I bolted off the plane, holding huge pink Disney “Princess” bags in each hand, looking around eagerly to see her. I felt a tug at my sweater.
“Hi,” she said. Her blue eyes gleamed as she draped her arms around my neck. I can feel how much she has grown in the four months since I last saw her. Her blonde hair has gotten blonder, cascading down to the middle of her back. Her legs are longer, all traces of baby fat gone. Dressed in a lavender cardigan, a metallic flower pendant, and a charm bracelet, which I bought her, she insists, “Get your stuff so we can get home and play.”
Watching her walk through the airport, I remembered why I left New York at 5:30 am and endured nearly two hours of turbulence. I am Sammie’s aunt.
On the ride home we stopped at McDonald’s where she offered me her French fries and asked if they are still my favorite. “Uh-huh,” I said, shoving them into my mouth.
“It’s so funny,” she claimed. “Don’t you think?”
“What?” I asked, already amused at how she expresses herself at seven years old.
“That we’ve always liked the same things.” She slipped her hand into mine, and we connected again like we’d never been apart. Like the 700 some odd miles between New York and Indianapolis don’t exist. My brother, in jest, tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Hey, remember me?”
I was 35 when I learned I was going to be a first-time aunt. Since the title didn’t come with a job description, and there was no What to Expect When You’re Expecting A Niece, I had no idea of the mixed emotions I would feel when my baby brother called me at 4:00 AM to tell me he had a baby girl. Excitedly, I asked questions: What was her name? “Samantha Taylor.” How much did she weigh? “6 lbs. 8 ounces.” Who did she look like? “Grandpa Willie when he was 90.” After I hung up, the pride caught in my throat, and I was overcome by the sibling rivalry my brother and I engaged in growing up. It wasn’t fair. I’m the older sister; I should be having a child first. What should have filled me with complete joy filled me with self-pity, doubt, and the fear that perhaps my biological clock had been on snooze.
The next day, all traces of envy were gone. I had a niece. I got busy making her a jewelry box. It had the desired effect. When Sammie was two, she told me “it was more beautiful than anything in the world.”
I then bought the more useful gifts: a 14K gold miniature heart locket and a pair of floral rose gold studs for when she got her ears pierced. “You can’t give her any of these things yet,” my sister-in-law cautioned. “She’ll choke on them.”
“Really?” I said, feigning shock. At 36 I was well aware of what infants can and cannot teethe on. I just wanted to be the first person to purchase her jewelry that would connect us, as it had my grandmother, mom, and me, even if I knew she couldn’t wear them right away.
Every visit, Sammie gets a little taller, a little more independent, a little more like me. And each time, it gets harder for me to leave. When I’m with her, I can pretend I’m not 42, single, and alone. I have someone with whom to talk, laugh, share confidences, and shop for jewelry and clothes. I have a special person to love. But I’d be lying if I said it was love at first sight.
When I first lifted Sammie into my arms, she wailed, flailed, and spit up three times on my favorite cashmere sweater. “Is she supposed to cry this much?” I asked my sister-in-law.
“She hasn’t stopped since we brought her home.”
I danced her around the house to every show tune I could think of to calm her down and finally her eyes began to close. I slid onto the couch, her soft baby head nestled in the crease of my neck. Both of us, exhausted, conked out. She woke me up by grabbing my antique diamond solitaire necklace, looking at me quizzically, and then breaking into a big, toothless, drool-y smile. That’s when I knew she was part of me.
Mommy would be the one to deal with tantrums, change diapers, and teach her that pens don’t belong in electrical outlets. Mommy would worry when she had a fever, tell her she was brave and wipe her tears every time she went to the doctor to get a shot.
I would teach her to make a tiara by gluing shimmery sequins and sparkles. I’d let her pull out all my jewelry and play dress-up. I’d sneak Coca-Cola into her sippy cup, let her stay up way past bedtime, and watch Beauty and the Beast with her five times in a row.
I’d never be too tired to de-tangle necklaces, never too busy to talk, never too cynical to be swept away by her innocence and turn back into a kid again myself. That is the part of being an aunt that no one tells you about; you get your childhood back. See how long you can keep the hula-hoop spinning and pretend that cascades of metallic Mardi Gras beads are royal sashes at “the ball.”
Sammie’s known my phone number since she was three. Everything I taught her and everything she taught me stuck. A bond formed out of shimmery nail polish, sequins, and Elmer’s glue.
As a long-distance aunt, I constantly plan my vacation time around seeing her. Though I missed her first steps, the first time the tooth fairy came, and the magic of her dressing up for Halloween, I’ve had no problem taking credit when someone at the supermarket tells me what a beautiful child I have. And I brag about her like she’s my own child. I talk nonstop about Sammie to everyone who will listen. Friends have asked me to stop boring them to death — except for my closest friend Jodi, whose niece Lindsay is the exact same age as Sammie. When Sammie was two, I told Jodi: “It’s so cute. She starts every conversation with either guess what?’ or can I tell you something?'”
“Sammie has conversations?” Jodi asked suspiciously.
“What, Lindsay doesn’t?”
Our conversations even started to get competitive, such as who learned to spell or got the hang of the potty first. “Do you realize we are acting like two mothers comparing their kids in the playground?” I asked.
“We’re acting out, ” Jodi said, before asking, “Do you think we will ever have kids of our own?”
The question hung like a comic strip blurb over my head.
On the last day of my visit, after going to the mall, the movies and playing “Dress up Barbie,” I was exhausted, but Sammie wanted to watch Sleeping Beauty.
“You’re not watching,” she said, her inquisitive face pressed against mine.
“Am too,” I said.
“Are not.” She pried open my eyes with her fingers. “And you’re going to miss the prince.”
“I am Sleeping Beauty and I’m waiting for the prince to kiss me and wake me up,” I said, hoping this would allow me to nap for five minutes.
“Don’t be silly. You know the prince isn’t real and the story is only make-believe.”
“Okay. I’m waiting for my husband then.”
“You can’t have a husband. If you did you wouldn’t have enough time to play with me.”
Based on My Charmed Life: Rocky Romances, Precious Family Connections and Searching for a Band of Gold by Beth Bernstein. Copyright NAL Trade, July 2012. Used with permission.