When I grow up, I want to be just like my 4-year-old niece.
I know, I’m the adult, and I should teach her stuff. But kids, without trying, constantly remind us of who we set out to be. On my visit to North Carolina to celebrate her birthday, it’s clear — Ella Grace finds happiness everywhere. I’m not saying she doesn’t have toddler tantrums. She can pout over a pacifier like any other tot. But the cool thing about being around my niece is every day is an experience in true joy.
She doesn’t hide behind smartphone screens and emoticons. She doesn’t need 250 Emojis to tell me how she feels. Kids want to talk. They want to show and tell you everything. Every moment, even in the tiniest little thing, can be an adventure for a 4-year-old.
When we take a ride, she demands we play “I Spy.” She takes in everything: the sky, cars, trees, signs, the lines on the road. She does this every time. Another car favorite for her: knock-knock jokes. Hers don’t really work, but they crack her up all the same. They all have a recurring theme of going outside to play.
She loves the outdoors. She jumps in a spring-fed pool, ready to find tadpoles. And when the sun starts to set, she pays attention. We sit outside and watch the sky change colors as she points out shapes in the clouds.
See that dinosaur in the sky, Aunt Jeneé …
I forget how peaceful it is to take a few minutes and just sit with nature and take it in rather than fuss over the weather or the long ride. During a storm one evening, she says the rain is falling loud and hard. It’s not a complaint. She is in awe. Maybe we’ll see a rainbow, she tells me.
She sees beauty everywhere. Differences don’t scare her. She hardly notices them. She sees with her whole heart. When we take a selfie, she looks at my camera afterward. She combs through her strawberry-blond hair and bats her hazel eyes at me. She puts her little fingers in my curly hair and says we look cute. She asks for more pictures.
And she’s thoughtful, too. She doesn’t save “I love you” for goodbyes and goodnights. We can be walking hand-in-hand through the grocery store and she’ll say, “You know what, Aunt Jeneé? I miss you when you’re gone. I love you.” She’s so adamant about expressing her feelings she likes to debate about who loves who more. If you’re lucky, she might love you more than Double Dunker ice cream — that’s mocha ice cream swirled with cookie dough and chocolate cookies. She says, “I’ve never had coffee, but that’s what it tastes like.”
Ice cream is a nighttime ritual. And when I’m there, so is the pajama party. This includes fun PJs, a toothbrushing race and laughing hysterically as she feeds her baby doll Milly and anxiously awaits the big burp. At least three times.
Then there’s the stretch, her own version of yoga. We put our hands in the air, we drop them to the floor and then we shake our bums. After that, I read her a book before we enjoy the parade of stars her nightlight turtle displays on the ceiling as she says her prayers.
I pray for Mommy and Daddy and Noah and you, too, Aunt Jeneé …
When her eyes finally close, even her sleep feels like some sort of expression. This little ducky sleeps with wild abandon, taking up every inch of the bed, twisting and wrapping herself so intricately between the sheets, putting every piece of herself into cuddling as if to tell her dreams, “Here I am, now let’s play.”
I’ve never seen someone so oddly comfortable with her head resting strange places, like the center of my back. Her left foot kicks at my bottom. Her hand keeps creeping into my hair. But when I open my eyes to look at her, she is entirely peaceful. No matter how much I move her tiny hands and feet or try to wriggle away from her head, she finds a way to touch me. Finally, I begrudgingly accept it as a sleep dance.
Sweet dreams, Ella Grace.