Reality Truck

In Case of Fire

She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing I’ll only turn around and write about it. In my mind, I’m like a friendly junkman, building things from little pieces of scrap I find here and there, but my family’s started to see things differently. Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up, and they’re sick of it. More and more often their stories begin with, You have to swear you will never repeat this.’ I always promise, but it’s generally understood that my word means nothing.’

—David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

Having made a conscious choice to skip out on life as a parent, my friends are only too happy to occasionally oblige me with a glimpse of what life might have been like had I chosen another path. (It’s a life that has its admitted rewards, but given that it’s also a life where every available surface is sticky for at least 10 years, it’s one we’re all agreed that I’m not up to).

Last weekend I finally got to break out that oft-employed maternal phrase that I was afraid, as an embittered spinster, I’d never get to say (along the lines of “wait until your father gets home” and “because I said so”), which was, “GIRLS!! YOU GET DOWN OFF THAT POLE THIS INSTANT!!!”

The occasion was my niece’s birthday—which is one of the rare annual events where I qualify as a designated grownup—and the day included a brief hike to the neighborhood fire station to learn about fire safety.

Actually, I was already a pro in this area, and regaled the children with stories about how my High Street apartment had caught on fire three times and they were about to meet the SAME CREW that had rescued me (actually, it was different guys and a different shift—and it was so many years ago that those guys might’ve actually long since died of natural causes—but that story seemed kinda like a downer).

When they asked how my house had caught fire THREE times, I told them ALL about the craaaaaaaaaazy fire bug who lived in the loft apartment and had built an ELABORATE altar to Victor French—Mr. Edwards, of Little House on the Prairie (hey, it’s on cable, in reruns; they probably knew who I meant). And the altar was FILLED with hundreds of tiny candles…And he set fire to the house THREE times…until I finally wised up and moved out.

The kids’ responses ranged in tone from perplexed to downright disinterested—but I think they got my points which were: firemen are your friends; never leave a candle unattended; and there’s a LOT of crazies out there, so you should always try not to live next door to them.

Mostly, I was given very manageable tasks—like taking down the “in case of emergency” phone numbers from the parents, nannies, and sitters who dropped the kids off. Responding to their raised eyebrows and occasional darting glances of panic, I reassured them that we didn’t INTEND to break their kids, that it was just a precaution—when I eventually realized that the real source of their fear was probably arising from the fact that I just don’t look like the sort of person you’d entrust your children to.

This was in no way ameliorated by the fact that I’d just had my hair done which always leaves me with violent stripes of red, burgundy and pink for a few punk-like days (until it settles into “strawberry lowlights”).

If I’d thought ahead, I’d have just worn a hat (which might’ve eased the parental alarm buttons), but then I’d have missed out on all the kids who wanted to smell my hair.

By then, I’d completely forgotten about the color, which is why their repeated requests caught me slightly off guard, but I complied good-naturedly anyway. (Thinking, well, maybe that’s how they…I don’t know…groom each other—like primates?)

I figure if anybody out there possesses the refreshing lack of self-consciousness that would allow them to ASK to smell your hair, you should certainly let them. I finally figured out what they were up to when they conferred, and arrived at the consensus that it does, in fact, smell like oranges.

After the parents were gone, I had to tag all the kids, for tracking purposes—which is where they probably got their first sense that Bitter Aunt Rhonda doesn’t respond to minor infractions the way normal, patient grownups do.

One boy insisted he was going to wear his name badge on the front of his shirt (safety measures dictate they go on the BACK). He whined about it for a good 15 seconds before I cut him off with, “No name tag, no party,” and reached for my cell phone while scanning the “In Case of Emergency” file for his mother’s number. That’s when he learned the codicil that goes with the name tag rule which is “No crying. Anybody dropped off can just as easily be picked up.”

Not content to sow discord and unhappiness among the children, I then tangled with the grownups over the trip to the fire station…Because we didn’t have a trot line (I don’t know what the right word for it is, but you see kids being hauled along on them all the time).

The OTHER adults explained to me, patiently, that “big” kids associate those lines with being “little” and they don’t like them. It’s embarrassing.

My response was, “Yeah? Tough.” Because I smelled litigation the first time one of those little angels darted into traffic. Big or little, kids don’t get a vote at Bitter Aunt Rhonda’s house. It’s not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship. Sometimes a monarchy when I break out the tiara.

I just rolled my eyes —“big” kids my ass, is what I was thinking. Oh yeah, it starts small—lettin’ ‘em off the trot line—next thing you know you’re catchin’ ‘em with an 8-ball and a hooker out behind the Middle School.

Contrary to expectations, I don’t have ONE permissive bone in my body when it comes to raising children. As much as I’d love to be “cool” Aunt Rhonda, my biggest concern is that my nieces graduate from college without any forays into the judicial system, unplanned pregnancies, substance abuse issues, eating disorders, or wearing white after Labor Day.

Still, all was forgiven and forgotten once we got to the fire station and I saw that—indeed—treats had been planned for me too—as the firefighters patiently climbed into and out of their gear and showed us their Axe. Whatever the kids lacked in attention span, I am certain I made up for.

Nearly blinded by all the testosterone in the room, it was all I could do to decline their kindly offer to lift me onto the Engine for a photo op (with the kids). I don’t insist on a guy who can carry me—but if it ever comes up, it’s comforting to know I weigh less than their gear.

As for getting the girls off the pole, we arrived at a compromise. I wouldn’t let ‘em climb it, but finally acquiesced when they said they just wanted to TOUCH it.

For a second, I thought I was right back in Catholic school. n