Life is easily divided up into who you are before kids and after. This was written long before my kid changed my life. Thank God she has no Bad Aunts.
My sister went into labor early so I thought it best to get the hell out of Dodge, aka, suburban Connecticut. I was packed and ready to train it to JFK, but the nanny who was driving over to watch my sister’s three other kids, unhelpfully swerved her car into a tree. When we learned the nanny was in the same Hospital my sister was on her way to, I suggested dropping the kids off at Emergency so Mommy and the nanny could watch them from matching gurneys. But humor being in short supply, I delayed my flight back home.
Olivia, the five-year-old hollered at her departing, laboring mother, “Don’t be scared.” Molly, seven, waved, “Have a good baby!” My sister promised she would and left. An electric charge of imminent upheaval followed my sister and her husband out the door. A burst of cold, late October air escaped inside, making us all feel that much more shivery and alone. Then three little heads swiveled from the departing vapors of their parents to me. I gulped.
My 10, 7 and 5 year old nieces only knew me until this point as the bad aunt, the one with hair colors and clothes my mother disapproved of, no savings, bad jobs, worse boyfriends, and black fingernails. Who else would teach these good girls how to do it all wrong?
I had allowed them to tie up my boyfriend with a muddy garden hose during a christening party. I introduced them to my hangover-inspired fried-doughnut-ice-cream-sundae. I let them wear my platform shoes and jump on Granny’s good couch. Someone has to be the good, bad aunt and since I’m not good at many things, I am pretty great at being pretty bad. Their parents had always been close by to brainwash their kids back to civility. Until now.
Little kids only realize they are little when they are suddenly parent-less. Freedom is scary when you don’t have someone keeping you from it. The girls were suddenly forced to find their safe harbor in me. As six massive blue eyes widened and dampened, a survival instinct I didn’t know I had kicked in.
I shouted, “How about a game?” The girls nodded bravely.
Olivia solemnly held aloft the Game of Life, like a sacramental offering. While Hannah and Molly threw themselves into fighting over which game piece they were going to be, I tried not to wonder what the hell I’d done with the life I’d used up since last punching a Pop-O-Matic while chanting for a six.
Stacking the useless toy money into neat piles, I saw the Game of Life has really changed. Squares used to say things like “Turn your kid’s playroom into a bar. Collect $10,000.00.” Now squares say things like, “Start a community garden! Kiva your $10,000 to a poncho start-up in Peru and move ahead three spaces, unless you’d prefer to give your turn to an at-risk youth.”
At the beginning of this game, each player is given a few thou to start Life with. The first choice a player has to make is college OR heading straight into career-land.
Hannah, the oldest, most careful daughter, dutifully chose college, which unrealistically didn’t catapult her deep into debt. Doubling down on caution, Hannah also purchased auto insurance despite not owning a car. More reckless, Molly and Olivia leapt straight into Life, choosing careers from a slippery stack of cards. As a struggling creative professional, I grew morbid.
ME: If only one could pick a full-blown career from cards printed in Taiwan.
Molly surprised everyone, including herself, by becoming a professional tennis player earning $80,000 a year.
MOLLY: Wow! Does this mean I have to marry Andre Agassi?
I refrained from telling her how her 80k a year would be eaten up by training, expense and nothing less than the complete sacrifice of her entire childhood would be expected of her, and that Agassi was not marriage material.
Then Olivia picked a card and transformed into a a five year old computer programmer pulling in $120,000 a year.
OLIVIA: I’m richer than all of you people.
As Hannah experienced her first collegiate anxiety attack, and Molly fumed with competitive fury, I asked Olivia if she needed a personal assistant.
As Molly and Olivia embarked on their tiny plastic lives, effortlessly hitting every milestone that I’ve either missed or fucked up, Hannah inched towards graduation, still paying auto insurance on a nonexistent car, while nervously watching her younger sisters advancing steadily on Millionaire’s Row.
Panicky about being left behind, Hannah wondered if her stint in college would give her any advantage in her game Life. Thankfully, Milton Bradley knows better than to depress little kids with the truth that being a grown up is profoundly overrated. There are no squares condemning children to a series of soul-crushing, dignity-averse low wage jobs which don’t cover the exorbitant rent on your dark, noisy, bug-ridden studio. No one lands on squares that lead you into long, twisted relationships with bisexual men who end up leaving you for your best female friend.
