Aunt Education

There are many benefits to being in your 40s and not having children. For example, when a child is screaming in one room, I can remove myself to another and pour a glass of wine. I can read a book that does not involve talking animals. And I don’t change diapers or wipe butts. I have made exceptions for my niece and nephew who have on occasion given me no choice by screaming that they are all done when no one else is around. In an impressive act of cunning, however, I have proven so bad at the wiping process that when I appear I usually get a, “No, I want Mommy to do it.” Genius.

One afternoon I took 4 year old Rider and 2 year old Rose to McDonalds. Getting them strapped into their seats was like wrangling goats and it took me ten minutes just to get into the car. Upon arrival, literally one mile down the road, I discovered that everyone but me had removed their shoes and socks. Once inside, Rose immediately began to climb over the side of someone’s booth while Rider collected sugar packets. I could not get their attention long enough to ascertain what they wanted so I ordered one of everything on the kids menu. Carrying a tray of food, I plucked Rose off the bench where she was about to do a nose dive onto someone’s table, put all the sugar back and corralled everyone into a booth.

I unwrapped the nutritional equivalent of a cardboard box and laid it all out on the table. I got out the prizes, unwrapped the straws and opened the milk. The fries were divvied up, the ketchup squeezed out and we were ready to dine. “Aunty Jo, I have to go pee pee.” I considered my options. 1) Leave the food here and hope no one relieves me of it, 2) leave a child here and hope no one relieves me of it 3) pack up the food and drag the whole circus into the bathroom. I put all the food carefully in the top of my bag. Once in the stall I made sure Rose wasn’t touching anything and turned to look at Rider. “You have to undo my pants.” Check. “You have to lift me up.” Check. “You have to hold down my pee pee.” Excuse me? His little pee pee was indeed aiming straight at me and since he was busy keeping himself from falling in, I clearly had the job of chief penis holder downer. As someone who has not spent a lot of time around little boys, every part of me was screaming, “Nooo, don’t touch the pee pee.” But an alternative was not immediately presenting itself. I looked around to make sure there were no witnesses and with one finger I pushed it down and made a mental note to add this to the list of childless perks.

At this point Rose went for the chicken nuggets and dumped our lunch into my bag. Distracted by the ketchup and milk oozing through my Louis Vuitton, I forgot about my job as penis holder. The designer bag covered in condiments was nothing compared to the aunt covered in urine. We made it back to the booth and decided to try again. I scraped what food I could out of my purse and put it back on the table. “Aundy Do, pee pee.” You have got to be kidding me. We performed the whole stunt again, but this time it was the girl child who had no particular job for me so I slumped down in the corner to get my wits together and watch Rider lick the paper towel dispenser.

My education as an aunt has been an exhausting and fascinating adventure. I am a work in progress and I don’t handle every situation well. But I am grateful that I have the opportunity to learn from the kids in my family, and understand what it feels like to love a child that much. I’m also grateful that I get to give them back and collapse onto a sofa that no one has wiped their snot on.

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X Marks The Spot

My brother had a dinner party that included my parents and some close friends. When his three kids finished eating, they were excused from the table. As I enjoyed the dessert and adult conversation, in the background I could see them scurrying around, dashing ninja style through the kitchen. I had no idea what they were up to but experience told me it wasn’t anything good. Eventually they came to me at the table and whispered, “Aunty Jo, can you help us with something?” I was so pleased to be singled out from all the adults that I ignored the voice in my head telling me to run away.

Outside they explained that they had gathered all of their father’s toiletries from his bathroom and placed them in a shoe box. The box was now buried in the vegetable garden and they needed to paint an X on the ground. Daddy was going on a pirate treasure hunt for his own comb and shaving cream. I surveyed the mess they had made in the garden and considered the possible courses of action. I could (a) act like an adult and explain that Daddy probably won’t be too happy about having his toothbrush in a hole in the ground, (b) go and get someone actually responsible for these children and make them be the bad guy, or (c) find some paint in the garage. You can probably guess where I am going with this. In my defense, there may have been a glass or two of wine involved, impairing my usually questionable judgment.

