The night before last I took care of my niece. She’s eight. That’s important, as eight-year old girls are neither seven nor nine.
My sister and brother-in-law were attending back to school night, so I picked niece A up from religion school at 6pm. We hung out, ate dinner, got ready for bed. She went to sleep, her parents came home. Then I drove back home across the San Francisco Bay.
It’s a shock to the system, leaving a little girl behind, all bathed, jammied, sleepy and tousled, to drive up a freeway on-ramp. Remembering, is left West? Is right East? Startled by signage and reflector lights. Time spent with young children has such a large component of wander.
Niece A. smiled broadly when she saw me waiting at the bottom of her religious school stairs. I imagine her thinking, “Wow, it worked AGAIN!” The joyful miracle of slightly risky business turning out the way your parents predicted.
Then we drove to her favorite Asian restaurant for dinner. We sat at the bar, where we could see the woks firing like industrial furnaces. The cooks turned the gas on and off by pushing a valve handle with their knees. Niece A. had to point out to me just how it worked.
She pays attention, with an intent we lose hold of as we get older.
Having finished the dinner of noodles, fish in wonton cups, and gai lan, we wandered down the street to a frozen yogurt store. Niece A. knew just how to work the delivery machines, which flavors she wanted, exactly how to set the cup down on the yogurt scale. “Niece A.,” I said, “That looks like enough to me.” Happy co-existence of aunt and niece. An unspoken understanding that as the aunt, I would be open to nighttime yogurt, but as the sister of her mother, I was unlikely to say yes to a serving as big as her head.
We drove back up the hill. Expecting a phone call, I tried to charge my cellphone. We drove in circles. Niece A. made sure I did not get lost. We parked outside her house. “Niece A.,” I said, “Would you mind if we sat out front so I can run the car and charge my phone a little longer?” “Can we play on the lawn?” she said. “Yes,” I said. Cartwheels, and the unsurpassed leaping of 8-year old girls.
We went inside. She took a bath. I sat on the sink counter. We talked.
Bedtime. She didn’t want to wear the cat pyjamas, preferring the ones with horses. Aunts don’t mind if you put chosen pyjamas aside. We lay down on the bed. She asked to leave the lights on. “Nope,” I said. Aunts are not dummies.
“Let’s talk,” she said. “Let’s talk about orthodontists. Or Chinese food.”
I began to talk about woks, and the stove. “Oh,” I said, “And the deep fryer!” She was happy to know what it was called. “How about factories?” I said. And so it began. Having sold industrial gases for several years, I’d actually been inside of some factories. I explained cement, the cooking of ground rock. Then semiconductor fabs, bunny suits, laminar flow, and all. We moved on to candy, where I have no first hand experience, but we considered where extrusion might apply.
She lay her arm sweetly across me, and fell asleep.
Some cultures honor the role of aunt, creating honorary “aunties” from family friends. Aunts allow for adventure, in safety. My sisters have been wonderful to my children. I am privileged to have the chance to lie still at night, in less-than-total darkness, talking freely to an 8-year old girl.
Everyone should have an aunt, one way or another. We all need a niece. Unsurprisingly, broad definitions of terms of love serve us well.