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copyright 1999, Lois Wickstrom

California Nieces

by Lois Wickstrom


Even though I lived 15 years in California, I wasn't there when my grandmother died. But my grandmother left us money, so I decided to use it to visit what was left of my California family.

Since I moved away, my brother and sister have both had babies, who are now 2 1/2 years old. They've also gotten married, as has my father (again).

So, my husband and daughters accompanied me to see my brother and sister and their daughters, and my mother and her boyfriend, and my uncle and his girlfriend, and my father and his wife -- using my grandmother's money.

The first thing my sister asked about was my grandmother's beds, which my girls no longer sleep on because they switched to water beds. When I said she could have them if she paid the shipping, she said, "Oh goody. That means I get the dressers, too." My uncle, who'd been using the dressers for two years, heard that and said, "Oh no, I get the dressers." I haven't heard from my sister about the beds since.

At my sister's house, near San Francisco, I could see that she needed beds. My mother and her boyfriend were sleeping on a fold-out couch in the living room, and my sister gave the four of us futons to sleep on the floor, which was hard.

My sister started getting her daughter ready for bed at 8

o'clock. She told her daughter about the beds. "I remember staying over night at my girl friends' houses. It was such fun! And if one of my friends had two beds ... Wow!" My sister is an early childhood specialist in charge of a daycare center. She spends her days taking care of other people's children while her child is taken care of by other childhood specialists at another daycare center. Explaining this sounds like a tale by Dr. Seuss.

One of the theories my sister is currently living with is choices. This means giving a two-year-old control over her life, and incidentally, control over the lives of everyone around her.

My sister never does anything halfway. When she was into being straight, she wore a new pair of stockings to school everyday, until my mother said she couldn't afford it. When she switched to hip, she bragged how long her leg hairs were. When she diets it's extremes all over again. One time when she visited my house, she ate nothing but honey for three days. She drizzled it out of my plastic honey bear onto her finger and licked it. She says it helps her keep thin. So did her cottage cheese diet when she was a college, but it gave her bone spurs. Now, she's into running. "It got rid of my saddlebags. I'll bet you didn't know that was the name for flab on your thighs," she says.

My sister held out three pairs of pajamas for her daughter to choose. Her daughter didn't want to choose. So, my sister set a timer. My mother explained, "If you set a timer, then you don't have to yell. You just say, 'time's up,' and the child has to obey." When the timer buzzed, my sister's daughter still hadn't made up her mind. "Should we set the timer again?" asked my sister. Her daughter chose a pink set.

"That one is kind of warm," said my sister. "Don't you want a different pair?" Her daughter picked a different pair.

"Now, who do you want to put them on you?" asked my sister. Again, the timer was set, and again, her daughter didn't want to choose. It was now 8:30.

After the pajamas were on, it was time for my sister's daughter to choose who would brush her teeth, and what room she would have them brushed in, and which color brush she wanted. All adult conversation was interrupted and intermittently stopped while the timer was set, while the timer buzzed, while my sister said to her daughter, "Do you want to have a fight in front of all these people?" It was ten o'clock before my niece was in bed. My sister has never spent a night away from her daughter. She can't get her in bed in time for a sitter to come. And she can't let a sitter put her to bed, because the sitter won't do it right.

The next day we decided to go on a picnic in San Francisco. The outing began innocently enough. Since my niece is supposed to be learning which shoe goes on which foot, my mother asked her, "Where do your shoes go?" When my niece did not reply, my mother teased her, "Do they go on my head?"

At this my niece smiled and replied, "No.

Sensing victory, my mother asked again, "Where do they go?"

My niece gave the smile common to all two-year-olds when they have mastered a new skill. "They go on your arm," she crowed.

After the shoes got on the right feet, my husband said, "It will be cold in San Francisco. You should get a jacket." My niece disappeared down the hall, and returned fairly promptly wearing a blue jacket.

My sister came over to see how things were going. She squatted down to her daughter's height and said, "That jacket doesn't go with your pants." Then she walked down the hall and returned holding three other jackets. "Choose one of these," she told my niece.

My niece didn't want to choose one of them. So the timer was set again, and my sister told my niece she would have to choose when the timer buzzed.

When the timer went off, with a truly grating and long-lasting buzz, my niece still hadn't made up her mind, so she got to set the timer again.

Then my sister decided she wanted to stop at the pick-it-yourself farm, like she used to do in college. "Choose a basket for the harvest," she told her daughter. My niece had never seen a farm before and didn't know what a harvest was. Like most small children, she was attracted to small things, and took the

smallest basket. My sister said, "That basket is too small. Choose a larger one."

My niece chose where she would sit in the car on the way to the train station. She chose who would buckle her in. She chose where she would sit on the train, and whose laps she would climb into.

By the time we got to San Francisco, she was too tired to do more than ride a trolley car. My sister took her home while the rest of us went sight seeing. My brother met is in San Francisco, but his daughter, too was tired. I don't know how she got that way.