I never would have predicted stardom for Kathy. She's the youngest of my three sisters, free-spirited and strong-willed, and as a kid it was her job to drive me crazy. I'm the eldest, so it was my job to help take care of her. I spent much of our childhood chasing her with a wet washcloth, putting calamine lotion on her poison ivy, or tracking her down when the streetlights came on. She got back at me by reading my journal, wearing my clothes, and riding my bike without asking.
We never grew out of it. As an adult, Kathy drove a car with a giant spider painted on the hood and wore black leather. I drove a Plymouth and wore polyester. Our relationship seemed hopeless, until Ben came along.
Ben is the only child of the oldest child of an oldest child. Good behavior is in his genes. He remembers his manners and listens to his preschool teacher. He's a model child -- until Aunt Kathy appears for her monthly visit. Together they find the limits -- my limits -- and push them.
The weekend always begins with the Video Game Championship of the World. I have no idea what they play. The no-TV-after-breakfast rule goes out the window, the PlayStation is plugged in, and I'm banished from the room. I hear screams. I hear crashes. I hear evil laughs.
After the championship, they eat dessert before dinner (usually a lot of french fries and perhaps a single pea). A second dessert follows dinner, and after all that excitement, who can sleep? Our bedtime routine disappears with the other abandoned rules, and Ben rockets around the house until he crashes into a coma.
In a strange way, it's okay with me. Isn't this what Saturday night is all about? Overindulgence? Staying up late? Partying till you drop?
Marjorie Osterhout, a freelance writer, lives in Seattle.
The best kind of love there isThe next morning Aunt Kathy gets her one reprieve: a single cup of coffee, which she drinks from a special mug Ben chose for her long ago. He helps her make the coffee, and again I am not allowed to look (but I peek anyway). He sits on the high counter. He pours water from a glass measuring cup. He watches the hot coffee pour from the little spout. And then he holds his breath and stares while she drinks. Are you done yet? Are you done yet? Are you done yet?
And this is when I can see that Kathy's love for Ben is the best kind of love there is, the kind that is bestowed by choice. She drinks her coffee slowly. Stares with longing at the half-done crossword puzzle. Breathes deeply the way a night person does when faced with an early morning. And then she smiles. Maybe they'll play more video games. Maybe they'll stomp in some puddles. Maybe they'll walk to the corner store and buy candy. But whatever adventures the day holds, both of them will surely be dirty and exhausted by day's end.
When these weekends first began, I thought Kathy had just found another way to irritate me. When Ben was a baby, she taught him to splash water from the bathtub and pull pans from the cupboard. As he grew, she introduced him to cartoons and chocolate milk. Flashing, noisy toys were her specialty. It was enough to make me crazy.
But as Ben and Kathy bonded over TV, sugar, and dirt, I remembered the stories from my two other sisters. How Kathy swam with one niece in the forbidden deep end of the pool. How she spent entire afternoons making sugar cookies with another. How she took yet another niece on vacation with her. Kathy began to look less like an annoying little sister and more like a really cool aunt.
My old big-sister job began to seem irrelevant. Kathy didn't need me to wash her face, or tend her injuries, or keep her safe and close to home. That was my role as a mother. Now, released of my obligation to be a snotty oldest sister, I can just be a sister -- a friend with a long, shared history; a safe place to land when she needs it. And she does the same for me: She answers the phone when I need to talk, helps me untangle family drama, and applauds my meager successes in life.
It's hard sometimes to navigate our new relationship. Sometimes her fun with Ben makes me uncomfortable -- the tree is too high or the bathwater's too deep. And I speak up, because it is my job to protect Ben.
Other times I'm too quick to rescue her when she calls to vent, and I try to solve her problems. And Kathy reminds me that she can take care of herself -- she just needs to talk. So I stop. Listen. And open the door when she knocks. Because she's the best aunt any kid could hope for. But she's also a really cool sister.