Sunday, December 28, 2008
Life continues to surprise and delight me.
Today I write to you from aboard the Amtrak train. We are heading west, straight across Michigan, on our way to the Windy City. I’m feeling a bit teary again—apparently I cry a lot when traveling—but today they are tears of joy and sadness. I’m trying to breathe and be thankful for what I have rather than sink into the melancholy of missing my family with the kind of heartache that makes my chest hurt and my throat feel tight. They are, along with my tribe of friends, my world. This life would be pretty shabby without them.
I never thought I would say this, but it’s much harder to be a long-distance aunt than a long-distance lover. My niece, Lydia, doesn’t have the whole long-distance relationship thing down the way Matt does. I mean, she never calls or e-mails me. The only time she has visited me thus far, she was in the womb. That means it’s up to me to keep up our relationship, and the best way to do that is to spend a good week with her in Michigan. The time that we have together is so precious and so much fun that it’s worth every mile, every minute, every penny that it takes to see her. I even told her mom, Amanda, that I’d give Lydia a kidney if she ever needed it. Thankfully for us, Lydia is exquisitely healthy and vibrant, but just in case, I’m going to take good care of my spare kidney. Pass the green tea, please!
Lydia trusts me, and her trust makes me feel warm and sparkly. Each time we see each other, she lets me know that I am welcome in her world. During this visit, we spent a lot of time playing together. It was fabulous. Before this visit, I’d been feeling bad about missing her birthday party in September. I was even delinquent in the gift department! I’m torn between buying her fun toys that she can play with now versus investing money in her future. Like her parents, I want the best for her. Lucky for me, Amanda and Charlie (Lydia’s daddy and my brother) are too easy-going to be upset about birthday delinquency. Amanda and I decided to have a shopping date with Lydia. We thought it might be a memorable occasion for all of us, and Lydia could pick out a special gift with me that would remind her of how much I love her and love to play with her.
On a slick, snowy Tuesday afternoon, we hit the road with Lydia buckled snugly into her carseat. Our destination: The Doll Hospital & Toy Soldier Shop in Berkley, Michigan. The drive was inchworm-slow; the roads were covered in slushy ice, and snow was falling like powdered sugar from a grey sky. As we crawled toward Berkley, Lydia spotted a playset outside and asked if we could go play on the slide.
“No, honey, that playset belongs to someone else, “ her mother answered. “I know it doesn’t seem right, but we can’t go play with someone else’s toys.”
“Huh,” said Lydia, satisfied with Amanda’s explanation. She settled back into her seat, tucked her thumb into her mouth, and watched quietly until we pulled into a parking lot. We tumbled out of the car, snuggled Lydia against one hip to carry her into the store, and marched inside.
I’m not a regular visitor to toy stores, so with nothing else in mind but entertaining Lydia and finding an excellent addition to her toy collection, we wandered up and down the aisles. Amanda had a short mental list of things to find, like dustless chalk for Lydia’s bedroom chalkboard, so while she shopped, I tagged along with Lydia to see what kind of fun we could find. At the back of the store, a beautiful, ready-for-climbing playset beckoned to us. It was two stories tall and the perfect size for Lydia. Not one, not two, but three different slides stood waiting for someone to put them to good use. A sign posted on the playset asked us not to climb up the slides, so as long as we could get Lydia up to the top of the slides, it looked like her earlier request could be fulfilled.
I offered to climb up the ladder with my niece, but to my surprise, she said, “No, myself.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to help you?” I asked.
“No, me do it. You stay,” she said firmly as she took her first big step up the ladder.
“You can climb all the way up?”
She grunted at me and made her way up the ladder, one big step after another. I watched, delighted by her excellent climbing skills and offered to catch her at the bottom of the slide. She grunted again, so I walked around and waited eagerly for her big descent.
“Whoa, Lydi, are you ready?” I called to her. She pushed off and slid gracefully down into my arms. I caught her awkwardly, bonked her head against the slide, and she looked at me, stunned by my ineptness. We both stared at each other for one panicked moment before I cried, “Oh, Lydi, I’m so sorry! Are you okay?” She looked at me with wide eyes, both of us wondering if she was going to start crying. I picked her up, rubbed her little head with my hand, and she immediately demanded that I put her down.
“Okay, baby, here you go.” I set her down gently. She trotted toward the ladder and said to me, “You stay. No catch me.”
“Okay, Lyd. I’ll just stay here and watch you.”
“No catch me!”
“Okay, I won’t catch you. I’m just going to watch you here.”
Like a pro, she scrambled up the ladder again, zoomed down the slide, landed on her feet, fell forward, and caught herself on the floor with her hands.
“Oh my goodness, Lydia! You did it all by yourself!” I could hardly believe how fast and nimble she had become. Last year, she’d just begun walking by herself and this year, she was zipping up ladders and down slides like a little blonde monkey.
I cheered her on as she went up the ladder and down the slide a thousand more times. Inside the playset, on the second story, there was a little house. If you entered the house by opening a little wooden door, you could go down another slide. I wanted to show Lydia how to get to the other slide. Like a clumsy giant in a leprechaun-sized house, I climbed up the ladder. Lydia followed behind me. I showed her how to open up the door, and half-walked, half-crawled into the house. We looked at the slide, and Lydia pointed at me and cried, “Down!” So on my giant-sized bottom, I slid down the slide, landed on my feet with a thud, and Lydia laughed and slid gracefully down the new slide. We both laughed, and she ran back around to the ladder to do it all again, this time by herself. Which she did, again and again and again. Lydia is a fast learner; after a few times down the slides, she was landing on her feet with nary a stumble. She didn’t really need me at all to entertain her on the slide, but I stuck around just to watch and cheer for her like a good auntie.
Eventually, Amanda and I coaxed her into looking at toys with us. Back in September, I had looked at the toy puppets sold on-line by this store, but every time I clicked on an item, it was listed as sold out. I was disappointed because these toy puppets were very cool: beautiful stuffed animals with a big slit for a hand. With a little bit of imagination, these were animals that could really come alive! I perused the puppets, found a nice big bobcat, and while Lydia played with a toy train set, I introduced her to Bob.
Bob and Lydia hit it off right away. Lydia nuzzled and kissed Bob. He purred when she scratched behind his ears; Lydia leaned in close to hear his purring. Bob tried to kiss Lydia, but she pushed him away, insisting that instead, she would kiss his back or the side of his face. Later, she said, “He’s got pokies,” and gestured to her nose. Bob’s whiskers were a little pokey, so we made sure Bob’s pokies didn’t scratch Lydia. As we got ready to leave the store, Lydia cried, “No, kitty-cat come too!” With that, Bob became the newest member of our family. As long as he keeps his pokies to himself, I think he’ll be welcome to tag along with Lydia wherever she goes.
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It’s funny: I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly maternal, but somehow, Lydia and I get along very well. I’m happy being her aunt, and I know I'm not her mother. Her parents are awesome. But it's true that loving Lydia is, for me, a tiny taste of the love a mother feels for her child. I am utterly smitten with her, and I am delighted that she is thriving. It never occurred to me that I could love Lydia even more as she grows older. Lydia’s babyhood is fading. I used to be upset by the idea of her growing up; perhaps what really upsets me is the idea of missing so much of her childhood. But she is teaching me that our bond is special and strong, and even as time whisks us into the future, she’s still my L Ro, and I’m her Aunt Ro. I just hope that my heart is big enough to hold all of this love. If it breaks a little bit, then maybe she’ll give me a big hug and let me hold her in my arms until we both feel better.