It’s not very often that you get a chance to relive something as profound as parenting a young child, but quite out of the blue four months ago, a little girl I love came to live with me.
She is a close relative, and the circumstances that brought her to me are the usual combination of family difficulties and dysfunction.
It has been years since I’ve shared my home with anyone, so becoming the equivalent of a single mother late in life has put to the test all the good things I believe about myself. For example, I like to think of myself as patient, loving, gracious and kind.
Turns out, I can also be quite the wicked witch.
“I really don’t like you sometimes,” she announced the other day.
“I totally get that,” I replied.
No point in pretending everything is perfect.
But sometimes, everything really is.
She carpets the house with mash notes to me: “I love you, Auntie.” “I love you so, so, so much.” “You are the best.”
The needs of children are all encompassing, something that is too easy to forget after they sprout wings and fly away. My daughter is a young adult; my stepchildren are middle-aged, and I have forgotten so much.
But the little ones — they are the suns of their own solar systems, and the planets whose gravitational pull ceaselessly drags us to them. Our needs and desires must come second to theirs. Remembering this has been my greatest challenge; it’s not about me anymore.
When we are irritable and rushing, children need long hugs and kisses.
When we want to curl up with a book, they need to be wrapped in towels and held close after a bath.
When all we want to do is flop on the couch and watch “Game of Thrones,” they need stories and back rubs.
I so look forward to her bedtime.
Sometimes, the two of us have perfect days and calm, lovely evenings.
Sometimes, we have days full of meltdowns and tears (mostly hers) and difficult bedtime conversations.
But mostly, with the help of our family and extraordinary friends, we are doing surprisingly well. Together, we have built a very dependable little village, and it is a good one.
Two weeks ago, at breakfast, she looked at me, cracked a giant smile and said, “You know what, Auntie? We make a pretty good team.”
Then she high-fived me.
I walked into my bathroom and wept.
One of the beautiful things about living alone is that you are never beholden to anyone else’s whims or needs. Your time is your own. Routines be damned.
Children, on the other hand, crave the comfort of unwavering routines.
It took me too long to relearn this. I would start cooking dinner too late, or run out of milk, or forget to buy the only salad dressing she will eat.
You know what, Auntie? We make a pretty good team.
I am happy to report that she now has me trained.
After school, there is homework, followed by dinner, followed by a debate over whether dessert is appropriate. Then comes bath time, during which she gives her finest singing performances. We read “Charlotte’s Web,” “Dog Man” or “Amelia Bedelia.”
There is a mandatory 10-minute back rub, always to the strains of the “Govi” guitar channel on Pandora, a couple of bear hugs, and several smoochy kisses.
And then, without fail, she extracts the same promise from me: “Check on me in five minutes.”
Of course, I do.
“Game of Thrones” can wait.
Over spring break, we decide to take a road trip. Scratch that. I decide.
The little girl has not traveled much, and it seems like a great idea to pack up the car and drive to San Francisco, where we will stay a couple of days with her cousins before spending a night in Carmel with friends, then meander home down Highway 1.
“We’re going to spend how many hours in the car?” she asks, incredulous. “Why can’t we take an airplane?”
On the first morning of our drive, after two bathroom stops, three “I’m hungrys” and four “I’m boreds,” I am asking myself the same question.
When I am forced to stop for a third bathroom visit in 150 miles, part of me wants to scream. I don’t. I silently recite my new motto: “Love and patience. Love and patience. Love and patience.”
We listen to “The Tales of Peter Rabbit” until she gets tired of his antics. I am just getting into the audio version of “Harry Potter” when I look in the rearview mirror and see she has fallen asleep — probably out of boredom. Who could be bored by the boy wizard and those awful Dursleys? Feeling slightly defeated, I turn it off.
When she wakes up, we put on music. Her music, of course. An endless repetition of the same 10 songs on her favorite Pandora station, kids’ movie soundtracks. She has a fabulous voice. Together, we belt out the songs from “Moana.” “Beauty and the Beast.” “Trolls.” “Sing.”
A week or so earlier, I had made the mistake of showing her the video for Ariana Grande’s hit, “thank u, next.” Now, she is obsessed and wants to hear the song all the time. I am mortified because I have not been able to figure out how to find the non-explicit version. Each time Ariana sings the f-word (which is a lot), I scream “Beep!”
In an effort to expand her musical horizons, I try the Beatles and hold my breath. “I’ve heard of them,” she tells me. When “Imagine” starts playing, she perks up: “The Beatles wrote that?”
Every once in a while, after her 10-song cycle has repeated a few times, she takes pity on me: “It’s OK if you want to listen to news for a few minutes, Auntie.”
I die of gratitude a little, put on the news, hear the beginning of a story about, say, mass bombings in Sri Lanka, and decide she doesn’t need to hear that noise. We turn the music right back on. It’s almost like she planned it that way. I sometimes feel like a very irritable prisoner, or as if my life has been commandeered by a very small dictator.
During our first visit to the pediatrician, the doctor told us that children should ride in the back seat until age 21. She was joking, of course, but we took her point. My niece only ever rides in the back seat.
But in truth, she is driving this family now.