Like aunts the world over, I am very proud of my three beautiful, intelligent, sweet-natured nieces and my all-boy nephew.
The second niece, age 10, was recently here for a visit and she had instructions from her mother: "Give your aunt lots of hugs and ask her to tell you stories about when she was a little girl."
We did share lots of hugs and walks and videos and meals and had a great time. But when I tried to think of some stories from my childhood that might be remotely interesting to a 10-year-old, I was stumped.
Uh, there was the time the police stopped me and my best friend for throwing ice balls at cars driving down the street during a freezing Chicago winter...no, that's no good. There was the time my other best friend was spending the night and for some reason we annoyed my big sister who sat on me and cracked raw eggs in my hair as I cried furiously... no, that's no good. Oh, how about the time at about age 3 that I didn't have any clean leotards so Mom sent me to ballet class bottomless...no, that's definitely out.
"What kind of stories do you want?" I asked her.
"I don't know," she said with her beautiful smile.
Finally, I thought of something that I hadn't thought of in years. It managed to touch on an interest my nieces and I share.
It happened when I was in either fifth or sixth grade at Glencoe Public School in Glencoe, Ill. For some reason, we had an all-school assembly in a hall that I picture as being cavernous. If I went back now it would probably seem very old and shabby and small.
I don't know what the occasion was. We were probably being treated to a musical event. A fellow named Dr. Zipper and his orchestra used to play at an annual school assembly designed to teach us an appreciation for classical music.
But before the event began, about a half dozen students were called to the stage by name. The selection of students seemed utterly random. A boy from eighth grade, a girl from fourth grade, a couple of other girls and boys...and then my name was called out, too, and I joined the others on stage, looking out at a crowd of faces that appeared as curious and as expectant as I felt.
Why had we been singled out? Were we to be praised or punished? The principal might well look at me and say: "This is an amazing student. Her brain is wired in such a way that she can absorb nothing about math and never will. She will certainly not go far in life."
So I breathed a huge sigh of relief as the medals were handed out. These little tin pins, it seems, were given to those rare and wonderful students who loved books and reading so much that they helped out at the school library after hours. They read books, returned books, shelved books, and kept track in writing of the books they read. As I think about it now, I won a medal for reading. Wow.
"Imagine being honored in front of your friends for something you love to do anyway," I said to my niece.
She liked this idea and conceded that as stories went this one was probably the kind of thing I should be telling.
She has many skills, things she likes to do that she's very good at. At any given time she could be called to the stage at her school assembly and honored for a multitude of graces: sinuous gymnastics, stylish hair-braiding, the most tender of guinea pig care, first-rate art work and more.
Come to think of it, she probably started to feel a little sorry for her aunt who got a medal for something she and her sisters do routinely.
She gave me another one of those luminous smiles and patted my hand. But then, she's good at math, too.
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