The last time I saw my niece was when she and her mother visited me, and I was stunned. Her long hair now sported two pink stripes and her beautiful eyes were lined with black eyeliner. At 13, Emi was officially a teenager with made-to-shock looks and the attitude to match. Her conversation alternated between mumbled replies to my questions and criticisms of her mother.
Connecting when girls pull away is hard. But despite my niece’s lukewarm reception, I continued to interact with her. Experience tells me that girls (and grown-ups also) will often push us away just when they need us the most.
It had been a tough year for Emi. Her parents had divorced the year before and her world was changing. The demands of school were complicated by a new social structure that now included boys. It was harder for me to keep in regular touch since Emi lived several hours away.
I was frustrated by her resistance but reminded myself of what it was like to be her age. My parents divorced when I was fourteen, and I remembered the anger and sadness of that changed family dynamic. I also remembered experimenting with clothes and make-up while trying to figure out just exactly who I was supposed to be. I recalled the almost impossible balance between appearing cool and being true to myself.
I also recalled earlier versions of Emi: the exuberant toddler who made the entire family take off their shoes and dance in a circle and the earnest ten-year-old who explained her school report on John Lennon in minute detail. Those parts of her were still in there, buried deep, waiting to be revealed again.
After she and her mother returned home, I thought about better ways to connect with Emi. Directly addressing my own experience with divorce and adolescence was likely to scare her off and make her even more reluctant to talk. It was also hard for me to muster enthusiasm for the task. The truth is that it is easy to do things for children (or anyone else) when they are open and appreciative. It‘s no problem to pick up the phone and call my six-year-old niece Gracie, or drop by to see her—she still greets me with a hug and a smile.
Still, while Emi may not express her gratitude openly, I was sure that she’d appreciate a renewed connection with me. So I decided to start with a care package. I bought a flat-rate postal box and filled it with festive goodies. I poured bag after bag of different varieties of chocolate into the box and added Mardi Gras beads and feathery pencils. I put in a book and small toys. I covered the outside of the box with stickers and mailed it off, hoping for the best.
A week later my cell phone rang; Emi was calling to thank me for the package. She told me how she had shared the candy with her friends and we laughed when she said her mom came into her room while she was sleeping and snuck some pieces, too. It was a good start because I caught glimpses of her earlier self. I was able to enjoy her humor. I plan to follow-up with letters that keep her up-to-date on me, her cousins, and other family.
I’ll keep my radar up for her changing interests; fascination with music recently replaced love of team sports. So I listen for her favorite bands and find myself Googling names like “Red Jumpsuit Apparatus.” Honoring Emi’s passions, however fleeting they may be, is a sign of respect. After all, this is the crucial period where she tries on different ways of being and decides what’s right for her.
Under the best of circumstances, communication with those who love you is complicated when you don’t see them every day (and, sometimes, even when you do). It’s even harder when you fear you’ll be met with sarcasm, resistance, or silence. But I’m sticking by my niece whether she wants me to or not. I’m in this for the long haul, and I hope that sometimes, she’ll walk by my side.
Ellen Birkett Morris is an aunt, writer, and poet living in Louisville, KY.