I just came back from another visit to Chicago, where I babysat nephews for a week. The two boys are now 17 months and just-4 years old. It was just the three of us, while their parents were out of town. I've (again) decided to award my brother-in-law a prize of some sort, for being the full-time, stay-at-home parent with these two wonderful, non-stop boys. It's a lot of work! Parents all over deserve awards.
And yet - there is so much joy in it, too. People tell me I'm a great aunt. But my life would not be as rich without them in it. I remember back to when my nieces were little, and I happened to live just a few hours' drive from them, I would try to see them every couple months. At that age, the phone means nothing. It's the in-person contact that matters, when building relationships with those who are young. To this day, it makes me sad that I didn't have that kind of contact with my older nephew. He lived far away, yes - but I think I would have worked to make the effort to create that consistent connection, had I understood back then how things worked. I was so young myself, though... Still, he and I had a chance to hang out one year, when we both lived in the same town. I helped my brother coach his soccer team. I got to watch him be a good kid, and could see my brother's guidance over the years in the way my nephew did right by others (while still maintaining his coolness, of course).
And yes, in the abstract I make this effort for these children who are related to me. But in the particulars - I'm biased. There is nobody funnier than - sweeter than - each and every one of my nieces and nephews, in each of their own unique ways. Seriously, how can a little blood create such a bias? But it's true. That's how special each one of them is, in my eyes. And I just get more biased the older I get.
With these two boys in Chicago - how much they've grown! even in the month that I saw them last. The older one is becoming very grown up, while the baby is hard at work at learning the basics - and trying to catch up to his older brother. The work never ceases when there are two of them - especially now that both of them are mobile. Whatever one does, the other one wants to do. So if one is playing with a toy, the other one wants that specific toy. The minute I referee our way to a new solution, the one now-with-the-toy no longer is interested - as he now is eying the thing that his brother has just picked up. Every. Time. Well, almost every time. It's not quite like clockwork - but close enough.
At one point, I was on the phone with my dad just as the little one decided to break down the older one's Lego project. My dad could hear the commotion in the background, as the older one scolded the younger one, "Stop that!" I grabbed the baby and said, "He just wants to do what you're doing because he loves you." My dad said that he was with the older one - he wouldn't be buying that "he loves you" stuff, either. But it's true! Well, maybe there's a little competition thrown into the mix. But mostly, he just adores his older brother, and wants to be just like him. (I know this based on my own experience of growing up as the little sister who was always a step or two behind.) I have no idea how many times this past week I said, "He doesn't know any better. He's a baby." And the older one would sigh and nod. That's true. He is just a baby.
Right now, the older nephew can be really funny. He and his dad play Wii every night for about half an hour before his bedtime (after the little one is asleep). I have no skills in this arena. But his dad isn't there, so I substitute as the other player. I'm terrible. At one point, when we were playing a Mario Bros game where you collect gold coins, I was proving how bad at the game I really am. As it finished, I said, "I'm really bad at this." My nephew said, "No. You're good. You're good, I'm good." He looked at the scoreboard. "You got zero," he informed me. "I got eight." He smiled. I smiled. "I know," I said. "Congratulations." (I think I just got patronized.)
Another time, I was talking to myself (and a little to him), figuring out how the day was going: "Okay. You're doing good. The baby's doing good. I'm doing good. Everything's going okay." And he chimed in: "You're doing great!" (Nothing like a little positive feedback to brighten up the day.)
The younger one has his own - also unintended - funny moments. For instance, I know when he's hungry - he starts pushing the high chair in my direction. Time to eat, Aunt Beth! (Is it lunch time already?) He is one big baby, actually. He's solid, like a wall. And he's incredibly strong. I expect he will be a football player. He's built like one. Over the weekend, when I turned on the TV to watch some football, he was mesmerized. His face lit up at the sight of the game. He went to the TV and put his hand up towards the screen. Then he walked back over to me, his eyes still glued to the set. He stood at my leg where I sat, watching, watching... until he started to bang his head into my thigh. Why yes, baby, that is how they play the game of football - with a lot of head smashing.
The older one also found football interesting. We were watching a particularly exciting half of a college game, and I was explaining the game to him as it progressed. At one point, the quarterback of the underdog team almost made a phenomenal play, except his receiver didn't - well, receive. My voice raised in excitement as I explained to my nephew what was happening, why it didn't go well, what had been expected.... He nodded sagely. "Bad choices," he said. Well, yes. That pretty much sums it up. (Later, the day I left, I was recapping the week with him and said, "and we watched football," and he nodded and said, "Bad choices. Good choices. Watch the flag!" He should give coaching clinics.)
Other things we did: went to the library - puzzles and computer games galore; acted out numbers (I acted out 1 to 100 early on, and then the 4-year-old would act out different sets of numbers periodically through the rest of the week while I counted the numbers he wanted me to count); played games and music (like See-n-Say for the little one, and a music book piano for the older one, as he learned to combine notes and numbers to put together songs); read books (one night, the little one stayed still long enough to let me read him ten short books! while the older one decided to read Winnie the Pooh's "Now We Are Six" poems, telling the stories while also using some of the words typed on the pages). I even took a little time to sing a couple "Pogo" songs for them - from an album I had from the age of 3 or so. (Love those songs.)
And yet - everything was harried, too. Planning out meals - frantic. Giving baths to two kids instead of one - frantic. (I still did take the time to wrap each kid in his towel after getting him out of the bath, holding him in my lap and rocking him warm for a minute or so. It's a nice ritual.)
One day, in the midst of the whirlwind, as I parked at the preschool that they both attend (different classrooms), as I grabbed the baby, telling the 4-year-old to stay in his seat, to wait for me - as I rounded the car to get him out, juggling the baby on my hip... He said simply, "I'm happy." "Oh, I'm happy too," I said, remembering why I was there in the first place. "I'm so glad to be here with you this week. You two are my best friends." He smiled, and gave the baby and me a big hug. Heaven.
Now here I am, back in Spokane, refereeing my two cats with some cat nip - wondering how show-and-tell went yesterday (the 4-year-old had to bring something that begins with the letter "N" - we tentatively planned out that he would bring a foam number 9 he had from his bath toys) - hoping they don't miss me at all, while simultaneously missing them both immensely. That's the thing about building relationships - they touch us deeply, to the core of the heart, for better or for worse. I think I'll call to see if he brought the number 9.