I knew it was a terrible idea, but three little faces clasped their hands under their chins and said, “Pleeease Aunty Jo, we’ve been working so hard on this prank and we can’t do it without you.” I was powerless. I found a can of spray paint on the workbench and painted a small X in the dirt. The can was clear varnish and, completely unsatisfied, the kids began to question their choice of co-conspirator. They produced a silver can that was missing the nozzle, so as three little people danced around in excitement, I tried to attach a nozzle. The can exploded, covering the kids, the garage, the driveway and wait for it . . . my Dad’s brand new car. At this point the camaraderie of our dastardly pirate crew broke down and the kids ran into the house to tell on me while I frantically tried to clean the car. A moment later, a grownup appeared and my little brother rolled his eyes at me and got out the turpentine. If I’m going to do something stupid, I go big, like covering my brother’s garage and family with oil-based paint. As I stood in line with the kids waiting for my turn to be scrubbed with paint thinner, I gave some serious thought to the events that led to such a spectacular act of idiocy.

As an aunt, I have a really hard time finding the line between making the kids happy, and therefore love me, and being a responsible adult. When the kids ask me if they can do something, usually the cost of saying yes is so little to me that I save my “no’s” for when they truly matter. The problem is that I get so used to saying yes that I’m not strong enough to recognize when it does matter, like say, when they beg me to decorate the garden with toxic paint.

Every day parents struggle with the issues of picking the right battles and avoiding the trap of being permissive. Extended family members have the same problem, but much less opportunity to practice. I don’t want to be the bad guy but when the kids are in my care or we are executing a covert plan in the backyard, I have to act more like a parent. Being a good aunt is a really tough job, especially when you don’t have kids of your own to practice on and you only surrogate-parent on an occasional basis. However, some aunts recognize their failings and are doing their best to change. They need gentle guidance, patience, and forgiveness. And turpentine.

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Single Uncles Aren’t Immune

One of my BFFs has a little brother named Milo whom I have adopted. He’s in his late twenties and so far has managed to avoid any form of commitment or responsibility. He amuses me.  We are both learning about kids from our siblings and trying not to screw up, so I asked him about being a single, childless uncle. He wrote this for me:

I have a confession: I cannot keep a cactus alive in the desert – literally.

I’ve spent the majority of my twenty-somethings in Scottsdale, Arizona, during which the depth of my ability to perform the most basic of domestic tasks in my urban lifestyle has spiraled to near catastrophic lows. I order-in the majority of my meals, I regularly wash full, unused tubes of Burt’s Bees in pant pockets, and hanging a painting has become an anxiety inducing cry for help. If it requires a level and hammer, it is not for me.

Also apparently lost on me was any modicum of paternal instinct, or desire to have kids. With my later twenties have come the inevitable questions about having children, and why I haven’t yet. Yes, guys get these questions too.

Thus it’s become a regular, painstaking task informing these harbingers of annoyance that I prefer to not have all of my time, money, and hours normally spent sleeping sucked away by tiny, stinky, noise machines. I’m also quite content dying having missed the resentful teenage years, the hormonal middle school era, and the moving-back-in-after-college debacle. I refuse to become a sixty-something heating up pizza rolls in the microwave for my 25-year-old living in the basement.

I’m in love with my life. I have a hunger for experiences, a passion for living, and the ability to pursue those things reasonably at will. I also once fiercely defended the simplicity by which I was able to live; no drama, and no mess. And it was in that space, that blissful epitome of #FirstWorldProblems surrounded by crooked Monet prints, that I received that fateful phone call: my sister was pregnant with her first child.

Queue panic.

