Popcorn and Hot Chocolate

Two of the kids whom I do not see very often came over the other night.  My niece is a junior in high school and my nephew is in middle school.  It was good to see them, but a certain sadness came over me just the same.

These two are the youngest children of my sister-in-law’s second husband (they divorced several years ago).  Most of his brood of eight (who joined my sister-in-law’s three kids from her first marriage) are now adults and scattered among several different states.  My wife tries to keep up with them on Facebook and we see them now and then.

I am sorry to report that my sister-in-law’s ex recently saw fit to divest himself of responsibility for his last two kids still at home by essentially dumping them on one of their sisters (and her husband).  It’s nice that the kids are now just 40 miles away instead of out of state.  But I can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to be pawned off by one’s dad in such a manner.

When I first met my niece, she was two years old.  While visiting at her house, I heard a squeak from down the hall that sounded like “Hep! Hep!”  One of the other kids had played a mean trick on her by placing her on top of the clothes dryer.  That little bit of a thing was stuck up there like a china doll with no way to climb down.

It had to be tough growing up with so many brothers and sisters.  My niece was known as a biter.  I suppose she had to have some way to defend herself in her rough and tumble world.  Her weapon of choice was her teeth.

My nephew, who has developmental disabilities, had just turned one when I met him, and was still in diapers.  With so many siblings in that blended household, we made a lot of “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Yours, Mine and Ours” jokes (anyone still remember that movie?).  We had to save up all year long to have enough Christmas presents to go around.

My nephew had a very special bond with his great-grandmother (who has since passed on), but he loves his Nana (Pastor Mom) dearly and retains fond memories of being spoiled rotten by her when he was little.  When he was visiting the other night, he requested popcorn and hot chocolate, so it would feel just like the old days.  When I arrived home from work, the house stank of microwave popcorn and he and his sister were stretched out on the living room floor, enjoying their snack in front of the TV.

While I was in the kitchen making myself a sandwich, my niece wandered in and asked me how my new job is going.  It’s hard to believe that the tiny girl stuck up there on the dryer is nearly all grown up now.  When she was maybe nine or ten, and I was still a pescatarian, she called me out by demanding to know why I ate fish if I was a vegetarian.  This bothered me for years until, realizing that she was right, I changed my ways.  (Eventually, I went all the way and became vegan.)  Funny how kids tell it like it is.

In the kitchen, my niece discussed college plans, career options and the differences between living in Las Vegas and Sacramento.  I beamed when she explained that she is active in Student Council.  She expressed disappointment that she hadn’t yet figured out what to do with her life and I assured her that a lot people my age still haven’t found an answer to that quintessential dilemma.  I encouraged her to study a broad range of disciplines and to avoid committing to any one of them until necessary.  This is your opportunity to learn and grow, to become a well-rounded person, I told her.

It is gratifying to see that despite having survived a drug addict birth mother and a father with many problems, despite having been tossed from pillar to post all her young life, my niece seems to have turned out just fine.  I’m very proud of her.

And I’ll try not to remind her about the biting thing.

Although I might say something about how she used to remember how to spell “banana” by blurting out the lyrics to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.”

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On Being an Uncle When Love is in the Air

sky heart

My nephews from the Central Valley couldn’t make it up here for Christmas because — gasp! — they were working!  As in they actually have jobs!

I’m so proud of them.  My 24 year old guy is attending nursing school and working in a renal dialysis center.  My 30 year old guy has worked for years as an EMT in the trauma center of a major hospital.

Although we didn’t get to share the holidays with them, they took a train and a bus to spend a few days with us this week.  Meanwhile, one of our nieces who lives an hour north of here (also employed — rep in a large health insurance company’s call center) drove down and our two nephews and one niece who live close by have been in and out all weekend.  This meeting of the cousins’ club is now in session!

Some of us made it to church this morning.  Then there was an informal lunch as we all fixed sandwiches, pickles and chips and sat in the living room catching up, with my little grandniece running between all of us, not knowing what on earth to do with so many aunts and uncles.

We’ve been giving the younger crowd space to enjoy the pleasure of their own company, particularly since they don’t get to do this all that often.  Last night, they went out to dinner and tonight they’re off to play billiards and, presumably, to listen to music and have a few drinks somewhere.  We’re here at home watching the little one while her mama is serving as the designated driver for the boys.  Good girl!

My nursing student nephew feels like a kid in a candy store.  Apparently there is one guy for every five women in his class.  As for my trauma center nephew, he dropped the bomb when he arrived last night.  The man is in love.

About 1:30 in the morning, we had a long talk that warmed my heart.  Even with some of the family being close by, I don’t have the opportunity for these “uncle moments” every day.  They always appear out of the blue and they always leave me open-mouthed, wondering “wow, did that just happen?”

Author Raymond Carver famously said that “it ought to make us ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.”  And I will be the first to admit that I have no idea what I’m talking about, that I have no pearls of wisdom to offer.  I take it one day at a time, just as all of us do.  Life’s a dance you learn as you go, dear nephew.

He was afraid that we wouldn’t think well of him when we learned that his new love is ten years his junior.  I reassured him that much greater age differences separate some couples.  When two hearts speak the same language, age becomes little more than a number.

Of course, his sister and cousins gave him a good-natured ribbing about robbing the cradle.  But we’re all really happy for him and can’t wait to meet her.  My nephew shared with me that he’s been seeing one “sign” after another that he and his girlfriend are meant to be together.  I gently suggested that coincidences regarding names and numbers should not be accorded much weight.

“Is this a serious thing?” we all asked him.

“Very serious,” was his reply.  And so, in our late night talk, I attempted to convey whatever wisdom I could conjure up from fifteen years of marriage.  “I know this sounds more than a little cliché,” I began, “but it is important to have someone to live for.”

“Yes!” he interrupted.  He’d been thinking exactly the same thing, he told me.  He had been feeling aimless, he confessed, with the chores of life a drudgery that was dragging him down.  Until his lady love came along.  Now, he says, he feels a sense of purpose.

He tells me that he’s been plagued by self-doubt for years.  Why is he thirty and still single?  Is there something wrong with him?  He’s heard the whispers and the familial concern.

It’s not like he hasn’t had girlfriends before.  He even shared a home with one for a little while.  But this — oh my goodness, this is something else, something entirely new.

I learned that the two of them are both in the medical field and are both living with and caring for close family members with serious health issues.  They have met each other’s immediate families and have received a universal vote of approval.

They will face challenges, as every couple does.  She works in the daytime while he’s been on graveyard for years.  They live an hour away from each other and usually meet halfway for dinner before he goes in to work.

I tried to assure my nephew that difficulties can be overcome if both parties are committed to make it work no matter what.  That there will inevitably be times when both of you feel like giving up.  You say you feel so honored to hold her hand.  But it is at the not-so-lovely times, when you may least feel the emotion that so consumes you now, that you most need to do just that.

I hear the sound of two hearts singing.  Now melody, now a tight harmony.  Soprano and tenor, rising over and dipping under each other, dipping gingerly across and through, like an aural tango.  Yes, dear nephew, I hear all of this when you talk about her.

You passed around a photo, and we all oohed and aahed admiringly.  We get a kick out of teasing you when you whip out your cell phone and head for the bedroom and close the door.  We understand the longing you must feel being away from her for just a few days.

We’ve all been there.  Some of us remember the feeling fondly.  As for me, dear nephew, may you be as blessed as I have been, with the fire continuing to burn brightly as the years turn into decades of love.