The most important thing that parents can teach their children is how to get along without them.
-- Frank A. Clark
The phone was ringing again. "Your turn," I said to David. He dropped the sheet he'd been folding onto the closet floor and hurried through our bedroom to reach the phone on the bathroom counter. As he ran, I could hear him mutter, "Jesus, leave us alone," under his breath and then an annoyed, "Hello?" Up until now, the calls had been from telemarketers (despite the dozens of lists we've been "removed from"). "Hang on, Jane, here she is." When I heard my sister's name, I set the towel I'd just folded on the pile before me and took the receiver from David, who quickly disappeared back inside our closet. I put the phone to my ear and heard screaming.
"Jane? What's going on?"
"Barb, I need your help." Her voice was raspy, barely there. The screaming continued in the background, making it even more difficult for me to understand Jane as she tried to explain. "We're potty-training Bella. Simon's out with his employees and he's not answering his cell phone, and Dad's out of town and Jenny's still in school or else I wouldn't have called you. I've been trying to get it off myself but I just can't do it alone, and I know how busy you are on Mondays but I just, I just, I just..."
"Hey, it's all right," I said. "I'm fine. We're just cleaning. What do you need?" Silence for a moment, Bella even paused in her screaming as though aware of the importance of her mother's next words.
"Bella has a toilet seat stuck on her head." Before I could laugh, the screaming returned full force and I said, "I'm on my way, Jane. Don't do anything else until I get there."
I answered David's expectant look with, "I've gotta run. Bella's got a toilet seat on her head and Jane can't get it off."
"Don't forget your camera," David called when I was halfway down the stairs.
"I'm on it!" I yelled back before the door closed behind me.
On the way there, I called my father, who punctuated his giggle with, "It's only funny if she's not hurt." I also called Jane to further assess the situation. Things seemed to have calmed down, or at least there was no more screaming.
"She's fine. I gave her a Popsicle," said Jane. "She's not hurt, but I just need someone to hold her arms so I can get it off." Jane had been trying for 45 minutes to extricate her two-year-old daughter's head from the miniature seat, and the toddler was, understandably, fed up with the whole fiasco.
When I pulled up, Jane was standing in her doorway. As I approached, she began explaining again. "I couldn't take her to the hospital. Most of the doctors know me." Jane's a pharmaceutical rep. "I couldn't ask my neighbors. What would they think?" I nodded as she spoke and stepped into the house.
There she was, that tiny body sitting on the edge of the brown leather chaise, with Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, and Big Bird all smiling up blankly from the oval around her neck. Her curly blond hair was tied up in a little bun with one silky tendril hanging down the left side of her face, half of which was sticky and orange. She was laughing at the characters dancing on the television screen. I took out my camera and shot a few pictures.
Then I turned back to Jane, who looked like she'd been wrestling with a bear. The thick, dark curls that frame Jane's delicate face had become an unruly mane, a frizzy fire burning up and out in every direction. On her petite frame, she wore striped flannel pajama bottoms and a cropped black V-necked tee. She looked exasperated. Exhausted. Embarrassed. She looked adorable. Who was the little girl I had come to help rescue? It certainly wasn't the teensy blond queen sitting confidently on her throne with a crown around her neck.
"Maybe you can put her on your lap and then grab her arms, like a straitjacket, and then I'll get it off her head," said Jane.
"Right. Let's not scare her, though. There's no need to do some kind of sneak attack." I didn't know that she had already tried to plead, bribe, and threaten Bella. Distraction and action was the last resort of a frazzled woman. Jane had tied up Bella's hair because she couldn't see her ears, the real culprits in this situation, for the toilet seat kept getting caught on them. Poor Bella.
The plan worked. I lifted Bella like a watermelon and sat her on my lap. Jane crept toward us from the left and when she said, "Now!" I held my niece's arms firmly in mine, and Jane went to town on the toilet seat. Bella screamed. There was a moment of doubt as Jane and I searched her head for signs of wounds. Her little ears had suffered some -- they were red, and one of them boasted a minuscule scrape no longer than my pinky nail.
I consoled the crying child while Jane ran to fetch her another Popsicle.
"Do you want a cup of tea?" she asked from the other side of the knee-high gate at the kitchen's entrance.
"Sure." After Jane disappeared around the corner, I watched as Bella, sporting a mischievous smile, applied the orange Popsicle to the brown leather in broad strokes.
"Uh, Jane? You might want to take a peek in here, Little Miss O'Keefe is creating a masterpiece on your furniture."
"Bella, NOOOO!" I probably could have stopped her myself, but in order for me to maintain my role as the favorite aunt, it is crucial that I never involve myself with anything relating to discipline. Jane, a stack of paper towels in hand, rushed in for damage control. Bella smiled as she watched her mother wipe the cushion and the floor.
"I just need to sit for a minute," croaked Jane. Her voice was almost gone now, something she attributed to the previous day, spent at a nut farm (a place up north where pumpkins and nuts were being sold, though if you had drawn other conclusions, I'd be the last to blame you). Nearly the whole family went to the nut farm -- Heather and Sean, their two boys, Jenny, Mom, and Jane and Bella. I forget what I was doing that day, but I'm sure it was very important.
I added Splenda to my gingerbread herbal tea, and Jane sat across from me at the dining table. "Thank you so much. I know you're busy and I didn't want to bother you, but I really appreciate...what are you writing?" A note of hysteria entered Jane's voice.
"Nothing," I assured her. "If anything like this ever happens again, Jane, I don't mind coming to help. I don't live that far from you, so feel free to call me first."
"What do you mean, 'if anything like this happens again?' Nothing like this is going to happen again." Her eyes were darting back and forth between my notebook and her daughter.
"I'm just saying. If . I'm just a phone call away. All right, it's time for us to get some sleep." As is our custom, Jane and I kissed each other on each cheek and hugged. I held out my arms and Bella trotted toward me. As I squeezed my niece in an embrace, I whispered in her scraped ear, "Keep up the good work, Bella Boo."