Imaginary Baking

“Come upstairs with me,” my 4-year-old niece insisted, before the garage door had even finished closing. “We’re having a dinner party.”

It was 8:30 in the morning, and my 6-year-old nephew was heading in to have his tonsils removed. I’d agreed to help my sister out by watching my niece for most of the day.

This wasn’t any kind of trial from my perspective. I have no children of my own, so I’m free to consider my niece and nephew (and any future nieces and nephews) the greatest children ever to grace this green earth with their presence. I realize intellectually that I’m partial to them because they’re my sister’s. But I’m also inclined to think they’re just really excellent children in their own rights.

Close-up up of a small child’s hands, holding eight crayons. Photo by Kristin Brown on Unsplash

I’ll admit this may be partially driven by vanity. My sister’s kids remind me of my own illustrious childhood. The age difference between my nephew and my niece is comparable to the difference between me and my sister. Their squabbles remind me of squabbles in my youth. Their cooperation reminds me of games my sister and I invented. Each of them is precocious in ways that call back experiences from the very early 1990s, leaving me flummoxed and half-convinced that I’m a child again.

Then one of them asks me to hoist them up and toss them onto a pile of cushions, and I’ve got to apologetically explain that Aunt Crystal’s back won’t allow such feats. Just like that, I’m an adult again.

So when my niece invited me to an 8:30am dinner party, I grabbed my coffee thermos and followed her up the stairs. She handed me a rabbit-shaped puppet and informed me that the rabbit was Pandie’s guest (Pandie is, of course, my niece’s well-loved panda stuffie-child; my niece emphatically self-identifies as a bunny, but she is nevertheless the mother of Pandie, and don’t you forget it). Pandie and the rabbit made small talk for a few moments, primarily about the relative deliciousness of carrots versus bamboo. Then my niece informed me that it was time to bake a cake for our dessert.

She brought out a wooden stand mixer and attached the mixer bowl, then asked me what we needed first. Then: “Wait,” she said, looking solemn. “Does cake have gluten?”

Gluten is not a problem in my sister’s house. It’s a problem for me—gluten, and many other things. I try not to make a big deal of it if I can help it. It is what it is. But something I love about my niece and nephew is that, even at their ages, they’re both very concerned about whether or not I can eat certain things. My nephew will excitedly sound out “gluten-free” on food packages. And my niece will routinely ask if I can have things before she offers them to me.

“Cake usually has gluten,” I told her. “But if you use special flour, you can make it gluten-free.”

“What special flour?” she asked.

“The kind I use is made of rice,” I said. “I think I saw some in your pantry over there,” I added, pointing at the empty air over her bed.

“Oh, yes,” she said knowingly. “Of course. I’ll go get it!”

I grinned, watching her stagger under the weight of the imaginary gluten-free flour as she pulled it from the invisible shelf and carried it back towards the mixer. We measured it out, then added pretend chocolate, pretend milk, pretend oil, pretend sugar. My niece found some toy eggs that could break open and asked if we needed “the yellow parts in” for this cake—a couple weeks ago she watched me separating eggs so my sister and I could make a pavlova, and I’d explained to her that some recipes make you take the yolks out because something cool happens when you beat egg whites together with sugar. Then we let her and her brother watch the beating process. I was surprised she thought to ask.

“For this recipe we’ll leave the yolks mixed in with the whites,” I said.

“Okay.” Then she warned me, “I’ve never cracked eggs by myself before, so this could get messy.” She carefully tapped the toy egg against the mixing bowl, then opened it up. “Whew!” she said, then cracked another one.

Watching my niece think and act is a strange miracle. Her make-believe is vivid, detailed, and rich. She’s thoughtful and empathetic, and eager to solve problems. Her understanding is imprecise, but still varied, incisive, and colorful. 

It’s strange to think this person didn’t exist just a few years ago. She’s such a full, well-rounded, present personality—so much herself—that the notion of a world before her is foreign. At the same time, she is constantly learning, constantly behaving, constantly testing boundaries and asking questions and repeating old patterns in new ways—so that every moment she is different. Every moment developing. Every moment becoming.

I swear sometimes you can see the neurons firing behind her eyes.

I knew this would be so, this constant procession of growth. It’s a large part of why I left Wisconsin to come to Las Vegas. The children in my sister’s photos kept growing, and I wanted to witness it. I wanted to be a part of it.

After we mixed the imaginary cake batter, my niece found a toy cake pan. “I’m not going to use the oven,” she said, going to her child-sized toy kitchen. “It’s too hot and I’m not supposed to. So I’ll cook the cake in the microwave!” She did so. I didn’t protest about her methodology—I figured the imaginary cake would taste the same no matter how it was baked. Imaginary baking is forgiving that way.

My niece, Pandie, the rabbit puppet, and I ended up splitting a toy pizza for dinner, with each slice personalized to our tastes and lovingly prepared to order. (My niece again made sure the neatly-sewn wool crust was gluten-free.) My slice had felt pizza sauce, a nice layer of felt mozzarella, fabric pepperoni, and several wooden mushrooms. It paired wonderfully with the real coffee in my thermos.

No part of me wishes my niece would stay this way forever. She’s phenomenal now, but I’m confident the growth before her will make her even better and more complex.

Perhaps that’s naïve of me. I’m writing as someone who has been through childhood once myself, and who is only now watching childhoods from an adult perspective for the first time. There are as many surprises in store for me, I’m sure, as there are for my niece in the twenty-eight years between her age and mine.

Still—I’m eager to see where all this cleverness, inventiveness, and attentiveness is headed. To see what parts of this intricate personality come to the fore. What will be tempered? What are the youthful manifestations of something entirely different? What will feel foreign to her when described in twenty years? What will embarrass her? What will validate? What will she remember and what will she forget?

I suppose I could ask the same questions about myself.

Once we were finished with the pretend pizza, my niece served the cake quite elegantly on her finest blue plastic china. Pandie and the rabbit puppet discussed games they liked to play (Candyland was a clear frontrunner, but it should be noted that Pandie is a notorious cheat). I made sure we all thanked my niece for hosting such an enjoyable party. She accepted the compliments with grace and then treated us to an impromptu concert, extemporaneously making up new verses to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” at the top of her voice and laughing hysterically.

There are only so many 8:30am dinner parties in a lifetime. Only so many imaginary cakes to bake. These are not new thoughts, but sometimes I find myself acquiring experiences that match well-worn clichés. Something clicks. Suddenly I understand, and I feel old and young in the same instant.

Old because I understand. Young because there must be so much more still to understand.

Have you ever had a really enjoyable time with imaginative play as an adult? Have you ever engaged with a child and realized how very grown-up they are in some ways? Let us know about it in the comments!

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