Understand that my family is not touchy-feely. “I love you” is used sparingly and, more often than not, loosed only on the crest of an impending tragedy. And we are fine with it. We’re like the English; we only show affection towards our dogs, and the Royal Family. Despite our eight year age difference and tenuous familial bonding, my sister, Danielle, and I would both likely admit to being the closest of the six siblings in our brood. Thus was my dilemma. For more than two decades I had escaped any touchy-feely-ness, or real obligation to family beyond the standard phone calls and laughs over drinks when we got together. I could be, in a word, selfish, and selfish without real consequence. This was all over. My carefree (read: selfish) lifestyle of “forgetting” birthdays and feeling guilt-free about spending holidays on a beach or by a pool rather than flying home? All gone in five minutes of conversation and shocked expletives.

During the last trimester of Danielle’s pregnancy I came home to Ohio where I spent the next several months watching her waddle while trying to be a helpful brother. Seriously, I wasn’t aware that this mode of transportation was tenable for such an extended period of time. She waddled through the mall. She waddled through restaurants. She waddled through parks. One doesn’t realize it is possible to experience road rage as a pedestrian until they have to grocery shop with an angry, hormonal land-manatee.

After finally reaching a point where anything on the ground was dead to her, she waddled her way into labor. Naturally, I showed up at the hospital precisely five minutes post-delivery with McDonalds for all. Best. Brother. Ever. My mother cried, and hugged me (my butt hasn’t clenched like that in years), Danielle was in good spirits, the little pink alien was, thankfully, a cute newborn, and all was right in the world. Or something.

Fast forward two years. I am in Ohio on business, and decided to stay with my sister and niece, Beth, rather than stay downtown in a hotel suite. What can I say, I suddenly became a masochist who apparently hates sleeping in past six. My interaction with her having been somewhat limited, Beth took this opportunity to decide she really, really liked me. She liked me so much that she could not be bothered listening to the Nanny while I attempted to work. In fact, Beth couldn’t be bothered leaving me alone at all, and followed me around like a lost puppy for five days. There’s really nothing more professional than being on a conference call with your staff, while a giggling toddler hits you in the face with a book.  Sure, it was cute and everyone was amused, but it was indeed a distraction I wouldn’t mind never having again.

Then, it happened. Then, came my true undoing. Then, came the “hand thing”.

Beth has a habit of taking your hand, and pressing your palms against her cheek for several minutes at a time. It’s a very deliberate display of affection reserved for those with whom she is the most comfortable. It’s also cute as hell. Sigh. There’s something to be said for watching a little creature yet unaware of the malice of the world placing her faith and emotional trust in you. Thus began my downward spiral into “The Feels”.

Beth gave me all The Feels. All of them. Yes, she is still occasionally annoying. Yes, wine after her bedtime is still a delight. Yes, her poop smells like a dead body floating in the East River. But, she loves purely and makes it impossible not to love her back. She doesn’t understand betrayal, or disappointment, or hurt. She doesn’t understand loss, or heartbreak, or anxiety. She is humanity in its purest, most unadulterated form. The world is often a cold, violent place and Beth, like us, will be unable to avoid this part of life. But those closest to her do have the ability to also show her the beauty in the breakdown. This is something I had never considered before.

Knowing that you are loved, and accepted, and thought of can mean all the difference in how your view yourself, and how you treat others. I’ve learned in my twenty-something years that how we treat others has an equal or greater effect on our happiness than how we treat ourselves. All people want these things and we often forget, wrapped up in our day to day, that kindness and love can make or break a day, a year, a life.

I hope that as the weeks and years pass in Beth’s life, she sees humanity for what it could be, not what it sometimes is, and behaves accordingly. I hope that she will make the world a better place than she entered it, and an integral part of that is the love and kindness she is shown as she grows. I’ll be damned if she doesn’t get that from me in every way I can think to give it. Perhaps this is part of this “paternal instinct” everyone is always talking about that I’m apparently supposed to have.

While this may mean I won’t spend any more holidays on a beach with a margarita, and instead spend more on trips to a state I don’t particularly care for, I’m happy knowing that the opportunity for a better world, even if that better world only exists within the bubble of her own life, can maybe happen by my simply showing up.

