I just spent most of this weekend with part of my family in one of the towns I grew up in. As mentioned in previous blogs, my family moved around a lot, which resulted in me attending several schools. I spent the weekend in the place where my family lived the longest and where I graduated high school. It’s a small town of no more than five thousand souls, several of whom are related to me and several more are people I went to high school with who never left. All my remaining immediate family lives there, which isn’t much. There’s my brother and his wife, three of their four kids, and four of their six grandkids. I might also have some cousins still floating about there.
This weekend I was only able to see my oldest niece and her family, as the rest of the family was out of town or working. My oldest niece is the one in the family the most like me. Not to say we have a lot of interests in common, but we both approach the world in a calm way, not letting drama overtake us and content to just sit and be.
I was at the hospital when both of my nieces were born. Brandi, the oldest, was born three days before my fifteenth birthday. From the start, she was my little buddy. When her mother and I would go places together, people often assumed I was her mother, though I never understood that. The family resemblance between us isn’t that strong, for one. I also felt I was too young to be considered her mother, even though that technically wasn’t true. As soon as she could read, I was taking her to the library and introducing her to books. She read so many one summer that she was allowed to go on the library field trip for summer readers. I was her chaperone on this trip. The destination was Cahokia Mounds, a Native American burial mound that had been a tourist site since I was a child. We toured the museum, watched the video, and climbed the mound. Well, she climbed it, it was too much for me.
As soon as she could count, we would watch Jeopardy together and she would keep score for me. She cheated for me, however, as she never took off for the ones I missed. That kid could get me to do things I wasn’t normally inclined to do. Such as play games in the yard, play on the swings in the park, or just enjoy a kid’s company for more than an hour.
Then, in 1993, when I was twenty and she was five, I went away to college, only coming home for holidays and some of the summer breaks. Before I left, Brandi gave me a small Pound Puppy to take with me. I named him Rufus and he sat on my bookshelf looking down at me while I sat at my desk doing my homework. By the time I graduated, in 1998, I had missed five years of her life. I spent that summer with my brother’s family, then I went to grad school for two years. Nearly a year after I graduated, I left Illinois for Oklahoma, where I lived for five years. When I came back in 2007, it was to hear my nineteen-year-old niece tell me that she was pregnant and was getting married to someone I didn’t know. I was only back home for a few months before I went back to Oklahoma and this time stayed for nine years. This time when I came back my niece had two children, a boy and a girl, and was still married to the same man that I had only met a few times.
This weekend I informed my niece that when I’m old and infirm, if I don’t have a partner, I want her to be the one who takes care of me. She asked me why. I simply said, “Because I like you.” And I do. But it’s more than that. There is a kinship there that goes beyond blood and I feel comfortable with her. She told me about one of the residents at the home she works at as a CNA. A woman who needs a little extra care sometimes once asked my niece to lay beside her in her bed as she was going to sleep. My niece did so. It reminded me of when I used to put her down for naps as a child. I would put my arm out and she would lay down next to me in my bed. There wasn’t much talking, and she would settle down quickly. It wasn’t long before I could remove myself from the bed and she was sleep for the next two or three hours.
In less than two weeks I am leaving Illinois again, back to Oklahoma. As has been the case with us, I am leaving her yet again. I have always felt some guilt over this, but I know I needn’t worry. She’s happy, she has a good family, a job she likes, a new house they’re working on, and a good husband who is better than my mother ever hoped he’d be. I hope to see them again at Christmas, but we’ll have to see if the budget works out.
I also have another niece, Brittany. I didn’t get a chance to see her this weekend due to scheduling, but maybe next time. Brittany and I had a good relationship when she was growing up, but she was closest to my mother and we just didn’t gel as much. That said, I’ll have to write about her another day.