“Give me a couple more minutes, sweetie,” I begged of my niece Jennifer, who was a week shy of three years old. I lay spread-eagled across her kiddy pool, grass tickling my arms, legs, and lips. My back soaked up the hot Hawaiian sunshine on the July afternoon. My stomach lounged coolly in what bit of water the tiny plastic oval could retain while my body crushed down on it.
“You don’t fit, Auntie Carol,” Jen declared matter-of-factly, her stomach barely pouching her swimsuit and her head tilted at me as if trying to identify an alien turtle species. “Why are you just lying there?”
I groaned inwardly at the engagement of her why-mode where nothing I said ever satisfied her and where she tolerated no monkey-business in her pursuit of solemnly considered responses. Avoiding her searching blue eyes, I gazed at the tiny knobs that were her toes. “I’m trying to get a tan.”
“Why? What’s a tan?”
Something I don’t have yet, I murmured to myself and flipped over to dampen my rear end in the lukewarm water. The pool wobbled and winced as I took long seconds to reposition myself, pondering a way to explain the concept of tanning to this serious-minded toddler. I was worried I would return to northwestern Washington as mushroom-pallid as I had arrived. Three weeks I had already spent as housekeeper-nanny for my brother and sister-in-law. Three weeks lost from my six-week summer break while a pristine Pacific beach taunted me in the distance.
“Auntie Carol!” Jen sternly demanded. Her arms a kilter on her hips, she looked as if she had just stamped her foot to assert her authority. She made my name sound like a fully-developed paragraph detailing all my inadequacies, after which concluding that she had to speak very slowly so I would understand. I almost said yes to her implied question.
“Why?” she sighed the word deeply, quite affronted by my not performing to her standards.
Why ever had I agreed to this arrangement? Here I was--in Hawaii but not of it--and all my fleshly self cried, Why indeed!
I lifted a limp white arm and posed it next to her pencil-skinny, nutty-brown leg. “See how different your skin looks next to mine?”
“Mmm,” she thoughtfully considered the evidence. “You have lots of hair.” She sharply pulled at one to make her point.
Controlling a jerk-flinch, I asked, “But what else is different?”
“Your arm is fat.” This was not what I wanted to hear while lolling in my “guaranteed to slim your figure” tank suit.
“Well,” I stammered, because I could hardly argue the fact. “Honey, look at the color. You’re nice and brown but I’m pale white.”
“Why?” Jen gave her standard response, picking up momentum.
I was gaining a new appreciation for Solomon’s meaningless toils under the sun. “The brown means you’re tan, Jennifer Marie. I want a tan like yours.”
“Oh, you mean you’re trying to get brown.”
Nodding in my astonishment at her quick understanding and cringing as I waited another why, I watched Jen dance away, a golden sprite. She grabbed a towel, arranged it with exacting precision near me but out of reach of any potential tsunami puddles, and plopped down on it. Gracefully and daintily, she carefully contorted her limbs into a strange, gangly combination requiring many adjustments as she gazed from me back to herself. Her final position looked horribly uncomfortable, yet oddly familiar.
With a firm nod at me, she stated, “I’m going to get blue.”
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