“I want to wear the sparkly hair!”[traci4]
Before I could protest, Jenny had snatched the Halloween wig off my head, releasing my static-laden blonde hair into my face. She had only been at my house for five minutes before she decided to take over the whole dress-up operation, but after almost four years of this routine, I was getting used to it.
I sighed heavily, brushed my short, snarled hair behind my ears and turned back to the oak chest brimming with outdated, tacky dresses 10 sizes too big and former Halloween costumes two sizes too small. There was no use trying to reclaim the sparkly hair for my own; no scheme my four-year-old brain could conjure up would work.
If I grabbed at it, she’d scream. If I asked nicely for its return, she’d laugh. I considered reminding Jenny I was, indeed, her aunt, in practical terms her ancestor, and therefore superior and deserving of the punk rock hairdo. But I knew she’d respond that she was a year older, and much smarter, which made her far more superior than any kindgergarten baby that might happen to have a brother that was her father.
If I ran and told my mom, like every ounce of my 40-pound body wanted to do, Mom would simply reply I could wear the wig with streamers any other day of my life and to let Jenny play with it when she came over. This particular response made no sense to me: number one, what would be the fun in wearing an obviously coveted piece of apparel when no one was around to grab it from my head in jealousy? Number two, wasn’t Jenny here to play, like, all the time?
Ever since my brother Todd had dee-vorced the crazy lady with the nasal laugh, Jenny and her baby sister Katelyn had been sleeping in my bed, eating my cereal and wearing my dress-up clothes without my consent every other week. Even though I had to give up the luxuries of being practically an only child when they came to visit, forfeiting attention and personal belongings, I looked forward to their visits. I lived in the middle of nowhere, and being 12 years shy of a driver’s license made summers long and painfully boring. Being bossed around was a welcome change from wearing sparkly hair alone in front of a mirror.
Upon each arrival my mom would make me hide any new clothes in the back of my closet, since Jenny and Katelyn wouldn’t be able to afford new clothes this year. Mom would also ask me to be patient and understanding when Jenny pushed me around because my nieces were going through a divorce, which to me meant she could just get away with anything she pleased.
Jenny pranced around the room, the pieces of colorful, shiny streamers swishing with every taunting movement. Weighing my options carefully, I decided to obey my mother’s wishes and be understanding, so I decided the best outfit to be understanding in was a silky black dress with pink roses. If I had to be walked over, I was going to take it in style.
Her prancing lasted less than five minutes before she grew bored with her acquisition, and she tossed the wig back into the chest.
“Now what do you want to do?” I asked, hoping she’d notice my attentiveness to her needs and be nice to me for a while.
[traci2]“Let’s exercise!” she answered, bolting out into the kitchen without a reply. She rummaged through the cupboards and emerged with soup cans just heavy enough to use as weights. “Get the scale!” she called to me.
I hauled the scale, which weighed people three pounds too heavy, from the bathroom into the living room as she inserted the Jane Fonda workout tape into the VCR. We climbed on to the scale one at a time and recorded our starting weights with a crayon before running into my bedroom to change into our bathing suits, in anticipating for the sweat we would build trying to keep up with women on the screen, kicking, lifting, twisting, and grunting. We weren’t quite sure what they were doing, but we were old enough to know that this is what you had to do to be beautiful.
After thirty seconds of low-impact sit-ups followed by ten jumping jacks apiece, we rushed to the scale, pleasantly surprised to find our weight had decreased atleast two pounds since we had started our aerobic endeavors. It wasn’t until years after, decades even, that I realized we had shed clothing since our first weigh-in, but we were proud of our accomplishments and rewarded our outstanding efforts with cookies from the jar on the counter.
A half hour later, once we were sure the cookies had passed through our digestive system and would not make us drown, we took a dip in the lake to cool down. We spent hours in the shallow water perfecting our mermaid dive, rescuing each other from fresh water sharks, and baking mud pies in the sun. Our skin wrinkled and our faces reddened in the hot July sun, but we didn’t seem to notice— and if we did, we didn’t seem to care enough to go inside.
