Last year was my nephew’s first Thanksgiving. I have pictures of my girls playing with him on the floor. Pictures of Maggie looking upside down at him trying to engage him in the different shaped blocks. Pictures of Elena holding him in her lap.
The girls and I played cards with their uncle – my brother. We’d pause when the baby needed to be fed or changed. Ethan and Rona were doing these tasks together. She’d announce that the baby needed changing and he’d excuse himself from the game and the two of them would take the baby in the other room and change him.
A year later and they’re still doing this. “Love,” she’d say, “it’s a two person changing.” And he would excuse himself from talking to me and Maggie and join her in the other room.
I looked at Maggie. Except for the very first time I changed her within an hour of having her handed to me, I don’t remember Kim and I doing the changing together. For us it was always a “you do it” or “I’ll do it” sort of thing.
In a way it’s kind of sweet that they do everything together still. What was kind of funny was that even Elena at six years old noted that their ways were different than ours. “Why doesn’t he just do it?” she’d ask. Later she’d ask it the other way around, “why doesn’t she just do it?”
“Shhhh,” I’d say. “That’s just the way they do things.”
“What?” she’d protest, “I’m just asking.”
“No you’re not,” I’d say, “you’re stirring things up.” But Elena wasn’t done stirring thing’s up. She’d ask these troublemaking questions in the most innocent voice. The same question would sound mean if Maggie, Kim, or I had asked it. Elena came across as sincere. Even now looking back, I couldn’t swear she wasn’t.
“But,” she’d say, “that makes no sense. Maggie used to change my diaper all by herself.”
And she did. From time to time, when she was in the mood, Maggie had changed Elena’s diaper. That was when Elena was little and Maggie wasn’t making fun of her for being in a diaper or pull-up at an age older than Maggie had been.
“Changing boys is different,” I told her, not knowing if it was true.
“You mean ’cause of their penis?” she asked.
I suppose I did, but I didn’t want to get into that. “Kind of,” I said. “If they poop there’s more to clean.”
“Ohhhh,” she sang both knowingly and with that devilish look in her eyes. “Maybe I’ll help next time.”
Elena let that one drop but seemed to watch for other opportunities.
“Dad,” she asked, “what’s Eli’s whole name?”
“You know what it is,” I said back.
“Oh yeah,” she grinned, “Eli Maxwell Steinberg. He has the same name as me, only for a boy.”
Elena Maxine. Eli Maxwell. Sigh.
“Kind of,” I said.
“Not kind of,” she corrected. “Exactly. If Eli was a girl he’d have my name.”
“Well he doesn’t have your Chinese middle name,” I said.
“He couldn’t,” she said. “He’s not one of the Shen sisters.”
“No, he’s not.”
Later at dinner I was playing with baby Eli. He giggled and smiled as I lifted him above my head and put him on my shoulders. Some babies like that and some don’t. Elena used to whoop with delight up on my shoulders while Maggie used to grab my hair in her fist and squeeze her knees hard around my neck. Eli was having fun.
Ethan and Rona were a bit concerned with how I was treating Eli and I started to bring him down.
Only Elena decided to put in her two cents.
“Hello,” she said. And everyone looked at her. “My dad has raised two children of his own.”
And so we’re left with a big old hole this Thanksgiving.
So many times Kim and I look at each other and think “Elena would have something to say about this.” And we smile at the mixture of a memory and a day dream. For that moment we fill a hole with a happy thought of a child who filled the room.