“Shauna!” he called to me from his living room. “Let’s play!”
During the first year I kept this website, there was really only one boy in my life. Mr. Baby. The little guy. Mister Pister. Elliott.
Elliott besotted me from the moment of his birth. On March 23rd, 2003, I sat in a waiting room, watching Steve Martin hosting the Oscars, on a tiny tv screen, bolted high up on a wall. But unlike every other year, when I listened intently and made sarcastic remarks about every bad dance number, that year I didn’t register what transpired on the screen. I sat forward on the plastic couch and waited. When I heard the elevator doors open down the hall, I left the confines of that little room and left the fake world of the Oscars far behind.
When I held the little guy in my arms, his red face immediately familiar, his fist waving in the air, love flooded me. From that moment forward, I could not imagine loving anyone as much as I loved my nephew, who was all of thirty minutes old.
Anyone who has been reading this website for more than a year knows how much I love my nephew. Whether it was cooking quinoa, or picking blackberries in August, playing Mousie and Sneezy, or eating homemade corn tortillas with him at El Puerco Lloron after an afternoon of watching jellyfish at the aquarium, this kid had a starring role in this website. Besotted, I tell you. Besotted.
Well, I’m still just as crazy about the little kid as always. But, you may have noticed — Elliott hasn’t shown up on this site as much as he used to dance across its pages. It’s not that he is any less interesting — he’s more hilarious, and more of a person, every time I see him. It’s not that I love him any less — when he leaves my house after a visit, I have a little ache in my gut, wondering when I will see him next. It’s just that, well, Elliott has been supplanted, just a bit.
It turns out that love only expands. When I thought I could not love any more, I found out that I could. Now, there is the Chef.
Really, do I need to write anything more about him for you to know? Not today.
Instead, I will tell you that when I looked up from my feet the other day, as we walked around the pond, and saw Elliott’s small hand reach up and grab his Uncle Dan’s hand, as we tried to make our way to the gate? Well, everything expanded, again.
This weekend, Elliott turned four. When we asked, he put four fingers in the air, slightly askew from each other, and said, “At one time, I was three. But now I am four, because today is my birthday!” Well, not quite, little guy. He had three or four birthday celebrations, involving family, and a room full of sticky-handed children delightedly shrieking, and a quiet Sunday afternoon gathering. We attended the last one.
Celebrations don’t require much to make them joyous. Elliott emerged from his bedroom, with a goofy grin upon his face, and scooted across the living room on his tip toes, his hands cupped downward before his chest. After we all applauded and laughed, he ran back to his room to pause for a moment before his next big entrance. A series of silly walks like no other — marching exaggeratedly, sidling sideways toward the woodstove, a rollicking gallop while he looked to the left and skyward. I’m not sure who taught him to do these — perhaps his absurd grandfather — but he cannot be stopped from silly walking now. No one’s really trying to stop him.
And as we all took a walk, in the incipient sunlight of spring, Elliott ran away from my camera. After a lifetime of every cute outfit and emerging expression being documented with digital cameras, Elliott has suddenly grown tired of being captured. He turns away from the visual inspection now. Spontaneously, I called out to him, “Elliott, would you like to take some photographs?”
“Sure!” he chirped, as he raced back to me across the grass. Eagerly, he reached out his hands and touched my camera, gently, completely assured. I followed him as he looked at the display on the back and took pictures of what he noticed. He noticed everything. Shadows on the grass, a stick in the ditch, a yellow plastic parachute man hanging suspended from a tree — they all received his attention. Damned if he isn’t a good photographer, especially for a four-year-old.
I am not the only one taking photographs now. His hands are large enough to hold the camera, and his gaze steady enough to see me through the lens.
So much has changed, however. The Chef is with us now, a part of the family, someone else who likes to play. My parents talked with him about our wedding. Merida — who has also shown up on the pages of this website many times — joined us for the afternoon on the island, and announced to my family that she will be moving back to New York soon. I already knew, and I am happy for her, because it is the best decision for my friend. But hearing it said out loud, in Elliott’s house, my heart did a little turn. And late Sunday evening, when we headed back to the ferry, I didn’t have the impending sense of doom, of school starting early the next morning again, because I am no longer a teacher.
