Children are a house's enemy. They don't mean to be -- they just can't help it. It's their enthusiasm, their energy, their naturally destructive tendencies.
-- Delia Ephron
David's sister, Michelle, relayed the usual sentiments of one who has just visited an adored cousin -- everyone's healthy, the house is beautiful, et cetera. She'd spent an evening in Laguna Niguel with her cousin Mo, Mo's husband, Steve, and Jackson, their two-year-old, and then returned to Hillcrest to hang out with David and me for a few days sans her parents, who had been in town for the Easter holiday. "Jackson sure is a handful," said Michelle, settling into the black leather chair across from where I sat in the arms of its twin. "That reminds me," she added. "Mo asked if it was true about you and David not allowing kids in your home.""What did you tell her?"
"I said, 'yes, it's true.'"
"You're damned straight it is," I said, and giggled instinctively to take the edge off of my sharpened tone. "I mean, look around. This place isn't exactly baby-proof."
David's family is not (and may never get) used to my irreverence for societal norms. Before we left for my mother's house on Easter Sunday, David's mother, Ency, asked if there would be any animals there. I responded, "No. Unless, of course, you count the children." I smirked and winked to let her know I was kidding, kind of. Ency winced, then forced a smile for my benefit.
The day before Michelle was scheduled to return to Seattle, our friend Josue offered to play tour guide and introduce her to Mexico. David agreed to go with them while, like the second piggy toe in the song my mother still loves to sing, I stayed home. I was sitting at my desk, tweezing indiscriminately, when the phone rang. Bringing the receiver to my ear, I heard the thick New York accent of my cousin Jane. "Yo, Bawb, you still wanna do kowafee today?" Jane was also leaving town the following afternoon, returning to Staten Island with her family. " Da guys are all goin' to Jamul, so we's ladies wah thinkin' of coming ovah to yowah place. Like two-thuhty. Does-zat work fowah-you? "
"When you say 'ladies,' who all do you mean?" I asked.
" Hang on ." I heard the rustling noises of the phone being passed. "Barb? Yo. It's Jane," said my sister. "It's gonna be me, Jane, the two Olivias, and Bella. Is that okay?" I had to think about it for a second. "Barb? Is it okay? I'm not butting in on your plans, am I?"
"No, not at all. I'd love to see you," I said. "I'm just trying to figure out how to contain the blond hellcat."
It was decided that the two Janes, the teenaged Olivia, and me should be able to prevent the tiny tornado that is my niece Bella from leaving devastation in her wake. When they arrived and Bella shot up the stairs like a fast-leaping tree frog, I realized we'd underestimated the force of nature that is a curious three-year-old. I ran after her, scooped her up, and carried her back downstairs.
The Janes coaxed Bella into the center of the living room, away from the walls, where art hung dangerously low. "You know, if she touches that one there," I said, pointing to a large, unprotected canvas on the wall, "we'd have to refinance the house in order to pay for it."
"Great," said my sister. "How can I relax knowing my daughter might touch something that can hurt your mortgage?" Jane became distracted by baby Olivia's hungry cry and said, "Oh, no, not now. I can't run after that one while I have a boob in this one's mouth. I'm going to need your help." Cousin Jane, her Olivia, and I took turns saying, in our individually tailored ways, "No problem, we've got her."
As I stood between the stove and the granite-topped island, spooning instant coffee into mugs, Bella appeared at my knee; cleverly, under the cover of shortness, she'd escaped my detection on her trek around the island. "Aunt Bob?"
"Is this a kitchen?"
"Yes, sweetie, it sure is," I answered.
"Does it work?"
The question threw me. Was she referring to the appliances? She was opening and closing cabinets and drawers, finding pots, Tupperware, and dishes. She wrapped both hands around the handle on the refrigerator door and leaned back, using all of her 32 pounds as leverage to try and pull it open. It occurred to me that "work" might mean, "produce food." I'm not much of a cook -- I even buy my eggs pre-hardboiled to spare myself the annoyance of having to fill a pot with water -- so I answered, "Sorry to disappoint you, Bella Boo, but this kitchen only works when Uncle David's here."
Without warning, Bella made a run for the pair of 19th-century Japanese scrolls that hang side by side on a column. Shouting "No!" louder than I intended, I sprinted after her and grabbed her hands. She smiled up at me, her big brown eyes unfazed. When I let go, she reached for the scrolls, and again, I grabbed her hands. "Bella, you can't touch these. These are fragile; if we touch them, they might break." I borrowed a tactic I've heard Jane use before in regard to her DVD player, the new one, of course, purchased to replace the older one, the one that Bella's curious fingers broke.
" Hey, Bella ," said my cousin. " Come heah, I've got a special suhprise fo' you ." Bella ran to Cousin Jane, who lifted her onto the island. Pleased with the feel of the cool, smooth, shiny green-and-black granite beneath her, Bella rolled onto her stomach and pulled herself along the 12-foot length of stone. Jane grabbed Bella and propped her up next to the sink, holding on to her in case Rocket Fuel, as her father Simon calls her, decided to fling herself off the edge. It hadn't even been two months since Bella had propelled herself off a chair and crashed through a window at my mother's house. She has a long, tender scar where 24 stitches repaired the damage on the bottom of her left foot.
Bella grew calm, fascinated with the water running over her toes, which she'd dangled over the sink as soon as the faucet was turned on. Jane may as well have pulled a kitten out of the dishwasher. From the couch where she sat feeding newborn Olivia, Sister Jane said, "Oh, now you've got her. She can spend hours washing her dolls or pouring water back and forth between two cups." The other Olivia stood next to me near the island, watching Bella as she grabbed David's basting brush and began painting her legs with water.
Ten minutes later, when Bella decided to expand her canvas to areas outside the sink, the flow of "paint" was shut off. My sister had finished nursing, and as she gathered her things, I glanced at the time on the microwave, shocked to see that over an hour had passed. I fished Bella from underneath a sculptural concrete-and-wood table and carried her toward the door, where the Janes and Olivias were waiting.
"What's this?" asked my cousin Jane, pointing to the elaborately framed photograph of an envelope that hangs by the door.
"We picked it up at a gallery in New York," I said. "The frame is so intricate and old looking; it made us wonder what's in that envelope that's so special to warrant all the pomp. But that's an envelope that can never be opened and will therefore remain a mystery. That's why we love it."
Bella was squirming in my arms. She pointed at the work of art and squealed, "Mama!" Then, with a hushed voice that was more stage whisper, she said, " This is a museum ."
"That's right, Bella," I said, handing her to her snickering mother. "And in a museum, we don't touch anything."