Ten came too quickly, a clichéd inevitability I know, but there it was nonetheless:
My niece, Josie, in what appears to be an impossible compression of time, entered her second decade last weekend. Yet not that long ago, or so it seems, she was a fragile wonder in my brother’s arms, my first sight of them together at the hospital after she was born moving me to tears, the first time I held her myself filling me with a tender reverence, despite the awkwardness of my cautious embrace.
From the start, Josie enthralled me, and our relationship developed into one of mutual enchantment.
The bright spark of joy and curiosity she was opened me to an adoration I never knew could feel so effortless, but as she grew from baby to toddler to sweet, impish slip of a girl, I sometimes wondered what I’d done to so endear myself to her. Yes, I loved her and doted on her as any aunt or godmother would do, but my attentions seemed no more than those around me, especially my mom, reveling in her first time being a grandmother, and my brother and his wife, who I saw renounce the more selfish insouciance of their mid-20s to tend to the life in their hands.
Yet Josie gravitated toward me in a way I never expected, our fast alliance forged as much from my gentle and goofy — not to mention occasionally clumsy — ministrations as it was a familiarity with each other that seemed to defy our age difference. From the moment she could crawl, she became my shadow, and I her “LaLa,” a cherished substitute for the name she couldn’t pronounce as a baby that has remained to this day. I still remember the introductions she would often make in public during family outings, going down the list from mom and dad to grandma before concluding, “And this is my LaLa,” a designation, she once pointed out, as two of her friends watched us interacting at a street fair, that allowed her to stand as close to me as possible whenever she wanted.
And Josie was always close, her small hands swinging in mine, her body snuggling onto my lap after family meals together, her laughter and mine the sunny blast that would billow through the rooms of my mom’s house, as we sipped from tiny delicate cups at her tea parties, chased each other and the dog, visited imaginary grocery stores with her dolls and danced a giddy tango that always ended with her falling, in a dramatic flourish, into my outstretched arms.
When she was old enough to understand I performed weddings, we would routinely marry each other in a quick ceremony that usually went something like this:
“I, LaLa, take you, JoJo, to be my lovebug.” I would then place one of my smallest rings on her finger, after which she would hold my hand and utter her pledge to take me as her lovebug, too. She would slip a ring I’d lent her onto my finger, we would kiss each other and then twirl around in our wedding dance, only to repeat that ritual the very next time we saw each other and sometimes even in the same day.
I never tired of the way she would burst through the front door asking “LaLa home?” when I lived with my mom — though my mom would teasingly remind her there were other reasons to be visiting, too — or the way she would run toward me and launch herself into my arms when I was the one making an entrance. She loved following me up to my room, where she would help me plan my outfits and eagerly rummage through my shoes, choosing to parade around in the highest and chunkiest. Often, she was simply content to crawl under my blankets and have me climb in with her, as we hid from monsters making their stealthy approach.
It has been fascinating to watch her grow over the years, to see her go from Teletubbies to Hannah Montana fan to now having her walls a plastered ode to Justin Bieber; to note her changing tastes in fashion — feather earrings, peace signs and poncho shirts are now the rage though I can still remember the days of shirts adorned with Elmo and Strawberry Shortcake; and see her shaping her own opinions about people and the world around her. She’s developed crushes, become a champion to many a family member in moments of doubt or gloom, tapped into an artistic vein and proven a determined student, triumphing last year over her challenging academic start to be recognized as Student of the Month.
Some changes, like her attachment to her iPod touch, her occasional sass and her declarations of boredom when she’s not immersed in her idea of entertainment, have been tougher to take. But as we celebrated her 10th birthday last weekend, there was so much more to appreciate, even with the teen years looming around the corner, and the cache of worries and hopes we’d have to confront soon enough.
For now, I consider it a great blessing that Josie still thrives on our family time together, that she can still be silly and self-expressive without feeling self-conscious, that she is easily affectionate and never shy about asking for a hug when she wants one … that I am still her “LaLa.” For all that we, as her parents and grandparents, her aunts and uncles, have been charged with teaching her, she has been among my greatest teachers.
That I am worthy and deserving of love, simply by virtue of being here, is a lesson she has modeled beautifully. Being around her, I’ve also been reminded to take life, and myself, less seriously, to practice wonder, let go of grudges, share my hurts as willingly as I do my joys, to believe and dream without limits.
As much as it sometimes saddens me to see her growing up so quickly, I am grateful to be a treasured companion on her journey, to offer close shelter at my side, to be a playmate and a positive influence, an advocate for her best and, always, a lovebug, enduring and true, for all the years of our lives.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times