Toys. Everywhere. This year, navigating the living room at my parent’s house during the Christmas holidays was like being a contestant on American Ninja Warrior. At times, I had to take huge leaps to avoid stepping on the latest in baby gadgetry. More than once I misstepped and things came crashing down to the floor, or I did. Other times, I found myself gingerly stepping around the edges of the room, the only free space in the place, trying not to upset what seemed like a living space in delicate balance. I swear that old house is booby-trapped, and most of the chaos is caused by my niece, Alexis, whose baptism I wrote about a year ago.
But Alexis is in her standoffish phase. Literally, she stands off to the side when she enters the house and sees me. Her mouth drops open, eyes go wide as she freezes in the doorway and sizes me up. I wave madly from my seat across the room, but don’t move too fast. I learned quickly: Alexis needs some time to warm up.
While vocal, she’s not using any words just yet, except that she calls everything and everyone, “Momma!” (My sister has stopped responding to the constant barrage). So, we do this little pointing game. Alexis points at me. And I point back.
Who is this one?, she seems to wonder. I don’t recognize you, even if your face is oddly familiar. As she moves into the overrun living room – her daily play place – the addition of a new person has thrown her off. Still, she points. And I point back. Over and over, hundreds of times. Eventually, all that suspicious pointing tires her out, and Alexis lays down for a much-needed nap.
I hear a different small voice: “Which one are you?” Ava, a precocious kindergartner, aged 5 (going on 15), has sidled up to me. “Peter or Keith?”
My older brother Peter has a shaved head and the bulk of a man who lifts weights several times a week. He consistently wears jeans and a Mets t-shirt. I, on the other hand, am still holding on to what’s left of my graying hair, and have the noticeable hunch of a man who sits all day reading for class. Peter notes that I am always wearing the ‘Jesuit uniform’, a collared checkered shirt with pressed slacks complete with argyle socks. All of this is to say that Peter and I are not similar-looking. At all. But little Ava can’t tell us apart, so she usually tries to guess. And she’s usually wrong.
But once she knows my name, Ava remembers something. The name clicks a simplistic narrative that she can hold on to: “Keith. You’re in California? Peter is the cop. OK. Got it.” It’s enough for her to trust me. Satisfied, Ava takes me by the hand and drags me to see her opened gifts. And I’m happy to go along, to play with my niece, my newfound friend.
Still sitting across the room, I watch Alexis wake up from her nap. One eye opens. Then two. Her hair is standing on end, full of static-electricity from the fleece blanket she’s been laying on and under. She wipes the sleep from her eyes and looks around the familiar room. Catching sight of me, she stops short, eyes narrowing. Who are you? She points again. And I point back. The ritual begins anew.
I am an infrequent visitor to this place, my hometown. In truth, I am more talked about than seen, and so my nieces don’t remember me, or not very well. And that’s OK- it’s part of the life I’ve chosen, to be away. But right now that means I have to start over with them every time I am home.
I seem always to be somehow new to them, and there’s a wonder in that newness that I’ve come to cherish. I don’t really mind the games, or the fact that I have to begin again. Starting over gives me a chance to concretize my patience and my love for these littlest members of my family. Playing their games helps me to fall in love with my nieces all over again, every time meeting them as if for the first time.
Someday they’ll know more than my face, my name, or something simplistic about my life. But for now, it is enough for me to know them and to be with them, pointing and playing amidst the rubble of new toys and discarded wrapping paper. Until next time, girls. I can’t wait to meet you again.