Eventually Mom, who had been watching our best handstands from the shore, called us to land and wrapped us in towels. She made us sit on the deck until we dried, because her kitchen chairs weren’t made for wet behinds. We could smell the hotdogs and macaroni wafting from the kitchen, and our stomachs began to rumble. As soon as we felt it was safe for our behinds to touch fabric, we clamored around the kitchen table, ready for dinner.
“I love macaroni and cheese!” I exclaimed, as Mom shoveled spoonfuls of Kraft goodness on to my plate.
“Then why don’t you marry it?” interrogated Jenny, pouring ketchup on to her hotdog. I started to get upset—I’d prefer to consume the meal rather than join with it in holy matrimony until death did us part— but then I remembered that Jenny was going through a divorce, marriage wasn’t forever, and kept silent.
Katelyn giggled from her highchair, as if she, at two years of age, could understand the complex hilarity of her sister’s comment. For a moment I considered perhaps Katelyn was mature for her age, but as her hands reached into the apple sauce and smeared it across her face, I discarded the thought. Instead, I wondered if it might be more efficient to put the noodles directly on to her bib, rather than attempting to enter the mouth first. You know, cut out the middle-man in the mess making.
“Facey macrooni!” she squealed, as if she had made the most amusing observation ever and should be invited promptly to discuss Russian literature with Tim Russert on Meet the Press.
First, she would have to figure out how to combine the ‘t’ sound and the ‘r’ to actually say my name coherently. Neither of my nieces nor my nephew called me Aunt Traci, which was fine with me. I was too young to be an aunt. Aunts were old ladies who spoiled you with candy and presents, but told you stand up straight and drink your milk at the same time. I was more focused on acquiring candy and presents for myself, and I didn’t care if anybody drank milk because it was yucky and made me want to barf. Aunt material, I was not.
To me, the girls were more like siblings I only saw a few times a month. I was used to this set up, since my sister lived in Florida and my brother was rarely home. Plus, Jenny and I were often mistaken for sisters because of our same shade of blonde hair and our gift for being the most freckled little girls in the room. Not to mention, she was always telling me what to do— who tells their aunt what to do? We loved to tell the story of our unusual relation to anyone who’d listen. She’d use words like “surprise!” to describe my birth to older parents, although I wasn’t sure what surprised everyone about me. I had ten toes, ten fingers, and besides the gray hair poking out behind my dad’s ears, they were pretty much the same as everyone else’s parents at school.[traci3]
Jenny and I quickly devoured dinner, while Katelyn sat more satisfied staring into space, dribbling chocolate milk down her chin. As soon as Mom gave the OK, Jenny and I rushed down the swing set, determined to be the first to claim the swing for our own purposes. Of course Jenny got to it first— and if she hadn’t, I would’ve been promptly removed and introduced to the sand box face first. I had the wonderful honor of watching her from the slide, contemplating the advantages to going through a divorce myself. If I was going through a divorce, I could swing first, wear shiny wigs, and celebrate holidays twice. But, then again, I liked having my mom and dad in the same place, because if one wouldn’t let me have a cookie, the other would inevitably take pity on me. There was always someone to read to me, to play a game with and a lap to crawl onto when I needed it. I looked at my niece and wondered how it felt not to have a choice of laps. How did it feel not to be able to afford new clothes for school? These are the questions I wanted to ask, but I knew they’d only get me the Evil Eye from my mom. I was supposed to understand, but in reality, I didn’t understand anything Jenny was going through.
Sure, she was mean to me, called me names, and criticized my artistic abilities, but the divorce aside, Jenny was a great playmate. She was my window into a world of new ideas, PG-13 movies and dirty words like poop that made my mom cringe. She took me under her wing and taught me everything I needed to know to grow from a kindergarten baby into a worldly first grader, and for that, I’d let her wear the sparkly hair anytime she wanted. She was, after all, my best friend.

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