I had the coolest conversation with Grace the other day on her birthday, when she turned nine. Phone conversations have tended to be on the more "miss" side of "hit or miss" with the girls in recent months, as it's long been hard to capture their interest over the telephone, especially since the novelty of telephone conversations have worn off for Sophie, as the most naturally social of the lot. Haley still pretty much has no desire to talk to anyone on the phone, and Grace can do better as the oldest of the lot, but frequently will try to talk while playing something on the computer, which is no help to trying to keep her interested. But for whatever reason, I got a break on this day, perhaps because they were in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting for Jim, who gets off work at 1:00pm on Fridays during the summer, to come home and join them for a lunch trip to the Olive Garden, which was Grace's request, as she's a big fan of their pasta. I had called just after one, so their usual hustle to get somewhere was temporarily on hold, I guess.
Grace answered the phone, probably because my sister was tipped off by the caller ID and knew that I'd be calling to wish Grace a Happy Birthday. But I realized before too long that she had stolen away from everyone else, gone upstairs to her and Haley's room, and had stretched out on her bed, so as to talk without distraction. And so I was treated to a 48 minute conversation, which is probably a new record (for a phone conversation, that is: they are all much more chatty in person). She told me about birthday news: both her and Haley having had friends sleep over the previous night, and Grace having a soccer game coming up later that evening. She updated me on new points with their still fairly new iMac computer system, the one hour they had spent at school on the last day of third grade, her winning the draw to take home and take care of one of the class's pet gerbils for the summer (and I told her about how much I liked doing the same the summer after fourth grade when I took home Mrs. McCourt's class pet, the hampster Sleepy, who paved the way for our own pet hampsters after that), and a little about the doings of Haley and Sophie.
But it wasn't all first-rate conversation by adult standards, nor apparently by nine year-old standards, either. And yet, somehow that was a high point! I got the feeling that Grace was amusing herself and sort of just keeping me busy when we somehow got to talking about studying abroad when you were a college student: how much that was my biggest regret of my undergraduate years, how much I encourage my own students to do it (what better chance do you get to learn to live in another country and culture?), and how much our cousins Ben and Becca clearly enjoyed their time in Argentina and Spain (Ben) and Ecuador and Brazil (Becca). So Grace kept me occupied by asking me where I would have wanted to go study, if I had. (Italy.) And what was my second choice? (Ireland.) And my third? My fourth? My fifth? And so on until around my twentieth choice. I cannot vouch for my having gotten the order exactly right after the first few, as I had never quite thought it out in such detail, myself, and I could hear the smile in her voice as she knew she was getting silly asking me to continue on and on and on. My choices certainly betrayed my historical interests and specialties, in their present form even more than in undergraduate days, but it was kind of fun for me to try to think up the answer, to wonder what she knew of the countries from her own schoolwork and reading, and to wonder if I could plant some seeds for such interest in playing through this game with her. (For the record, I think the litany ended up going something like: Italy, Ireland, England, France, Germany, Greece, Switzerland, Wales, Tunisia, Turkey, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Israel, Egypt, Vatican City [which I only remembered to count here as a separate country], Malta, India, and China.)
This morphed into her asking me try to name countries that she couldn't identify by their general location, a skill she and Haley have recently mastered from an iPad game that quizzes them on all the continents and their countries, and so then I had to wrack my brain in trying to come up with particularly difficult, small, and obscure countries from the general American imagination. And so conversation ensued about Brunei, Andorra, Moldavia, Uzbekistan, Nepal, and Monaco, with Grace doing pretty well with the lot. We also continued a bit of conversation from April, when she showed me the iPad game, about the nature and history of Vatican City as a country, as that was the only country in Europe left off of the iPad quiz, perhaps in some strange holdover of WASPish anti-Catholicism, which seems somehow a less humiliating explanation than simple ignorance on the part of the game makers. Although I kept my explanation of the emergence of the Vatican City state out of the ashes of the old Papal States during the 1870 Italian Revolution to something very brief – like four sentences, which is a real achievement for me – it was hard not to laugh when Grace very directly changed the subject with, "Let's talk about something else now," which only managed to cloak her sudden boredom in the most literal way. It wasn't too much longer before I heard Jim come upstairs and call for her in the background, and it was time to get to her birthday lunch out.
And so it goes. You know you're smitten when you're delighted even to bore your niece.