For my nephew, Sami, on his eighth birthday….
I woke up this morning with thoughts of my nephew, Sami, who turns eight years old today. His is an easy birthday to remember, coming as it does exactly six months after Charlie’s – to the day. I recall receiving the news that my sister-in-law was on the way to the hospital to give birth. Her father, Pop Walter, and Scott were in the midst of laying the brick for a walkway from our driveway to the back door of the house when we got the call. The two workers (father and son) were dripping with sweat, their clothes and arms smeared with mud as they worked side by side to carefully place each brick onto the dirt and sand path that had been clearly mapped out by my architect father-in-law. White string hung between wooden markers that outlined the perimeter of the dirt pathway. The line of bricks ended halfway up the path, with many more bricks yet to be laid in the pattern. Pop Walter was thrilled that the arrival of another grand child was close at hand, but now that the phone call had been received, he needed to stop and do some serious logistical reconfiguring. How much time would it take to finish laying the bricks, grab a fast shower (here, in Montclair, or go all the way back to Teaneck) before his visit to the hospital? My mother-in- law and I gathered round the two sweaty workers to assess the situation. Will Jennifer (my sister-in-law) have a long labor? (It’s her first. Probably so.) How many centimeters is she dilated now? (We don’t know yet. We’ll have to wait for the next call.) Can the brick path really be finished? (Who cares?! We’re having a baby!) Amazingly the walkway was finished that day – it was a LONG labor – and Pop made it to the hospital, looking respectable and clean shaven, in plenty of time for Sami’s triumphant arrival.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for little Sami (his Dad, my brother-in-law, is “Big Sami”) because he is, in so many ways, the exact opposite from his cousin counterpart, my son, Charlie. His hair is jet black, his large eyes dark as coal, very round and deep set. His lithe body slowly carries him on a smooth wave into a room and he’s quiet and calm once he gets there. Charlie’s hair is blonde, with eyes like mine – almond shaped and dark blue. He’s of a sturdier build and quickly charges into a room with jagged, sharp movements. His voice booms as he tells his audience (whether they want to hear it or not) detail upon detail about the setting, characters and plot of his latest tale. Sami, who listens, observes and ponders the world around him, (with the demeanor of a writer…or an artist…only time will tell) is the kind of kid who elicits the comment, “…wise beyond his years…” As Charlie’s biggest fan, he’s all ears to his cousin’s motoring mouth and he’ll crack a smile at almost every Charlie joke that gets dished up and shoved before him.
The cousins are tight. Every time there is a family gathering, they are inseparable from the beginning of the event to the end. Before we moved, the boys were always demanding and planning the next sleepover. I’m not a huge sleepover fan, but I enjoyed our visits with Sami and Stella (his younger sister, my niece) when they’d come for an overnight. Sami was the perfect antidote to our family’s frantic energy and he kept Charlie occupied for hours…which was such a restful change of pace for me as I didn’t have to attend to all of Charlie’s antics on my own. During one of our last sleepovers (we squeezed a lot of them in before our move to California), I remember a funny moment so evocative of the boys’ tight and symbiotic relationship despite their opposite personalities.
I usually tried to prepare an elaborate pancake breakfast on a sleepover weekend, but as the wake-up times of the household members, including our sleepover guests, varied from pretty early to rather late, I’d usually feed the early risers a quick bowl of cereal until the pancake meal was presented at a mid-morning hour. On this particular Sunday, Sami woke first, early. After hearing rumbling noises in the great room below my bedroom, I made my way downstairs and found Sami alone, fiddling with the toys that remained piled up in front of the television from the toy frenzy of last night. Sami always seemed a tad nervous about sleepovers, but I could have been mistaking his silent nature for worry. I remembered that he hadn’t had much to eat at dinner the night before so I suggested a bowl of cheerios right away..until the pancakes were served in an hour or so. He agreed that he was very hungry and so I successfully coaxed him from his solo play in the great room to the kitchen table. I placed before him a small bowl of cereal…with, at his request, only a small teaspoon of sugar sprinkled lightly on top.
Sami and I spent a quiet fifteen minutes with his munch, munch, munch of Cheerios and my slurp, slurp, slurp of coffee. We spoke little. I allowed myself to ask a few questions, but respected the aura of peace that surrounded my nephew as he woke fully to the day. At one point, after catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror of the downstairs bathroom, I realized my hair was looking witch-like, hair strands were sticking out all over, forming a jagged circle around my head. (While my own children are quite accustomed to my early morning bed-head appearance, I realized that this vision could be rather shocking to poor Sami. Actually, it might explain why he hadn’t really been able to make eye contact during our brief conversational exchanges thus far.) I rushed upstairs to grab a hair scrunchie and gathered my massive nest of frizz into a neat ballet bun.
Soon, other members of the family began to dwindle down from their second and third floor lairs to see about breakfast and make plans for the day. The first to arrive was Charlie, who sat down at his usual place at the head of the kitchen table. He instantly burst forth with rapid chatter about the game of chess from last night that was still underway…as he managed to dump two heaping spoonfuls of sugar onto his Cheerios before I could stop him. Sami, seated next to him, had finished his first breakfast and remained in a quiet state, not yet responding to his cousin’s antics.
“I think Sami’s still in shock after seeing my hair this morning. It must have been quite a frightening sight, huh Sami?!” I quipped.
Charlie chuckled and leaned toward his cousin and said, “Oh, you mean Sami saw the Medusa Look?! It can really RATTLE you when you’re waking up, can’t it? She’s gotta tuck the SNAKES back in! Get it?! Rattle…snakes?!!!”
And right then and there I saw Sami’s face break into a wide smile. He quickly peeked at me, as if to check and see whether it was okay to find humor in this flippant comment about his auntie’s hair. I was cracking up so hard I choked on my coffee. “Charlie, how do you know about Medusa and her head of snakes?” I laugh-gasped. “I just do,” Charlie said, quite pleased with the fact that his joke had soared instead of flopped. Charlie finished his cereal and then the two cousins ran off to the playroom to get as much fun in before the pancake breakfast was prepared. Off went the comic and his fan. The loud one and the quiet one. The boy-opposites…attracted to one another in a bond so tight that not even three thousand miles of distance, from east coast to west, can ever really separate them. That’s the magnetic power of cousins.
Your Aunt Cassie