When I was little, my Aunt Suzie lived in a small town in Northern Minnesota four hours by car from my family home. At least a couple of times a year, my parents would gather my brother and me up in the Chevy Impala station wagon, pack a lunch that included bologna sandwiches and potato chips, and drive up there. I loved it. I loved everything about those trips because they involved being with my aunt, the crazy, writer-hippie-food obsessed-creative type-naturalist-college professor-nonconformist liberal. She was everything my parents weren't...and everything I longed to be. Plus, my brother and I got to sleep on mattresses on the floor up in her attic. We thought that was very, very cool.
Aunt Suzie let us do just about anything we wanted to do, including eat cake for breakfast. Right out of the pan. And we didn't have to brush our teeth before we went to bed. We made our own story books using her mimeograph machine, rode around on three-wheel ATVs in the back woods BY OURSELVES (we weren't even 10!), played tennis on the court they carved out on a patch of yard, took sips from my Uncle Bill's beer, walked their land and picked flowers then went back and pressed them. She let us look through ALL the Shel Silverstein books she had on her bookshelves. All of them! One time she taught me how to use a sewing machine, making me a sundress from fabric with cherries on it that I got to pick out at the fabric store. When we left her home, we always smelled like campfire because the only heat their home produced came from a huge, wood-burning stove. It was fantastic.
My role as an aunt to my 9-year-old niece and six-year-old nephew is more complicated. While I also live four hours away, it's by plane and some 2,000 miles apart. When my niece was 3, she flew out and stayed with me for four days while her mom was on a business trip. On that visit, my niece and I went to the Pasadena Children's Museum, built sand castles on Zuma Beach, went to the South Pasadena library to play children's learning games on the computer, and rode the rides on the Santa Monica Pier. What she remembers most to this day, though, more than six years later, are four things: 1) Green Day where we wore all green and ate only green things like olives, pears, apples, and veggie corn dogs (the package was green!); 2) our floating lunch where I put our peanut butter sandwiches, banana slices, and pretzels in Tupperware containers and floated them on the water in the kiddie pool we set out on our driveway; 3) going on owl searches at night (way past her bedtime, of course); and 4) picking a lemon from our tree and then tasting a fresh slice (I vividly recall her puckered face and though she didn't ask for any more, she never said it tasted awful). All these moments have one thing in common: it was just her and me. Together.
A while back, I was thinking about ways my niece and I can continue those special just-you-and-me moments despite the distance and that's when I came up with the Traveling Story Book idea. My niece is a good writer, enjoys it, and is creative as all get out. I want to fuel that fire as much as I can. So I got a simple notebook and a stack of stickers. Using the stickers as prompts, we write our stories. I write a story and send the book to her. She writes a story and sends it back to me. And then we do it again.
At least, that's what was supposed to happen. Until I dropped the ball last year.
But last week, I got back on the band wagon (thanks to my 41 for 41 list)! I pulled out our Traveling Story Book, picked out my stickers, wrote my story, and sent it off. She has no idea it's coming and I wish I could be there to see her face when the postal carrier drops it off at her house. Of course, she's a year older now (and may I remind you she's a GIRL) and has definite opinions about what is and isn't COOL. Who knows...maybe this isn't up her alley anymore. But if it isn't, you can bet I'll go back to the drawing board to figure out what IS and start doing that with her instead. After all, one of the highlights of 2011 for me was my visit to Northern Minnesota to see my Aunt Suzie. And I'm 41. (And yes, we got to eat cake for breakfast. Right from the pan!)
Now I need to figure out a "just-you-and-me thing" to do with my nephew.