No squares have you divorced by thirty-four, where you lose your dog in a custody battle, then end up in the great mirthless whirlpool of internet dating, which only makes you feel more single than ever at 36, in an illegal sublet with a deaf cat and no savings to speak of. No, this board game of Life appears blessedly trauma-free.
Since it was just a game, I promised Hannah she’d end up being fabulous. She sulked from her work-study in the college library as Molly impulsively got married.
Automatically, I placed Molly’s tiny blue husband in the driver’s seat of her car. Molly eyed me, baffled, and asked why she had to be a passenger in the car she earned with her own pink and yellow money.
MOLLY: How come I only get one car? Mommy drives the Suburban and Daddy has the red car we can’t eat in.
Realizing one car families went out with my childhood, I was ashamed at my automatic regression to how Life was played when my sisters and I were kids. Back then, the game of Life was about landing a rich doctor and having babies while Dr. Husband drove us safely home to Millionaire’s Row.
But this being HER Life, Molly parlayed her tennis fame into a chain of successful workout clubs, which brought in an additional $20,000 bucks every four squares. She had twins (no doubt using a gestational surrogate), while on a world vacation with her little blue peg of a husband. So, if Molly wanted two cars, she could frigging buy them, with her own stack of tiny pastel Benjamins. In fact, her husband’s car followed hers, with the twins in the back of his car. Molly was giddy and I was jealous of a seven year-olds’ toy life.
Ever practical, Hannah became an accountant. I winced, not wanting that for my brilliant first niece, but then she collected a tithe off every bank transaction we completed. Yeah, she wasn’t a computer programmer, or a star athlete, but she quickly and quietly amassed more fake money than I have real.
Then Olivia wanted to change careers since she really didn’t know what a computer programmer was, and I didn’t either. She ended up sheriff, which suited her just fine.
But Molly was the It girl, fast becoming an international diplomat and the editrix of Vogue before tragedy struck.
Molly had a catastrophic board-game-certified car accident and lost everything. What seven year-old (who doesn’t live in a plastic bubble) thinks she needs insurance? Gulping, Molly gaped silently as I gently extracted her husband and twins from the second car, which I had to repo, and withdrew much of her healthy bank account.
Then we held our breath, worried that she might lose it and ruin the game of Life for the rest of us hapless hopers. Chastened and pale, Molly shook off the blow. Then, with Joan-of-Arc-on-fire solemnity Molly uttered-
MOLLY: Well… that’s life.
We all nodded ruefully. There but for the grace of God goes our brightly colored tiny plastic game pieces.
Molly soldiered on, suddenly winning a MacArthur genius grant for her work with ecologically responsible Play-Doh.
While restoring Molly’s lost fortune, I thought about how fiercely we played Life when I was my nieces’ age. Us working class kids- with moms furtively clipping coupons for Hamburger Helper to extend the beef we could barely afford, dads working 2 jobs, and beater cars that broke down in the middle of the Midtown Tunnel– we gunned for a single sweet inch of Millionaire’s Row, desperate to avoid ending up in the Poor Farm, which none of us could imagine, but being Catholic and having read tons of Charles Dickens, we could only imagine the worst.
Now that the middle class is disappearing, there is no longer a Poor Farm or Lower Ninth Ward or even a West Covina in my nieces’ reissued, politically correct Game of Life. Somehow, despite our successes and failures, we all ended up in tiny McMansions with drought tolerant cardboard gardens.
My brother-in-law called. My sister gave birth. Another perfect girl.
It felt simultaneously as real and fairy tale-ish as a brightly colored square on the board game. I wiped away a tear, absorbing the enormity of my sister raising four brilliant daughters, blissfully unaware of a time when they were supposed to only sit shotgun and not want/desire or aspire as much as their male counterparts.
I smiled, content these young women will be their own safe harbors.
ME: Anyone want to play again?
We collected the money and the little colored pegs and started again, from scratch.