"Who invented uncles?" asks my 8-year-old niece, Lara -- angular, blond, with piercing blue eyes and vanilla ice cream dripping from her chin. "God invented napkins," I say, unsure how to respond.
Just as marriages can go sour and brother and sister friendships may hit a rock, so too are there risks in the uncle-niece relationship. It needs to stay fresh, especially when, like me, you're one of seven uncles competing for a young girl's heart.
That's why I decided to surprise Lara one summer afternoon. It had been several months since we had spent quality time together. Several more and I could end up hearing the words "Which uncle are you?"
I inform Lara's camp teacher that her uncle is here to take her home. Lara runs to the door, curious to see which uncle. She blushes when she sees me, then rushes over and plants a wet kiss on my cheek. Soon, I am carrying her little backpack and we're skipping down the hallway together.
"Let's be spontaneous," I say, holding her hand as we squeeze into the elevator.
"What's spontaneous?" she asks.
"Doing what we want when we want."
"Okay, let's be spontaneous and see 'Harry Potter.' "
"Didn't you see that last week with your parents?"
"Yeah, but I want to see it again."
I try to tempt her with other options such as "Around the World in 80 Days." But I'm quickly reminded who is boss in this relationship. "That's too grown-up," she says. "Harry Potter" it is.
During the previews, Lara leaps up and runs toward the bathroom, bidding me to follow. She positions me in front of the bathroom door like a guard. She pushes the door shut, then opens it. "The gremmies, the gremmies are going to get me," she wails dramatically.
"Nothing's going to get you, Lara," I say, doing my best to be parental, ever-mindful of my "favorite uncle" aspirations.
"They are, they are. And they bite. They take little pieces of you."
"Lara, please," I say, an ever-so-slight sign of fatigue creeping into my voice. "We'll miss the start of the movie."
"But I've seen it already." She giggles, then finally closes the bathroom door.
As we take our seats again, I ask Lara, for clarity's sake, whether she meant "gremlins."
"I call them gremmies," she says.
Who am I to argue?
"Can you pass me the popcorn?" I ask.
"No -- not until we get to Hogwarts," she says.
Later, what looked like rain outside has turned to sun. As we walk up Broadway, we find ourselves at a street festival. A child's paradise. The first vendor we approach places a pair of oversize sunglasses on Lara's face and hands her a mirror. She brushes her hair back, like a glam queen.
"We'll take them!" she declares.
I reach into my wallet and hand the vendor money.
Minutes later, we come upon a balloon saleswoman. Lara picks out a pink balloon. The saleswoman inflates it with helium, attaches a string and hands it to Lara. We walk less than half a block. Suddenly, Lara lets the balloon go.
"Lara, what are you doing?!"
"Balloons want to be set free," she says, watching it sail over a building. "They're so beautiful when they fly."
I have no argument with this, in principle, but my practical mind feels like saying, "Look, Lara, this uncle of yours is no rich man. In fact, on the contrary, his unsizable income has been depleted considerably in the past several hours. He'd prefer that the next time he buys his wonderful niece a balloon, she keep it for at least 15 minutes."
But I say nothing of the kind. "Do you want to go to the park?" I ask, scheming to escape the street fair.
"Okay," she says, taking my hand.
We walk into Central Park and Lara sees a girl eating ice cream. She has to have some.
I find myself sinking into a deep uncle dilemma. I ruminate on her mother's -- my sister's -- advice to me earlier in the day: "You need to be able to say no." But looking down at those angelic curls and darting eyes, I panic.
What kind of inhumane person would lay down the law to such a gem? If I said no to Lara, how on earth could I ever expect to advance my uncle status? I have failed at relationships with women my own age because I wasn't attentive enough to their needs. I will not allow myself to fail at this one!
I reach into my near-empty wallet and pay the vendor. Lara calls up to me, "Look, Uncle Charlie. Look at me! I have vanilla ice cream all over my face."
"That's not something to be proud of, Lara," I say, unable to keep myself from laughing. I wipe her face. She tosses the remaining ice cream in the trash.
"Why did we come to the park? I've been here hundreds of times!" she jokes.
As we finally head for home, Lara beams.
"You know why I like you, Uncle Charlie?" she says.
"Because you take me to movies and you're funny and nice."
"Thank you, Lara."
"And you know why else?"
"Because I spoil you?"
"No, silly, because you're my uncle. Besides, uncles are supposed to spoil their nieces."
"But you have six other uncles. Being just another uncle isn't enough for me."
"Do I have to choose, Uncle Charlie?"
"No, you don't have to."
"Then why should I? I like all my uncles."