They say that love is sacrifice, and I’m inclined to agree. But, it’s not just sacrifice for the person you love, it’s a sacrifice for the people that they love, and the people that they will touch every day. I want her to love the person who makes her Starbucks after a grueling night of studying at university. I want her to treat that server well. I want Beth to grab the world in her palm, press it to her face, and love it just as much as she did when she was an infant. She did this to me. I blame her.

I still can’t keep a cactus alive. But maybe, just maybe, that’s because all of my love and passion for life is meant to grow and love a more precious life than a houseplant. Only time will tell, and I remain ever hopeful for the future.

Now, where’s my martini?

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Baby Class With George

GeorgeJaggedI pressed the name tag sticker onto my shirt and took my seat in front of the creepiest looking doll I have ever seen. I mean, we are talking Bride of Chucky scary. It glared at me as if it knew just how I would be violating its personal space during the next three hours of infant care class. I named it George.

When two single roommates discover that one of them is about to produce a human child and the father left nothing but a cloud of dust like Roadrunner (meep, meep, poof!!), the first thing they do is sign up for baby classes at the hospital. The first class was three hours on breast feeding. I’ve been an aunt for a while and I’ve learned how to change a diaper, swaddle with a muslin, give a sponge bath, and sneak a toddler sips of my wine. Breast feeding, however, had no practical application for me. But my friend Priscilla needed some moral support so here we were looking at slide after slide of knawed on nipples.

I looked around the room at the other participants, all of whom were clearly husband/wife combos. Mental Note #1: They have snacks and beverages to get them through this. I like beverages. I could sneak one of those in like when I hide “orange juice” in my bag for the movies. Excellent plan.

The mousy but informed woman in charge (4 kids. People still do that?) asked us to go around the room telling our name, due date, and then introduce our significant other. A Barbie doll in full makeup and a cute little tummy kicked us off. “Hi, I’m Candace. This little bundle of joy is due on Dec 20, and this is my husband (let’s call him) Ken.” Pricilla looked at me and we had one of those best friend non-verbal conversations that went something like this:

P: They are going to think we are lesbians.
Me: Honey, we are the only same sex couple in here. That ship has sailed.
P: How am I going to introduce you?
Me: It’s nobody’s business who we are or how we ended up here.

When it was her turn she said, “I’m Priscilla, my daughter is due January 1st. And this is. . . JoAnn.” Everyone gave us that “good for you” smile. I turned my attention back to the spawn of Satan. George was clearly busy plotting our demise, no matter where we chose to take his temperature. Timid but fertile lady started reading the section of the manual titled New Dads and Partners.

“Please know that it is normal if you have feeling of jealousy or a sense of exclusion at times. Everything is revolving around mom and baby.”

Mental note #2: Should this phenomenon start to effect you, remind yourself of the times Priscilla screamed when she couldn’t wedge herself up from the couch because her cervix was tearing open like. . . something that shouldn’t be ripped open. I don’t know. Whatever. I need a beverage.

“It is recommended that you make time for yourselves as a couple. Do not let those lines of communication fall apart.”

What followed this gem was a seemingly endless description of yeast infections, hemorrhoid pads, laxatives, ice pack options for your va-jay jay, cold compresses for breast engorgement and a demonstration of the variety of mattresses that you will need to wear between your legs after birth. One of the ladies brought in her massive baby shower cake to share with the group. I had been able to resist the Costco sheet cake on the way in but at this point I Iost it. I got up and put enough sugary crap on a plate to keep me awake for the next 2 days. During an especially noteworthy bit of news about how Priscilla was likely to start involuntarily squirting breast milk around the shower, I amused myself by making George take a selfie and do the can can. He turned out to be a pretty good dancer.

“Vernix is the cheese like substance that serves as a protective skin for the fetus.”

George performed a stunning pirouette.

“Here are the various stages of poop in amazing Technicolor!”

George took a bow.

