I’m too old for this, I thought as I crawled around the floor in a most undignified manner, searching under beds and sofas for my missing purse. Actually, the purse wasn’t missing so much as purse-napped. My otherwise pleasant visit to my brother’s house had ended with my nephew’s increasingly bratty behavior, culminating in the theft of my purse mere minutes before I was to set out on the six-hour drive home. My brother, Dave, was absolutely no help at all in the matter. When I demanded that he force his son to locate my handbag, he shrugged and said, “Can’t.”
“Can’t?” I yelped. “What do you mean ‘can’t’? You’re his father. I have to leave. Do something!”
“When you have kids, you’ll understand,” came his calm and infuriating reply. “You can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do.”
“Bull! Spank him. He’ll talk.”
“I don’t spank,” my brother said quietly. He turned and left the room. As I watched him leave, I caught a glimpse of Matty, peering at me from behind circular wire-rimmed glasses that sat crookedly on his nose. When he caught me looking, he hustled into the kitchen and the safety of his non-spanking father’s arms.
So, I resorted to crawling around the house, searching the places a five-year-old could reach. I had to think like a child. Not just any child; a boy child. And not just any boy, but the product of my brother’s parenting.
When we were young, I filled the role of The Studious Older Child, while Dave was the The Free Spirit Younger Child. Rules seemed not to apply to Dave – at least in his mind. And whenever I pointed out a transgression of his, he’d stick out his tongue and call me Miss Smarty Pants. In truth, he used this insult for any occasion, right up until he became a single dad at 26 and decided he was too old for such childish taunts. In his own way, Matty picked up where Dave had left off years ago.
My vacation had gone well for the first week and a half. Matty and I went on exclusive Auntie-Nephew outings to the farmers’ market, a bookstore, a petting zoo, and the local version of a big-time amusement park. Not having kids of my own, I marveled at how well we got along and how easy this whole parenting thing must be. I even started to imagine – just a tiny bit – what it might be like to have a child of my own. And then Matty changed.
Three days before my departure, when I elected to watch a favorite TV show rather than his cartoons, my previously-sweet little nephew called me The B-Word. Not the actual word, mind you, but the phrase “You’re a B-Word.” I sat staring, dumbfounded, while Dave replied in his typical languid manner, “Matty, we don’t say that in this family.” He never even raised his eyes from the newspaper. Matty stomped up to his bedroom and slammed the door.
“The B-word? Where did he learn that?” It wasn’t so much a question as an accusation.
“In school,” Dave said and sighed. “Some video they watched or something.”
“Are you kidding me? How much are you paying for a school that teaches him those things? That’s outrageous!”
Dave’s shoulders bobbed up and down as he chuckled under his breath. “That word,” he said, in his best Inigo Montoya voice, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
“So what does it mean?” I asked through clamped teeth.
“Why don’t you go ask him, Miss Smarty Pants?”
My cheeks burned. Had he really chosen this moment to resurrect that stupid nickname?
“I thought you told him he couldn’t say that in this family, Mr. Smarty Pants,” I sneered.
Dave folded the paper and tossed it to the floor. “I’ll make an exception just this once.”
I found Matty in his bedroom playing with a bag full of Dave’s old green army men. He’d set up Bazooka Man aiming his bazooka squarely at Radio Man. It was terribly unfair.
I knelt beside him and used my best kindergarten teacher voice – or at least, it was the voice I assumed they used to get kids to behave. “Matty? Your daddy said it’s okay to tell me what the B-word is. I’d really like to know, because I’ve never heard it before.”
He mumbled something in reply.
“I can’t hear you, honey. What did you say?”
“BABOON! You’re a big stinky baboon face and you always gotta leave!” He threw a handful of army men to the floor and hurled himself onto his bed, landing facedown.
I rocked back on my heels, shocked by the venom spewing out of such a little creature. A reflexive burst of indignation was replaced with heartbreak as tears slid down my cheeks. We’d had so much fun together. Didn’t that count for anything? I couldn’t believe he now hated me over something as silly as a TV show. And he wanted me to go home just for that? Defeated, I crept out of Matty’s room and went to my own. I decided not to go downstairs and face Dave, who was probably still smirking and chuckling over The B-Word. It wasn’t funny.
For the next two days, Matty and I avoided each other. The silent treatment was in full effect. I’d never done that with someone so much younger than myself, and I assumed it would be a piece of cake. What did a 36-year-old woman and a five-year-old boy have in common, anyway? Not much. But not talking to Matty proved more difficult than I’d expected. Once, a squirrel sat on the front porch, busily eating a nut and totally ignoring Dave’s cat, Simon – much to Simon’s consternation. Without thinking, I went to the living room to interrupt Matty’s coloring session so he could come watch the cat and squirrel show. Then I remembered we weren’t speaking. I stood silently, waiting for Matty to notice me, waiting for him to speak first, but he didn’t. And as stupid and childish as the whole thing was, I turned and left the room, swallowing past a tiny lump in my throat.
