A few weeks ago I volunteered to take my niece and nephew to their school fundraiser. Usually when I am alone with the children, our exposure in public places is limited to restaurants and grocery stores, places where I have learned to contain the chaos through trial and error. For some reason a carnival did not strike me as a challenge at the time. We arrived, and the kids immediately disappeared while I stood in line for the tickets. Thirty seconds in and I had already lost control of the situation. We were off to a good start. I found them at a booth called Franken Stuffers. They rooted through boxes and boxes of stuffed animals while I cut off heads, tails and legs so they could sew together their own Frankenstein version of a stuffed animal. I thought this was a great idea for a kids craft until we sat down with our selection of body parts and two little faces looked at me like, “Well, now what?” Oh, you mean I have to sew this crap together? One of the ladies attending the booth saw the look of horror on my face and gave me the two-minute Build-A-Bear instruction demo. I began to explain that the problem isn’t that I can’t sew, it’s just that I don’t. But she had moved on to the next victim.
The kids were almost immediately bored with watching me stare at a pile of teddy bear parts so I released them to use their tickets on other games while I got to work. The lady next to me asked me whose mother I was, and I explained that I was the babysitting aunt. She looked around for my absent wards so I had to keep looking up from my sewing in the direction of the balloon toss so that she would think I had one eye on them. I knew very well that my threat that they were to stay together or else had been ignored and they were running rampant through the carnival but I was only mildly concerned about it.
I understand why people do crafty things like sewing. Your hands move while your head goes to some other place. My other place was a fascinating conversation with myself about the perks of being childless. I am single and fabulous. How did I get roped into sitting on a dirty park bench next to a judgmental soccer Mom, stitching a duck’s head onto a tiger’s body? After about half an hour I staged a one-person coup and stuffed the legs and tails into my purse. Their mother was going to have to deal with this mess later.
Another of my nieces, Danielle, was having a piano recital that afternoon, so the plan was to take a small break from ring tossing and bouncy castles to spend an hour down the street listening to children play the piano. I told the kids that they had a few minutes before we had to leave and they went to get their faces painted. Rider had a small concern about showing up at the recital with a mask painted on his face but he was more concerned about missing out. He had seen another booth selling masks so he finally decided that on the way out he could buy a mask to cover up the mask painted on his face. I began to poke holes in his thought process but immediately gave up. My willingness to expend energy combating eight-year-old logic is pretty low.
Rider naturally chose the hardest face painting in the book of options provided and was seated in front of a girl that I had been watching while we were in line. All of the kids that walked away from her station looked like kindergarten art projects and I knew immediately this was not going to go well. In less than 10 minutes, Rose’s face was a spectacular glittery butterfly, and Rider’s face had been wiped clean three times so that his “artist” could start over. Now here is the kind of aunt dilemma that just kills me. With Rose strutting around like a walking piece of art, there is no way I can drag Rider away with nothing but some grey paint smeared over one eye; but I also can’t be late for the recital and potentially miss the piano debut of another niece. There was no apparent way to come out of this as the world’s best aunt, which is the whole point of spending a Sunday afternoon in a park full of screaming schoolchildren. As an aunt it is very important, and occasionally impossible, to be loved and adored by everyone at the same time.
I announced to the teenager butchering my nephew’s face that she had three minutes. I must have conveyed my authority effectively because she panicked and the resulting artwork was a mess. I could have achieved the same result after a fifth of scotch. However, Rider’s reaction when they gave him the mirror was, “Cool.” Who was I to argue? Feeling like we had turned the corner on one crisis, I told Rider to get ready to run for the car and turned around to get Rose. She was nowhere to be seen. Rider and I ran around yelling “Rose!” at the top of our lungs. The carnival was small and I wasn’t worried about losing her, but the recital had started and I needed her in the car ASAP. It occurred to me that freaking out about a missing child in the middle of a school festival was probably going to get back to the parents and I should be a little more discreet. So I told Rider to calmly walk around and look for his sister while I waited where she expected I would be. Rider heard my instructions as, “Run up to one of your teachers and tell her to keep an eye out for Rose because your Aunty Jo lost her and you can’t find her anywhere.” Seriously, just kill me now.
