Every morning began the same way: "Nija Masi, do you remember that we need to do the calendar today?"
Let me explain. I have this calendar. I've never seen another calendar like it. I bought it from the Tate Modern, because it is cool. The cards are all printed with a month or a number on the back, with an important modern artwork on the front. You change the date, you show a different piece of art; you can, of course, customize using postcards sent by loved ones temporarily residing in, say, Mexico or permanently residing in, perhaps, Ireland.
I was surprised at how quickly she developed habits, how she'd remember to do the same things every morning; I punctually remember to change the calendar once every 6.5 months, but while she was here, it practically worked like a real...calendar. She would pick the artworks she wanted to show that day. The little weirdo particularly favoured Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe, a Cindy Sherman photo, a Picasso and Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. Precocious taste, I know.
The calendar isn't the only ritual my niece developed for our morning activities. She (hereafter known as chicky or Nanki) also picked out my jewelry for me every morning; I can't remember the last time I felt the joy of having myself decorated. She liked it, and for one month, she could pick any random necklace out of my box, and I mean any necklace, including the ones I never wear, and I would wear it.
At some hotel, we were on the third floor, and she said, "Are we going to take the elegator?"
Me: The alligator? Yeah, chicky, we're taking an alligator home with us.
Her: Alligator?! No! (adorable grunt-like laugh)
Me: Oh, definitely. We're going to ride an alligator up the stairs.
Her: Nija Masi, not ALLIGATOR! I said ELEGATOR!!
She's amazing. I know that when I say things like that, I sound like a sweet and loving aunt. But you see, ever since her birth, people have said she looks just like me, just like I once looked. As she's gotten older, she's continued her habit of shamelessly copying me. Get this: she doesn't like raw tomatoes. So original. She takes gymnastics classes, she's a little tall for her age, and she's a skinny munchkin who loves smiling for a photo. She makes the same faces I used to, just watching her feels familiar. And every once in awhile, my mom calls her Niju, because that is my mother's nickname for me. No, you can't call me that. I don't understand why genetics works this way sometimes. But sometimes I worry that I only like her so much, that I only get along with her so easily, because she's so much like me. Because I am self-obsessed and pathetic, every time I think this girl is amazing, I prove how vain I am.
And I worry she'll grow to resent me, feel like she can't do anything without being compared to me. When I was 13, if I was remotely compared to anyone else, I sulked. But it turns out everything has actually been done before, so with the resources available to a 13-year-old, the best I could manage in terms of originality amounted to setting Kleenex on fire.
Nanki, though, really is amazing. In Sydney's Royal Botanical Gardens, we saw the Darwin sculpture. I asked her what she thought of it; "I like that the middle parts aren't cut out of the letters." Brain explosion. The child likes type. She notices type. I was 25 before I realised I like type. Oh, no. Oh, oh. No, no. She's not like me-- she's faster.
It doesn't matter; for now, I'm in love with her. She throws her cards down when she loses UNO and shouts, "Doink!" She walks fast. She dances to Bollywood songs and talks with her hands. Her eyebrows are so desperately expressive, sometimes it's like they're trying to convey a far deeper message than the words she's saying. She's saying, "Nija Masi, can we play some, um, stamps?," but her eyebrows are saying she's just discovered the secret identity of Batman. She inspired me to try to swim. Turns out I can actually sort of swim.
I had never before lived more than an hour's drive away from any of my family, and I often thought that was a blessing and a curse. This last year in Sydney, I have felt very very far from home. I nearly drowned in the uncharted deep waters of homesick, thrashing, gasping for relief. I missed home like I never believed I could. These six crazy beautiful people came and visited me, and I found new, far worse, kinds of homesickness. I found the sickness of feeling like your home has come to stay with you, but you are not at home. You are home and you are not at all at home. The people around whom you are most comfortable (and also oddly, most uncomfortable) are visiting you at your home...and it is not your home. The sickness of knowing your niece is homesick, of knowing you are too, but that she will go home. And you will not. The sickness of watching your home go home. The sickness of being left, alone, at your away-home. Your not-home. I found awaysickness.
They left on a Sunday, on June 28, nearly two weeks ago, and I'm still aching. See, every time I buttoned up my jacket and let my arms fall to my side, she'd be there, about hip-high with her hand raised, the unspoken question--can I hold your hand?--flickering across her eyebrows. She was my beautiful, bright, clever and very short shadow for a month, and now my shadow's gone. She's on the other side of the world, being beautiful and bright and clever. And nothing's felt good for days. I haven't been able to do anything right.
For example: the calendar is still set to June 28.