After class was dismissed, I followed Priscilla out to the parking lot, confidant that Mousy Lady had just labeled me as her favorite. Next week’s class was going to be awesome.

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Start of a New Chapter

Priscilla was there for many of my firsts; my first clove cigarette, first night club, first time a boy hit on me in a bar. You know, all the important young adult milestones. I met her in my senior year of high school but we didn’t really hit it off until after graduation, when we found ourselves in the same interpretive dance class at community college. Something about leaping around a classroom pretending to be veal separated from our mother in a “piece” about animal cruelty was bonding, I guess. While many of our high school friends left California for college, we spent a year at Pasadena City College getting some of the important prerequisites, like dance and weight lifting, out of the way. That year produced some of my best stories, most of which my parents will never hear.

Some years later, I got married and moved to New York and Priscilla moved to Central America to support our troops at an American embassy. As often happens with friendships, distance creates, well… distance. But life brought us back to Pasadena at the same time. My husband died after a long fight with cancer, Priscilla’s relationship ended, and we both missed home and our families. So single, fabulous and in our 30s, we picked right back up where we left off. Again, stories my parents will never hear.

Earlier this year we grew tired of the scene in Pasadena. I read an article recently that said Pasadena was ranked the snobbiest city in the country. By whom I don’t know but it sounds about right. I’m not against snobbery as a general rule, but this kind of elitism revolves around the name of your child’s school and your husband’s advertised breakthrough at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Priscilla and I can’t relate to 99% of the women there so we decided it was time for an adventure. At the age of 40, neither of us needed a roommate but together we were stronger. We couldn’t afford to compete with the housewives in Beverly Hills, the Persians on Sunset or the gays in Silverlake, so we settled on downtown Los Angeles. We moved into a tiny city apartment and set ourselves up to start living large as only single gals with disposable income in a big city can. We were ready for our “Sex in the City” experience. One of us took that literally.

It was a Tuesday night. I was lying in bed watching a T.V. show called Playing House. It’s about a corporate career woman whose best friend is having a baby on her own, so she moves home and they raise the baby together. They are both a hot mess and I think it’s the funniest thing I have ever seen. I was watching it when Priscilla started drunk texting me from an underground club. It went exactly like this:

Me: The communists at U-Verse can’t install cable until Sat.

P: Spectacular! Just realized I have booze at home n shud not spend money here.

Me: I just spent the last hour trying to find our mailbox. I’m going to kill myself now. Did you know that Matt Bomer is gay? Totally disillusioned.

P: Gays are the s$#@. Everyones gorgeous. Hey now, u r rock star get the show on… only shooting starts break the mold.

Me: It’s a school night. You need to come home. I’m going to sleep now. Don’t get lost.

P: Are you home? Can you record Jimmy Kimmel?

Me: Playing House just premiered. That’s the show w/ 2 best friends n a baby.

P: Whare r u?

Me: In bed, where you should be.

P; Awww man, and here I was ready to go home…for sure not driving home.

Me: Uh huh, we are activating the find your friend thing on Facebook because I can’t spend every night wondering which jail you are in.

P: I feel horrible. So sorry. Will can take me home. Cab.

Me: OK. Be safe and get home.

P: I will Entertaining some boston guy who is pretty blitz but like me. What inst with you finance peeps n gettmg drunk. OK, going back down to the underground alley club.

Me: Playing House is my new favorite show. Try to get knocked up while you are out.

P: LOL! Not even close.

The next day when I got home from work, Priscilla announced that she was pregnant. Her actual words were, “You’re wish is my command.” (Sidebar: incase I sound sanctimonious here, if Priscilla had a website she could print many cases where our roles are reversed. This was just a particularly good night for me. Why do text messages stored in your phone go back soooo far?)

I jumped up and down in excitement and screamed about how I’m having a baby. How this affected Priscilla didn’t occur to me until later. When I calmed down, we drove over to her parent’s house to break the news. We knew our 40, fabulous, single and let’s face it, lonely, lives would never be the same.

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