When Elliott took a nap on the couch, I had to take a picture of his feet, poking out from behind the pillow, because they could have written the definition of cute. But later, at home, when I looked at the photo, I couldn’t believe how big they have grown. There’s not a stitch of baby in him, anymore.
Last year, for his birthday, I wrote a piece about Elliott. In it, I worried out loud — how could I explain to him the way I have to eat? What would it feel like to turn my mouth away from his proferred cookie? How do you explain gluten-free to a three-year-old?
Well, it turns out that the four-year-old already knows.
On Sunday, the little guy invited me to play in his bedroom, which he calls “Elliott’s living room.” When we started playing with the animals (or “aminals,” as he says, and I prefer), he looked up and said, “Where’s Uncle Dan?” Happily, the Chef wandered in to play, as well.
Sprawled out on the floor, the Chef said, “I’m going to sleep now,” and started mock-snoring. (This always cracks the little guy up, almost as much as crossed eyes or wiggling ears.) Elliott crawled onto my lap, as I sat in the chair, and climbed over the bars of his crib.
“Let’s sweep!” he announced, his arms in the air.
We all closed our eyes and pretended to sleep.
This didn’t last long.
Elliott opened his eyes, jumped onto his mattress, and said, “Wake up! It’s summertime! It’s summertime!”
When his uncle said, “Wait, what happened to spring?” Elliott stopped jumping and seemed to consider this.
After a moment, he said, “It’s summertime!” And started jumping again.
We both laughed.
Elliott looked at us, his eyes alive, and said, “Today is a special day.” (Try to say the word special through pursed lips and a lot of spit.)
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s a special day because today we are going to the bakery.”
“Really?” I said, exaggerating, and willing to pretend. “What are we going to get?”
“We are going to get a gluten-free treat!” he shouted, his arms thrown wide.
I had to turn my head, so he didn’t see the tears in my eyes.
I don’t know where he got this. We haven’t been coaching him on gluten-free foods. Every food we make, when we are at his house, happens to be gluten-free, but I haven’t explained what that means. When we were playing the “icky foods” game at Thanksgiving, I did ask if the enormous jawbreaker were gluten-free. And he replied, with great glee, “Yes, this is gluten-free!” (Imagine that the u in gluten is pronounced like oooooooooh, and you will understand why the Chef and I say that phrase in that manner, to this day.) However, that is the last time I have mentioned gluten-free to him.
Did he pick it up by osmosis? Or has he just heard people mention the phrase gluten-free around me enough to know that when we go to the bakery, Shauna gets a gluten-free treat?
You were right, little guy. That was a special day.
(Oh, and according to Elliott, gluten-free bagels involve two cups of sugar and a pound of mushrooms. Translate this to a recipe and let me know how it works for you.)
And later, for his last birthday celebration, we ate some chocolate cake. I had made it that morning, at the last moment, from a mix. (Pamela’s gluten-free chocolate cake mix, to be precise.) Normally, I make everything from scratch, with fresh ingredients, from our own recipes. But that morning, the Chef and I woke up late, and lay in bed with the paper and sunlight streaming through the window, rather than making food for hours.
Elliott didn’t mind. In fact, he didn’t even want the frosting I had forgotten to make. Instead, he said, “I want a big piece! And a glass of milk.” And so you shall have it, my love.
As wonderful as it is, this world of cooking and discovering food, sometimes it is enough to eat an unfrosted chocolate cake from a mix, made in a glass Pyrex pan, at the last moment. The cake was moist, dense as a homemade brownie, and each bite a childhood memory of chocolate come rushing back to the mouth. Elliott certainly didn’t care that it was gluten-free. He cared even less that it was made from a mix.
He just fixed his eyes on those four crayon candles and concentrated his hands on the table. With a little beat to make a wish, he blew with all his force, and his new, four-year-old focus. They all went out, together.
May your every wish come true, my dear nephew.