I’ve been living in the Los Angeles area for almost a decade now. To what end I didn’t know – it’s too expensive – other than I live close to the beach, the airport and my brother.
But then his daughter was born.
Being an aunt who lives so close is the luckiest of situations. I love watching my niece, but maybe I have a reservoir of patience because I get to go home afterwards. When she was only a few months old, she cried unless you carried her around. Easy enough to solve that problem when you only have to do it for a couple of hours. And can use a bit of exercise. Although then I worried when she wasn’t crying after I put her down, that she just stopped breathing. I still check on her as a toddler now after I have put her to bed.
Then she started jabbering. She would look right at me and gibberish would come out. But to her, she was communicating with me. If I ever want to laugh or smile, I look at a video I made of her talking to me from almost a year and a half ago.
My main role lately is to pick her up from school once in a while. I’m the emergency back-up to their care system. I see her a lot outside of school, but she doesn’t know me as a regular caretaker. Some days when she peeks out the door of her school, she looks like she’s thinking, “Really? Where’s my daddy?” Then she says it, “I want daddy.”
I say, “Yeah, I know, you’re stuck with me, so hey let’s go to the park!”
That usually works. After about an hour there, we head to her home, and if her daddy isn’t there yet, I start to prepare her dinner. Well, toast the nuggets or microwave the stuff that comes out of a package.
Once in a while, there’s a meltdown. For sure it’s because it’s close to dinner time. Only she doesn’t know why she’s prone to having a meltdown at that time. We did pretty well together one night, but for some reason when the helmet she asked for was strapped onto her head, the tears came rolling down her cheeks. Not much I did was helping, until her daddy called and said he was on his way home. She started to calm down at the sound of his voice. And the tears came to a complete stop when her eyes locked onto the travel-size hand sanitizer that became visible when I was looking for a Kleenex in the diaper bag to wipe away the tears.
For the next 20 minutes, she took the hand sanitizer out of the bag, squeezed a dollop into her hands, rubbed it around until it evaporated, and returned it to the pocket. This cycle of actions went on forever, but she was no longer crying. I couldn’t get over how such a mundane object distracted her from her main job of sobbing.
Maybe it’s like chocolate for adults.
Now she’s talking. And she can answer questions. Not just whether she wants mac ‘n cheese or chicken nuggets for dinner.
Our conversations go like this.
“Draw me a rocket ship to Mars.”
“OK, and what will the rocket ship find on Mars?”
“Well, maybe Elon Musk might want to know that.”
I’m a scientist so I like to give her facts.
“Panda bears eat bamboo,” I told her one day.
“Panda bears eat bamboo,” she repeated in her monotone toddlerese. Then she said, “I eat cookies.”
A logical response, but a clever one only a toddler could make with the limited facts they have to tap into.
I’ve lived in another country where the official language was not my mother tongue of English. I lived in that country long enough that sometimes the local word came into my mind before the word in English. It’s the same with a toddler. A subtle change occurs where the dictionary of a two-year old starts to take over your own vocabulary. By the end of a weekend hanging out with her, the adjectives big and small have been exchanged for baby and momma. It’s no longer the spa; it’s the baby pool. It’s no longer the pool; it’s the momma pool.
Sometimes my niece and I cook together. My brother loves to cook, but he has a child that only wants food from a package. I’ve joked with him that all he needs to do to survive this stage is put his food in a package of his own design. You know, put the cartoon of a dinosaur on his own version of real chicken nuggets. I think she’s going to grow up and wonder why she didn’t start eating her daddy’s cooking sooner. I mean homemade fettucine and Bolognese sauce? Big mistake.
In the meantime, we’re making Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese in three minutes. One night while I was preparing her mac ‘n cheese, she wanted to play on her tablet. I didn’t know the password nor did I want to pay for the game she wanted. I averted a meltdown by suggesting she help me make her mac ‘n cheese. I microwaved the noodles and then had her dump the powdered cheese into the noodles.
“Mix them,” I said.
She did. I turned my back and when I looked back, the noodles were floating in her drinking water.
“I’m mixing,” she said.
I couldn’t argue with her because she ate her own concoction of mac ‘n cheese soup. And then drank the water. Not sure which was more unpleasant to watch.
Breaking the food barrier is like that mathematical problem that hasn’t yet been solved. But once in a while my brother can reason with my niece to taste a vegetable.
“Just try it,” he says. “You don’t have to eat it.”
One night during Easter, her father challenged her with a single sauteed zucchini slice about 1 cm in diameter. Nothing. Just a lizard-like lick of the zucchini slice triggered a teary eyed, red faced, gagging Oscar worthy performance. She’s just two and a half. How she translated the attention she gets when she’s actually choking on something into trying a piece of “wakini” is a tremendous example of the imagination in a young, uncluttered mind.
A problem with toys is that we see them through the adult mind, not the child’s. I watched one night as she took one puzzle out of a stack of six wooden puzzles, dumped the pieces out, and placed the board on the other side of the room. She repeated the action with the next five puzzles. In the end, a disorganized pile of puzzle pieces sat on one side and the puzzle boards lined up in a row on the other side. She then filtered out the puzzle pieces from the pile that belonged to a single puzzle and put it together. She finished the puzzles, just not in a way I would have done it.
Sometimes we play we are dinosaurs. Why kids know so much about dinosaurs is a mystery to me. I once went to a lecture at UCSF given by a comparative anatomist, who studied the anatomy of about every animal on earth just to infer the physiology of dinosaurs. Steven Spielberg hired him as a consultant for the Jurassic Park series, although some of his recommendations on the reality of dinosaurs lost out to the theatrics of blockbuster cinema.
“Any six-year old knows more about dinosaurs than all of the adults put together in this lecture hall,” the professor started his lecture.
I think he’s right. I’ve learned more about dinosaurs in the last couple of weeks than in the rest of my life. Dinosaurs must be the equivalent of a unicorn – they expand the boundaries of the imagination, except they really did exist.
In our game, I’m the celebrated Aunt Janice dinosaur. She’s the baby dinosaur and there’s the daddy dinosaur and the momma dinosaur. One night in the park she said, “Daddy dinosaur isn’t here. He’s working.”
In the park, we roar, although I just read that dinosaurs might have sounded more like birds. When this game shifted to inside the house where she was too loud, we creeped around the house, playing the whispering dinosaur.
The dinosaur game, like the real dinosaurs, will one day go extinct. A stage where you get to pretend to be something else when it’s OK to do it. As the child or the adult watching over the child.
Don’t miss the dinosaur days.
What a wonderful time you have with your niece, Janice. I’m sure that when the dinosaur days stop, she’ll still remember them always.
Thank you Tanya for taking the time to read my story. It’s so great to have your support and comments. Crazy that my family stories are more often read/commented on than my science/business stories…:).