Panic started to spread until Rose reappeared wondering what all the fuss was about. I decided not to address her disappearing act in favor of flying like a bat out of hell to the car, which also gave me the added benefit of avoiding any direct eye contact with her teacher. We hadn’t done enough to create a scene at the school event, so now we were running through the carnival like our lives depended on it. Tearing down the hill in the car, I threw Rose’s skirt back to her and told her to put it on. We were going to a formal recital so we had brought something more appropriate for her to wear instead of shorts and sneakers. “Aunty Jo, how am I going to put this on in the car?” “I don’t know. You’re six, figure it out.” “Can I unstrap?” “Yes! Just get changed.” And that, Children, is another lesson from your aunt on how to exude grace under pressure. You’re welcome.
As we walked into the recital, Rider hid his painted face like he would shrivel up and die if anyone saw him. We quietly slid into our seats and I took a really deep breath as Danielle walked onto the stage. We had made it in the nick of time. As I started to calm down to the dulcet tones of beginner piano exercises, Rider asked if he could go to the bathroom. He was followed by Rose, and both came back a few moments later with clean faces—no longer embarrassed to be seen in public. I sat there with my mouth open. I paid for this face painting that they just desperately had to have; it made us late for the recital and stressed us all out, and ten minutes later it was gone.
As soon as the recital was over, we all went back to the carnival. My brother, sister-in-law and the youngest nephew, Stanley, had arrived for the festivities and Danielle’s mother began her shift at the teddy bear atrocity booth. Rider and Rose went straight back to the face painting for round two. With the parents back in charge, I sat down on the grass, ate Stanley’s popcorn when he wasn’t looking, and took stock of the day’s events. How do all these people do this, every day? I was exhausted after one afternoon. I kissed them all goodbye, texted a friend to meet me at a bar and happily rejoined my regularly scheduled programming.
The next weekend we all went to a friend’s house for dinner and there were no kids for Rider, Rose and Stanley to play with. They amused themselves for a while but I could tell they were starting to get cabin fever. I excused myself from the table and helped them scale the garden wall. I was wearing a new white skirt but they managed to help me up over the wall and we made a run for it. My brother was the only grown-up with a good view of our escape. We found an open grassy area in the housing complex and played freeze tag until I announced that I had reached my running limit for the day. Aunts in pencil skirts can only run so much before they have to sit down. It’s the law. I sat on the grass and they organized a talent show for me. Rider dazzled with his Jedi moves, Rose did a fabulous cartwheel demonstration, and Stanley showed off his best three-year-old somersaults. Then after some whispering and collusion, Rider announced, “Now we are going to sing a song.” On the count of three, they swiveled around and started wiggling their backsides at me while the older two rapped, “I like big butts and I cannot lie, you other brothers can’t deny . . .” Tears were streaming down my face, I was laughing so hard. I did get to the bottom of who exposed them to Sir Mix-A-Lot but he won’t appreciate me outing him.
As I sat on the grass watching them shake their butts, I thought to myself, “You are three of the most wonderful, interesting and adorable human beings I have ever known. And I am glad that I am your aunt and not your mother.” I used to suspect that my acceptance of not having children of my own was a defense mechanism. Lately I am wondering if I am starting to believe my own hype. Being an aunt who gets to do the fun stuff and very little of the discipline is amazing. We recently had a sleepover during which they ate nothing but sugar and watched a week’s worth of television, and they repeatedly exclaimed what a wonderful aunt I am. The whole weekend was the perfect aunt extravaganza and I was feeling pretty proud and competent, until the three-year-old threw himself from the top of a jungle gym at the park. While I was rocking him, kissing it better and bribing him with ice cream, a helpful playmate walked up and asked me how old Stanley was. I told the nosey little kid that he was three. He informed me over the din of Stanley’s screams that kids under six were not allowed in the playground. Lucky for him his parents were nearby, judging me for allowing a child to swan dive off a playground apparatus. I have no idea how people do this every day without strangling someone.
I love being an aunt and I am working on being a more patient, unflappable version of the role model that they currently enjoy. I may appear to have a loose interpretation of adult supervision, but I take my role in their lives very seriously. And I am fairly certain that when they are grown they are going to remember the aunt that gave them candy before bed and let them watch Star Wars, instead of the aunt that overreacted and hysterically tore through their school carnival like an escaped mental patient.