My niece Sophia turns 16 today. Although biologically she 'belongs' to my husband, Sophia being Mike's eldest brother's child (and my in-laws' first grandchild), I like to think that she very much belongs to me, too.
For nearly three years we all lived in the same building in Brooklyn, which enabled us not only to be present for the 'big' things, like her fifth grade choir solo and a string of intricately-themed birthday parties, but also allowed ample idle time together on the couch after school and homework, most of which Sophia spent slowly shifting positions until her arm somehow found itself linked around her Uncle Mike's, casually hugging his bicep as we watched tv and ate ice cream until her mom called for her to come home.
She went to school across the street from our building, so in the mornings when leaving for work, I would yell her name and wave to her and her friends through the fence. I continued this ritual through fifth grade, when this type of behavior from adults is normally frowned upon, but I was in my twenties and had chaperoned her limo-ride-to-Ellen's-Stardust birthday party, so I somehow managed to be issued a rare and coveted pass by her and her girlfriends.
In the years that followed, I curled her hair and did her makeup the time she went as Marilyn Monroe for Halloween. Mike and I took Sophia and her friend Michelle into midtown on the F train, stopping at Junior's in Times Square to split a milkshake before a hip-hop dance show at the New Victory.
I once caught her with a tube of mascara she wasn't supposed to have and didn't tell. I made her a cake that looked like a tub of popcorn for her 'movie star' birthday party, Mike playing the role of paparazzo, snapping photos of Sophia and her 'famous' friends. I took her to meet Tom Hanks the time she asked him to sign her snuggie box. Mike and I went to every single three-hour middle school chorus concert (which, I'll add, they did not change for three consecutive years).
When Sophia hit thirteen, she did what all thirteen year olds do, she ignored us. I couldn't help but snap this picture because it pretty much sums up how we saw her from age 13 to 15 - on her phone. We all waited.
And then just like that, she came back to us. A smiling, happy 11th grader with gorgeous, natural beach waves and a boyfriend in college. When I asked her a few weeks ago (over text, naturally) what she wanted for her birthday, her reply was that what would mean the most to her was if we all got together for a celebratory lunch or dinner. Oh, hello, welcome back. We missed you while you were gone getting grown.
Love you, Sophia. xoxo