The Greatest Compliment

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

by Ashly Reynolds

While I’m no parent (yet!) I have spent half my life raising other people’s children, most notably three precocious sisters, for nearly nine years of their young lives. The youngest, now 16, has known me more than half her life. Our bond is strong and she sees me as her “cool aunt”. We Snapchat, tag each other when we see a funny meme on Instagram, and generally, I am her go-to adult when she doesn’t see eye-to-eye with her parents.

*Elizabeth, the oldest of the three is fiercely independent. She once threatened to have an au pair fired because she wouldn’t allow her to have some ice cream. From an early age she was defiant, bossy, inherently felt entitled, quick to throw a tantrum when things didn’t go her way. Our relationship struggled for years, and her sheer meanness and spite were the only reasons I ever quit that job, or any job, three times.

Now at 20, her fiery spirit and independence serve her well, as I had always suspected and hoped they would.  I had the opportunity to visit my second family last week while in Northern California for work. They opened their home to me, allowing me to crash in the “Dungeon,” the tiki-themed downstairs guest bedroom that has seen everything from visiting racecar drivers to teenage slumber parties.

They invited me to join them upstairs for dinner, and afterward we chatted over wine while a pre-recorded episode of 60 Minutes played along in the background.  Elizabeth stood at the table folding laundry, half listening in on our conversation, half listening to the drone of a story on a mobile phone. A comment was made, a reference to the abuse of screens in our techno-world.

“You kept us off screens A LOT,” Elizabeth suddenly chimed in. I looked at her, breaking conversation with her dad. “What was that?” After explaining the comment on the show, she repeated her statement, adding “…probably because we were always getting grounded, and our phones were always the first thing to go.” I smiled and retorted, “Yes, and you were better off for it.” We chuckled as she agreed, then shared a knowing smile, two opponents laughing off a long fought battle. I swelled with pride, and inside, I did a victory dance. I had won.

As Elizabeth left to put away the perfectly folded towels, I looked at her mother and asked incredulously if she had borne witness to the greatest compliment Kathryn had ever paid me.  She shook her head no, and as she sidled closer to me, I proudly whispered my recount back to her in secret celebration. She smiled at me, a mix of bittersweet pride, as together we reveled in our long-awaited moment of triumph.

Every day had been a battle to keep those girls off electronics and screens as much as I could. Yes, we wanted them to be tech-savvy computer-literate members of the workforce one day. ONE DAY.  School had them 8 hours a day, and with homework, phones, e-readers for car rides, it was an unending stream of screens.  While I would never do anything drastic, like eschew conventional schooling simply to avoid computers, I would encourage and engage them every chance I had.  When that didn’t work, grounding helped and yes, the screens were the first thing to go.

It is easy to take your childhood for granted when you’re living it, and life ushers us into adulthood far too swiftly, now more so than ever. To have someone who cares enough about you to keep you present, enjoying your life and making memories, is to have someone who loves you. Indoor activities revolved around creating, crafting, shaping, making and doing. Summers were spent in the water, in the sun, hiking, exploring, LIVING.

I fought them for their own childhoods, because I loved them enough to do so, and we all won because of it.