“Auntie,” he calls from the back seat.
I adjust the rearview mirror so I can see him smiling from his car seat in his striped footie pajamas. He turns the tiny gold key to my jewelry box over and over in his small hand. We spent all morning unlocking tiny doors around the house, letting out imaginary rabbits to rush around and find carrots in the carpet.
“The van is dirty,” he says.
We make eye contact in the mirror and he giggles. His bright blue eyes are hidden behind my pink sunglasses and he’s wearing a knit blue cap. I play along.
“Are you sure?” I say. “It looks clean to me.”
“Yes! It’s dirty!”
“Well…what do you think we should do?”
He says the words with a squeak at the end. His entire body jerks and the sunglasses fall off his face.
“You think so, huh?” I say.
“Yes! Car wash!”
“I don’t know…”
“Car wash! Car wash! Car wash!”
He knows I’m going to give in and I do. When he sees the yellow duck on the sign he claps his hands and kicks his legs. I put on our song, “Working at the Car Wash” by Rosvelt, and pull the shade back from the sunroof so we can see the bubbles all around us.
I watch the joy and excitement on his squishy face as he stares at the green, blue and purple bubbles. We sing, dance, and giggle over the harsh sounds of the water and the fat colorful rollers slapping against the van.
It’s pure joy.
A ritual we’ve discovered together.
An auntie thing.
He turns three on Saturday and I live for these pockets of magic we uncover.
Our shared treasure.
They feel big and important.
My own children are teenagers, beautiful and complex. We are close and continue to create new memories, but I miss when they were small enough I didn’t have to share them with school or friends.
When they were mine.
I’ve discovered playing with my nephew allows me to slip back into memories of my own kids in a new and different way; to uncover the feelings and sensations of burying them in the sand, snuggling them at bedtime, and holding them when they’ve fallen.
These little snapshots of my kids at his age come into focus with surprising intensity. It’s like remembering an old language I used to speak, slipping on an old sweater, or opening a tiny door.
It’s a wonderful and unexpected gift.
All the love.
All the silliness.
All the tears.
All the firsts.
This week my son got his first bank account and started his first job. As I drive him to work it occurs to me it’s the exact route I took to his preschool. The feelings swelling up are familiar too; another moment of letting go and another shifting of our relationship.
The sadness I expect to come, however, doesn’t.
It feels different.
When I pick up him at 10 p.m. he requests a Happy Meal and hopes he gets a Stitch toy. He talks animately about his job and the people he met. He laughs and we listen to “Pump up the Jam” at high volume and sing along.
There you are.
The pandemic and his accidents robbed him of growth and some of the firsts he should have had. It put us in a strange place of adversaries, and we’ve both lost the comfortable way we’d always been together. The silly way we could look back and move forward; our own dance.
I’m remembering it.
I hope he is too.
We have a lifetime of firsts left.