather threatened to take the playground and other outdoor fun out of the equation, I decided to be prepared.  Days before I headed south, I began to look for interesting stuff to do indoors with my little pal.

I generated a list that included the usual suspects, like Catch Air.  If you haven’t had the privilege, Catch Air is one of those inflatable play zones that features things like slides, rides and a ball pit and, frankly, oughtta be called Catch Hand Foot And Mouth Disease. B loves Catch Air, but since I’ve taken him there before, I kept my eyes peeled for something a little more off the beaten path.

I found it in the form of Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts.  It has exhibits, a make-your-own puppet workshop, and family-friendly shows. It looked very cool, as toddler entertainment goes.

I sent an email about the puppet joint to my brother and sister-in-law.  They thought it sounded great, too, but expressed some reservations about B’s attention span.

“Don’t worry,” I wrote, “I have plenty of experience in the ‘Kid Activities That Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time’ Department.”

I wasn’t kidding, either.  The first and most memorable of those experiences came about nearly thirteen years ago, when my eldest nephew, J, was just three years old.  At the time, J was a huge fan of the TV show “Blues Clues.”  (“Blues Clues” aired from 1996-2006 and helped put Nickelodeon on the map.  The show relied on the Mystery-Solving-Cartoon-Dog-Surrounded-By- Humans-of-Varying-Intellect model made popular by Scooby Doo, except that “Blues” didn’t have any human characters whose perpetual case of the munchies hinted strongly at a weed habit.)

It was the spring of 2001 when I happened to notice an ad in the Washington Post for a live “Blues Clues” show at the Warner Theater.  Tickets were $40 apiece, a price that gave me pause since I was living on a law student budget at the time.  But the chance to gain ground on my siblings in the Favorite Aunt/Uncle Sweepstakes overwhelmed my fiscal discipline, so I immediately forked over $80 and got tickets for me and J.

My sister wanted to make sure J enjoyed the experience, so she hyped “Blues Clues Live” pretty hard in the days leading up to it.  Her campaign generated so much excitement that J barely slept the night before the show and was seriously cranked up when I picked him up. I began to worry about how he would do once we got to the theater.

At the Warner, J and I enjoyed the GEICO safety exhibit and roughly fourteen seconds of Act One before he descended into a glorious meltdown.

He cried so hard he could barely breathe except to yell, “Aunt Wheat, you made me choke!” as I carried him into the parking garage, where I had to walk us down eight circular levels because, of course, the elevator was broken and the door to the stairs was locked.

That experience with J over a decade ago helped me build my mettle as an aunt.  But it played no role whatsoever in last week’s decision to take B to catch some air rather than watch puppets, I swear.

After our trip to Catch Air, B and I went swimming in a big pool of Purell.