Sunday, June 04, 2006
My niece Kristin graduated from high school yesterday and I still can't believe it.
Like most geezers in my age bracket, I look at the passage of time and say something brilliant like "Oh, my God, I can't believe it!"
I remember the day Kristin was born, back when I was working at a weekly paper in Brooklyn.
The phone rang and I heard my mother's voice on the other end of the line exclaiming, "Robert, you're an uncle!"
"Boy or girl?" I shouted.
And then I began pounding my fist on the desk, I was so bloody happy. My boss, who was hardly one of my favorite people, let me go out and buy a new outfit for my new niece. And off I went.
I remember seeing Kristin in the hosptial; I remember holding her for the first time when my brother and his wife brought her home, walking back and forth like a guard at Buckingham Palace. I was so nervous, so excited, I didn't know what the hell to do first.
When she got a little older, I stumbled upon a way to make her laugh. I would just get out of my seat, wave my hand and say, "hey!" She sat on my brother's lap, laughing louder and louder each time I did it. That is one of my favorite memories.
I would show her photo to total strangers, I was so proud. I remember riding with her and my brother on an escaltor in a Staten Island mall. Kristin was in her stroller and as we rode up, two teenage girls came riding down.
One girl was completely overcome when she saw Kristin in those brief seconds and she turned to her friend to exclaim, "she's so cute!" And she was.
Now I guess those two teenaged girls have children of their own while Kristin is preparing to head off to Oneonta in the fall where she'll be a freshman--oh God!--in college.
I never married and I don't have children so the happiness of Kristin and Victoria, my niece in San Fransisco, is vitally important to me.
I don't mean to gush on about my little ones, as I'm sure that can get real old, real fast, but I do want to say how lucky I am to have these two angels in my life.
So over the years I watched Kristin grow. She and I used to wrestle on the floor of her home in Staten Island. On Christmas Day, she made a point of pounding on her old uncle. One year she took a bunch of discarded bows and put that atop of my balding head until I looked like a walking gift pile.
One time I was wrestling with her in the living room and when I came into the kitchen, my mother scolded me.
"You make her wild!"
"Oh, sure," I said, all defensive, "make me the villian!"
I had three seconds to play the victim before my niece's voice rolled into the kitchen like a sweet fog.
She and Lisa, her little friend next door, used to get on my back for a double horsey ride--absolute murder on the knees!--and generally run me into the ground. I recall one time sitting quietly in a chair while those Kristin and Lisa buried me in a mountain of dolls.
Every time I put my head up, Lisa would shriek, "Cover his face!" and mash a doll into my mug. I actually had a good time. See what a Catholic education does to you?
Kristin had this adorable way of ruining a birthday surprise for you. Each year she'd walk up to me with a package and declare, "it's a jacket!" or whatever the gift happened to be.
She wasn't being malicious, it was just that she was so young and so excited, she wanted to be the first one to deliver the good news.
I remember the year when she finally understood not to do this, and I poked her ribs, saying, "you want to tell me what this is? Huh? You want to tell me?" She didn't crack.
Then one day I went over to my brother's house and pulled Kristin to my knee. We both looked at each other and we knew that we couldn't do this anymore, that a certain era had come to an end. And, as always, another one began.
Like a lot of kids, Kristin was into hip hop music, and like a lot of adults, I made a fool of myself trying to sound like I was cool. I used to greet her saying stuff like "yo, dog!" and other such nonsense.
"Why are you trying to sound cool?" she asked once during a phone conservation, making it sound like an impossibility.
"Hey," I said. "Nana talks this way. She goes around the house with a baseball cap turned around saying, 'yo, yo, yo.' "
"Nana doesn't talk that way," she said without missing a beat, "and if she did, she would sound cooler than you!"
Yikes. I think I liked it better when she couldn't talk.
The Long March
Kristin had to go through her parents' divorce as my brother moved out of their house to be with a new woman. I know she suffered a lot during the initial break-up and I'm sure she's hurting today, but I think she's strong enough to get around this shock to the system and move on.
So now she's off to high school. I got her a couple of graduation cards on my lunch hour last week. I must confess I was feeling quite sad, as I thought of the time passing, of how my mother would not be here to watch her granddaughter accept her diploma.
And I guess I was going through a little self-pity, recalling when I was Kristin's age and I thought I would always be young. You look at these cards, all extolling the great wonders awaiting young people and you're forced to realize you don't have that kind of potential anymore.
I'm not saying give up and quit--that's just not acceptable. But still, you really are only young once.
Of course my high school graduation was hardly a happy affair. I was a student at Brooklyn Technical High School, a fine school, but not for me. I was struggling with math, as I did every year, and I wound up failing and having to go to summer school.
My mother and I went to the math department chairman in a vain attempt to let me graduate--I didn't sleep at all the night before--but to now avail. And I didn't deserve to pass. I look back and I see I gave up, decided I couldn't do the work and made that prediction come true.
The thing is, I never should have gone to Brooklyn Tech, but my two brothers had gone there ahead of me and my father thought the place was some kind of holy ground that all his sounds had to pass through on their way to manhood. It was a holy nightmare for me.
Forgive me if I've written about this before, but I'll never forget the day my mother and I walked down to the train station at Dekalb Avenue. All the graduates were walking in the opposite direction in their Sunday best.
Even Wendell Love, a hell of a nice guy, who also failed math, was coming into school to attend the ceremony. We exchanged pleasantries and then went our separate ways. God, what a painful memory.
It was strange, I failed calculus, but I was also eligible for advanced placement history. Like the song says, isn't it ironic?
I passed math in summer school and got my goddamn diploma. I just wished I had spent those four years at another school.
I'm glad Kristin didn't have these problems. She was a fine student who worked hard at all her classes and I know she'll do the same once she gets to Oneonta.
I wound up getting two cards for her last week. One was typical graduation number, and the other was more artsy, with the a drawing a bird flying across the sun.
"Fly today," the card read, "soar tomorrow."
That's great advice, for all of us. I wrote Kristin a note inside the card, telling her that she was a blessing to our family and reminding her that Nana must be the proudest person in heaven today.
Keep soaring, sweetheart. Uncle Robert's down here on terra firma, waving his heart out.