What a lovely domestic scene. It’s Sunday afternoon at the parsonage. In the living room, my wife is folding freshly-washed laundry, Pastor Mom is dozing in her easy chair, my little grandniece has toys strewn all over the floor even though she’s only been here five minutes, and I am sitting on the couch with the laptop and a pile of paperwork, trying to catch up and prepare for Monday morning. My niece is at the kitchen table doing homework for her college classes. “What’s a dislocated worker?” she asks me, and I yell into the kitchen that it’s someone who has been laid off. We’ve left the front door open, and the breeze wafting into the living room reminds us that it’s nearly spring.
“Phone? Phone?” The little one begs my wife for her mobile. My niece gives the okay and our two year old pride and joy begins playing her favorite videos of wildly colored “surprise eggs” being opened for the toys inside to be revealed. This time it’s the one with one hundred Christmas eggs. My grandniece has been mesmerized by this stuff for months. Despite the Christmas eggs, I think she finally realizes that the holidays are over. Halfway through January, she was still making the rounds of our home, wishing each of us “Me’y Kismiss!”
Today Little Miss brought her pink Frozen backpack with her. Aside from the eggs, her other fascination is with Olaf, Elsa and all the rest.
When I step into the kitchen to make some PB&Js, I see that my niece is reading aloud from a textbook for her humanities class. She is clearly struggling with some of the academic language and we begin chatting about perception, reality and context. Somehow we flit from Descartes to Freud to Santa Claus. She reads a paragraph about turning humans into objects and I volunteer that the ultimate example of this is murder. She gives me a quizzical glance and I explain about turning a conscious being into a corpse, a mere object.
She asks me how I “remember all this stuff.” Did I have some super method of studying when I was in college that allowed me to retain everything for years? Do I have a photographic memory? I assure her that nothing of the kind is true and that, in fact, I am a horrible studier and didn’t do all that well in school. Certain things just stick with you, I volunteered. My wife agrees and begins reciting snippets of Shakespeare that she still remembers from high school. She mentions my father, who, at the age of 81, can recite from memory dozens of lengthy poems that he studied more than half a century ago.
I was delighted when my niece showed up with her daughter unexpectedly late this afternoon. She needed us to perform babysitting duty long enough to allow her to finish her homework assignment. Even with the attentions of my wife, my mother-in-law and myself, the little one kept wandering into the kitchen to be with her mom. In her silliness, she began biting the tablecloth, making a hole in it. For this transgression, she earned a tearful time-out and a detailed explanation that we eat food, not tablecloths.
I don’t generally see my niece very often, even though she lives just down the road. With work and college and raising a two year old, she doesn’t have time to breathe, much less to visit family. On Monday nights, she works the graveyard shift and we keep the little one all night. She has her own bed here in the office, but partway through the night she always wakes up fussing and we take her into bed with us. We lay three across in contented familial somnolence until I roust myself out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to get ready for work. I am gone to Sacramento by the time my niece comes to retrieve her daughter.
So it was a bit of a surprise that I got to visit with my niece two days in a row. Last night, she was here along with her daughter, her mom and her two brothers in honor of my birthday. Earlier in the week, my wife told her that she planned to shop for a vegan dessert for me. “Can I make him a cake?” she asked. The result was one of the most delicious chocolate cakes I have ever tasted, with chocolate icing, no less. My wife and I drove over to Little Caesar’s and brought back pizza for everyone. My grandniece was in a happy mood, running amok and basking in the attentions of uncles and aunts of all ages. My niece is taking some kind of exercise class for her phys ed requirement, aerobics or yoga or something, and she tried out some of her moves with her mom in the middle of the living room floor as the rest of us egged them on and indulged in lots of laughs as they bent, stretched and lunged. My nephew picked up the little one, turned her upside down behind his back and walked around the house holding onto her feet, calling for her and pretending he couldn’t find her anywhere. We could hear the giggles from one end of the parsonage to the other.
We couldn’t find any candles, but they all sang “Happy Birthday” anyway and I opened bars of vegan chocolate and gift cards for Starbucks and iTunes. My best present was the one wrapped in lavender tissue paper that my grandniece eagerly tore apart for me. It was a framed photo of her first drawing, one that will proudly grace my cubicle at least until she is old enough to find it thoroughly embarrassing. We talked about maybe home schooling her, and with all of us assisting, did we think we could actually pull it off? Yes!
I don’t actually try the cake until the guests have left and I have made myself a cup of hot tea with almond milk. The cake tastes as incredible as it looks, and I text my niece that I would gladly pay to have her bake this any time at all. “I hope I get to eat this every day in heaven,” I blurt out to my wife. “You don’t even believe in heaven,” she replies, and I grin stupidly. It is such a blessing to be so loved by family, to drown in it, to blow its bubbles out your nose and mouth and bathe in its pure wonderfulness.
My parents couldn’t make it because they don’t like to stay overnight, and it would be a long ride home in the thick Central Valley nighttime fog that is a hallmark of our California winters. We will head south to visit them at their home next weekend. My Bay Area nephew wishes me happy birthday via email, writes me all about his new job at a Silicon Valley startup and we begin conspiring about what we will do for Grandma’s 81st birthday next month.