Things didn’t improve after that. There were no requests for hugs or kisses goodnight. Matty no longer asked me to read to him at bedtime or make up silly songs in the car. Dave did not force his son to speak to me, and I did not demand that he do so. My brother, Mr. Smarty Pants, refused to get involved in our tiff. I supposed that, as an adult and one who was not Matty’s parent, I should care very little whether he loved me. But as the remaining days of my visit dragged on, the tears came more easily and I realized how much I cared for my nephew and missed him, even as we sat in the same room.
It was Matty who broke the silence. On departure day, he stood at the door of the guest room and said, “You can’t leave without your purse.”
I was surprised he spoke, but tried to act nonchalant. “I know. It’s hanging on the banister downstairs, so I won’t forget.”
“No it’s not.”
I turned to look at him. Matty’s Wise Old Owl glasses were perched on his nose and, like the owl, he appeared to know more than he was telling. “Where is it?” I asked cautiously, not wanting to spook him.
He shrugged. I headed downstairs to check. Perhaps this was his idea of reconciliation – seeing if he could get me to make a trip downstairs for nothing, as a harmless prank. I was sure I’d find my purse where I’d left it the night before. I promised myself that I’d laugh it off and accept it as his little apology for all the unpleasantness from before. The banister was bare. I whirled on him.
“Matty, where is my purse? Did you take it?”
His eyes grew wide and his chin dipped down. I had him.
“Matty, honey. Auntie Baboon Face needs her purse.”
He grinned. Bulls-eye.
“Well?” I prodded.
He shrugged. I lost some of my pretend patience.
“Matthew, this is important. I have to go home now. It’s a very long drive and I can’t go without my purse. It has all my keys and money.”
He shifted his gaze from my face to the floor and shoved his hands deep inside his pockets. “Then stay here.”
“I thought you wanted me to leave-“
“I said you always gotta leave,” Matty shouted, his hands out of his pockets now and balled into little fists of fury. “You don’t listen!” He thumped up the stairs to his room and slammed the door.
I stared at the empty space at the top of the stairs for a few seconds before regaining my senses. Nothing to do now but search the house. Dave made a weak attempt to assist me. At one point, I caught him lifting a dinner-plate-sized cactus planter to search beneath it.
“Are you serious?” I demanded to know.
He grinned. “Got any better ideas, Miss Smarty Pants?”
“Yes, dummy. Try looking in a place where a purse might actually fit.”
“Sounds like good advice. I’ll be in the kitchen searching the fridge.”
After combing both floors of the house, I turned to Matty again. I had decided it was time for a serious Auntie-Nephew conversation. Matty stood in the kitchen, looking smaller and sadder than I’d ever seen him. I placed my hand on his back and steered him toward the deck overlooking the garden his mother had planted before fleeing for greener pastures and a guy named “Ulf.” She may go down in history as Worst Mother Ever, but I couldn’t resist the view she’d designed.
The garden was lovely. In the midst of moral chaos, my brother’s ex had created a thing of beauty. I studied the top of Matty’s head as he sat beside me on the steps. Somehow, even his tousled hair looked sad. Matty was even more beautiful than that garden – and his mother had left him. She hadn’t just walked out on her husband; she’d abandoned an infant who needed her.
And then it hit me: you always gotta leave meant something entirely different than I’d assumed. I realized Matty’s words were an accusation, not a directive. He didn’t want me to go. He’d even hidden my purse so I couldn’t go. How much of a Smarty Pants could I be if it had taken me this long to figure it out?
I hugged him close, and he melted into me without the slightest resistance. I love him. How is it possible to love someone else’s child as much as if he were my own? And would I love him this much if I had children? I decided I would. Dave never attempted to interfere in my relationship with my nephew. He never directed how we were to spend time together or how often I could visit with Matty. He allowed us the freedom to be as close as we wished, knowing I was the nearest thing to a mother that Matty had ever experienced. I had to hand it to Dave – he was pretty smart for a little brother.
Once again, Matty broke the silence between us; but this time, it had been a comfortable silence.
“Auntie Ginger? Your purse is in the old dog house in the garage.”
I stifled a squeal, certain that a family of spiders had now taken up residence in my handbag. Instead, I kissed him on the top of his head. “Thank you, Sweetie.”
“But I still don’t want you to go.”
“I know, Honey,” I whispered. “But as soon as I get things settled at home, I’ll be back ASAP. I promise.”
Then, I made a mental note to call a realtor first thing when I returned home, because I knew there wasn’t a single good reason to remain there when my favorite little person in the world lived here in Santa Fe. I guess being a Smarty Pants has its advantages.