A couple of weeks ago, I spent the weekend at one of my sister's, where I watched my niece, M (9), light up while she was learning to eat spaghetti with a spoon and a fork. At that moment, nothing else mattered. She will remember forever the night I was there for an overnight and our annual pumpkin adventure, and her dad invited Italian friends--who made the BEST meatballs she's EVER eaten--over for dinner.
The next day, her brother, my nephew C, couldn't have been happier to wear an apron with his sister's name on it and stir a bowl of homemade lemonade. Later, he napped with the plastic spoon beside him. Earlier in the day he was just as happy to play Picasso at a local farm where we painted pumpkins.
I have shared similar moments with my niece A and nephew J, my older sister's children, both a little older that M and C. When J (15) was 3, C's age now, he greeted me at the sliding door of my parents' family room when I moved back from Boston. "You're not going to live in Boston anymore!," he said, with a smile as wide as his eyes and big as his cheeks, as he set my mind at ease about that life change. Moving home provided me with many more opportunities to spend time with him, and later his sister, A ( now 11), who still likes to play word games with me in the pool, and who now keeps a journal--which she was sure to let me know when she was over for pizza with her parents and J last weekend.
I have no children of my own, but I am blessed with my nieces and nephews, with sisters who trust me with their children's lives and have allowed me to spend time with them. My sister L sent an email after the pumpkin adventure thanking me for making memories with her children. I wrote back that it was my pleasure, that I made memories, too. What I didn't write in my reply was that I have learned some of the most important lessons in my adult life from her children and M's children, from the children of friends. That is, I didn't say that I am the grateful one.
All of them smiled in the mirror at the sight of themselves. They were completely enamored of themselves. I'm not sure I have ever seen any child, blood relation or otherwise, walk away from a mirror with a grimace or a frown. Children are delighted by their images. They love themselves. And seeing themselves in the mirror makes them interested in examining and loving others--even people who look different. When I have tired of holding a niece or nephew up at the mirror-as-toy, I would sit down with him or her, only to find him or her touch my nose and pat my face and smile as they examined my features--just as they had observed their own features at the mirror. Children are inherently curious about themselves and other people, intrinsically loving and affectionate.
What we teach or model, i.e., teach by modeling, what they see in this grown-up world makes them unsure of people, and insecure about themselves. I know this, and so I have wished at countless moments to freeze my nieces and nephews and friends' kids in time, while they are still young and loving and perfect and unaffected. I have wanted to protect them from the awfulness and hatred that lives around them, but I can't.
I can, however, hope that they get enough positive reinforcement from their parents and grandparents and other grown-ups like me, to counter any less than kind or generous messages they get from the outside world. As the world chips away, I hope that they are filled with enough of the simple things in life--word games in the pool and swirling spaghetti on a spoon-- and love to make up the difference, to still feel like the perfect people they are.