I don’t have children of my own, thus my nieces and nephews hold the position in my heart that my own kids would have had. They know that they can get away with a lot when they’re with me, albeit different things than their parents would have allowed. I’m not afraid to say no when I feel like it, though, especially when they’re beating each other up or screaming. (This happens a lot: high-pitched squeals of delight or shrieks of agony from bonking each other in the head.) During a recent sojourn in Ohio, I found myself in the enviable position of taking care of the three youngest—2, 4, and 6 years old—while their parents were away on overlapping business trips.
I’ve managed to build a relationship with them over the last few years, even while living far away. I met Brynn, the youngest, when she was four weeks old, and by the time I left 10 days later, she had started to look into my eyes and smile. Last summer, I saw her take her first steps. Since I’m really quite clueless about kids, I’ve had to invent things to do with Colson and Audra, Brynn’s older brother and sister. I spend my life among adults for the most part while most of the world is involved in the eternal cycle of bringing children in the world, so it’s not easy for me to figure out what to do with them or what to say to them. I didn’t even know what to say to other kids when I was one. Therefore, I more or less treat them like very small adults or act myself like a very large child, and this seems to work. We make videos together, play ‘bake-Catwoman-in-the-oven-and-serve-her-up-for-dinner’ (Hansel and Gretel-style—Audra’s idea), and I teach them to play Carcassonne, the latest in the favorite-family-game category. I indulge them in their favorite word: toot. Toot in its noun forms and as a verb in all of its conjugations. I toot. You toot. We all toot.
“Audra, you’re a tooter,” says Colson.
“I know!” she squeals. “I’m the best at tooting!”
I like to mess with their heads and teach them French. The first hurdle was convincing them that it wasn’t Spanish. They were under the impression that all foreign languages are Spanish. They ask me how to say different things in French, and I make them repeat it back, jealous of their accents. Even with my imperfect pronunciation as a model, their still-developing vocal cords and tongues wrap around the Rs and dance around the subtle differences in vowel sounds as if they were little French kids. Totally not fair.
The other day I taught them to say “my name is…”: “Je m’appelle…” In angelic voices, they produced “je m’appelle Audra” and “je m’appelle Colson”. Then I got the brilliant idea of teaching them to say “your name is…” I had them repeat to each other: “tu t’appelle Audra” and “tu t’appelle Colson”.
“Tu t’appelle?” they echoed.
“Toot, toot, I tooted,” they sang, dancing around the room. “You’re a tooter. No, you’re a tooter. Up, up, and I tooted…!”
French lesson over.
* * *
Amy’s birthday was the day before she was to leave on her trip—the kids’ mother, my sister-in-law. I happily volunteered to make her a cake—a Dark Chocolate Raspberry Torte with a Raspberry Chambord Sauce—and enlisted the aid of Colson and Audra. They like to help in the kitchen, pulling chairs over so that they’re high enough to reach and lean over everything on the counter (and the stove). It’s always a challenge to figure out what I can safely let them do, so I opted first to have them break up the chocolate that I’d be melting with the butter. Keeping them from eating every other chunk was the big trick. Ultimately, we sacrificed half a bar to tasting, but it worked out, bringing our ounce count down to that in the recipe. Audra wouldn’t quit eating it until I threatened her (with what, I’ve already forgotten). Colson spit his out, saying it was ‘too spicy’. He doesn’t appreciate dark chocolate yet.
Audra wanted to eat some butter. I shaved a tiny sliver off one corner of the stick I was slicing and let her pop it in her mouth. Then she wanted another. By the time I finished, she’d talked me into giving her all four corners of both sticks. I had them pick the pats off the cutting board and throw them in the pot with the chocolate. When I turned back around from rinsing my knife and board in the sink, I found them both taking pats of butter and pieces of chocolate out of the pot, licking them, and then throwing them back in. I rolled my eyes, thankful that I wouldn’t be serving it to anyone but their mother. At least the pot wasn’t on the stove yet. Once we’d mixed it all up, they asked if they could lick the beater. I said yes, my back unwisely turned. They didn’t wait for me to remove the beater from the mixer before descending on it like a couple of hyenas on a wildebeest. I ran over from the sink to unplug it, well beyond worrying about their drool dripping into the batter.
I had them help me butter the springform pan, cut out parchment paper to line it, and dust it with superfine sugar, and after we’d put the torte in the oven, they asked: “How do you say ‘toot’ in French?”
“Péter,” I answered, not missing a beat.
“PEH-TEH,” they repeated perfectly.
“But how do you say, I’m tooting?” asked Audra.
“Je pète,” I told her. “Je pète. Tu pètes. Audra pète. Colson pète. Vous pétez, nous pétons, ils pètent…”
It was the best French lesson to date. They really paid attention.
* * *
My brother came home before Amy did, and he, the kids, and I went to their club together—he and I to do the spinning class and the kids to ‘exercise’ in the club’s daycare room. Brynn got punched in the face by another kid when we dropped them off, and I had to admire my brother’s calm. I wanted to take out the rotten little boy who’d socked my cherub-like niece. His mother kept apologizing to me, and I pretended to smile through my inexperienced-with-kids outrage.
Walking in from the parking lot, Colson and I were ahead of everyone else, and he said, punching me:
“You’re a tooter.”
“Oh yeah?” I said. “You’re the tooter.”
“You’re a bigger tooter.”
“You’re the biggest tooter. You’re such a big tooter that your toots are really poop.” (I don’t know why I said that. I really shouldn’t have said that.)
“Ew, that’s gross,” he said, screwing up his face in disgust.
“Yeah, I know. Don’t tell your mom I said that.”
A few seconds later, he said, “I’m gonna tell my mom on you.”
“If you tell on me, she won’t let me come back.”
“Okay,” he said, thinking about it. “I won’t tell her you said poop.” After a few more steps, he said, “Really, I’m gonna tell on you.”
I knew he wouldn’t be able to help it. Colson’s so honest he tells on himself, and I’m going to get in trouble one of these times. The other night when he boasted for the hundredth time that he was going to ‘smoke’ me during the Carcassonne game, I knew that I shouldn’t have said I was going to serve him his butt on a silver platter, but the words were out of my mouth before I could help it.
“What?” he said, both eyes wide open.
“Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn.”
* * *
I relaxed and recovered on the plane home, but I was already missing the maniacal imps. They are a handful, and I don’t know how real parents actually do it, but I grin thinking back on those couple of weeks and the cherished moments. When I had arrived in Ohio, Brynn could barely say, “Hi”, and four weeks later she was saying my name. She even wailed for me once when I’d left the room, and I have to admit that I was pleased about it in an evil and sadistic way. Audra didn’t say a word when they took me to the airport—too choked up to risk saying goodbye—and Colson wouldn’t let go when he hugged me for the last time, leaving my neck aching along with my heart.
You can find the recipes in this blog at: