My favorite niece turned eleven this year. It’s actually a bit hard to believe. Not having children of my own, other people’s kids (OPKs) are just about the only way that I can mark and keep up with my own age anymore. To me, I am perpetually about 24 years old. I feel mature and old enough to be a full-fledged adult, but in no way do I feel “middle-aged” or nearing forty. Ever.
Well…Except when it comes to my niece. I can remember the day she was born like it was yesterday. I was in my twenties and absolutely thrilled that my older brother’s wife was expecting their first child. I remember eagerly awaiting the phone call from several states away that would confirm my niece’s safe arrival. I still well up with the emotion I felt when I answered my cell phone and heard an infant’s cry followed by my brother’s voice saying, “You’re an auntie! You have a beautiful niece.” For many years, that was my seminal moment of adulthood; my brother was somebody’s father (which still blows my mind sometimes) and I was a proud new auntie.
Photographs, phone calls and frequent flyer miles began to shape my relationship with my niece in the coming years. She grew in leaps and bounds while I pretty much looked and felt the same as always (aside from a few hair don’ts and some weight changes). As my niece began to walk and talk, I still felt youthful and exuberant; after all, a 24-yar-old woman with a two or three-year-old child is plausible, right?
Soon came preschool and eventually kindergarten as well as an expanded vocabulary on her part. I can vividly recall the moment when my niece let me know that I was not as young in her eyes as I might have thought I was. My then-fiancé (thankfully now my ex-husband) and I were visiting when my niece looked me squarely in the eye and asked, “Noo-noo” (Just accept it as a cute pet name and keep it moving, thanks.), when are you going to get married?” In an attempt to be funny I responded, “I’ll get married when you get married.” I had never seen such a look of utter horror on a five-year-old child’s face before and she quickly exclaimed, “But you’re OLD, Noo-noo! You’ll be DEAD by then!”
My heart began to palpitate and I felt flushed and dizzy as I took in my niece’s words. I composed myself enough to ask my beloved yet distraught niece, “Just how old do you think I am?” Without hesitation, she replied, “About a hundred.” I was momentarily devastated until I remembered that small children’s perception of time and age is inherently different from ours. Only then was I able to crack a smile, breathe a long sigh of relief and put down that fifth of vodka and the phone number to the suicide hotline.
Fast forward several years and the chasm of age perception between my niece and me has narrowed considerably. Now, she sees me as a “cool” aunt who likes to drive with the top down and ride rollercoasters with her at Six Flags. You don’t see too many centenarians doing those things, do you? Instead of coming to visit me at the nursing home before my 6:00 PM bedtime, I wake her before dawn to venture over to Rockefeller Plaza and hoist her on my shoulders to catch a glimpse of Hannah Montana live on the plaza for the Today Show. And I don’t even need a nap afterward!
During a visit this past Thanksgiving my niece asked me, “How old are you now?” This time, rather than respond I told her to take a guess. She looked me up and down and remarked that she hadn’t noticed any gray hair (thank you, Clairol) when she had brushed and braided my hair earlier. She patted my face, stretched my cheeks and had me bend down for closer inspection. Happily, at almost forty years old I was glad to submit to her examination as I truly love and feel much better about myself than I did in my younger days. After a moment of deep thought and the analysis that I haven’t any wrinkles, she decided that I was either 32 or 33 years old and I simply smiled. An infinitesimal part of me thought that I should correct her and own up to being much closer to forty, but the larger and likely more vain part of me decided against it. After all, who am I to possibly damage her fragile confidence? For the greater good, I let my niece believe her conjecture to be accurate. Only time will tell—and at 32 I’ve still got plenty of that, right?
Rachel Dachel is a freelance writer and editor, and creator and author of the blog Rachel-y Motivated Incidents.