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The Game of Life
By Kathleen Dennehy

My sister was going into labor early so I thought it best to get the hell out of Dodge, also known as suburban Connecticut. I was already packed, even though my flight back to LA was four hours away. As the nanny drove over to watch my sister's other kids she helpfully swerved her car into a tree, and ended up in the same hospital my sister was headed to. I suggested we drop the kids off at Emergency so Mommy and the nanny could watch them from matching gurneys, but humor was in short supply. So I delayed my flight back home.

My nieces, 11, 7 and 5, only knew me until this point as a source of fun -- good, bad fun. I was the single aunt, the bad aunt, the one with the low-rise jeans, no savings, bad jobs and worse boyfriends, obviously dyed hair and blue fingernails. Who else would teach them how to spit, what naughty words meant, and how to snap gum? I allowed them to tie up my boyfriend with a muddy garden hose during a christening party, I proudly introduced them to my patented diabolical fried donut and ice cream sundae for breakfast, and let them wear my platform shoes and jump on Granny's good couch. Someone has to be the good, bad aunt. It's my job, and dammit, I'm good at it. Their parents always had lurked nearby to brainwash their kids back to civility with surgical precision. Until now.

Olivia, the five-year-old reassured her mother, "Don't be scared now." Molly, age seven, waved, "Have a good baby!" My sister promised she would, as she left with her husband. An electric charge of expectation of imminent upheaval followed them out the door. A burst of cold air escaped inside and made us feel that much more left alone. Then three little heads swiveled from the departing vapors of their parents to me.

Little kids only know they are little kids when they are suddenly parent-less. Then they realize that parents come in handy. Freedom is scary when you don't have someone keeping you from it. The girls were suddenly forced to find their safe harbor in me. As six massive blue eyes widened and wetted I practically shouted "How about a game?" A deep survival instinct I didn't know I had kicked in. The girls nodded bravely.

My mother showed up but headed right for the kitchen, seizing this golden opportunity to rearrange my sister's kitchen. My mother believes she has an innate gift of knowing just where other people's measuring cups really want to live. See, if Mom does something helpful, like coming over in a jam, then you can't yell at her for being supremely unhelpful, like disappearing your carrot peeler.

Olivia approached solemnly holding out the board game of Life as if it were a sacramental offering. I haven't played Life in thirty years, as I've been busy, on the boot-kicking end of, well… life. As Hannah and Molly threw themselves into fighting over who would be red and who would be blue, I tried not to count the years since I punched that pop-o-matic, dreaming big about my far-off future.

While organizing the cute, but useless, toy money into neat little stacks, more money than I've ever held in my hands, real or fake, I saw that, as in everything else, the game of Life is new and improved. Now it has squares saying things like, "You start a community garden! Move ahead three spaces!" It used to say something like "You turn your play room into a bar. Collect $10,000.00."

We began playing. Everyone was given the choice of going to college or just heading off into career-land. Hannah, the oldest and most fearful, went to college and bought insurance before she had a car. Molly and Olivia leapt right into Life, choosing from a hidden assortment of career options, held in a tidy stack of cards. If only it was that simple, to pick a full-blown career from a stack of cards printed in Taiwan. Molly became a professional tennis player and was pretty happy to earn $80,000 a year until Olivia picked a card and suddenly became a computer programmer pulling in $120,000 a year. As Molly fumed, Olivia ran into the kitchen. "Granny, Granny, I'm a computer programmer and I make $120,000 dollars. Each and every year!" Granny said, "Great, now you can take care of your Aunt Kathy." A drawer slammed shut, silverware resettling in its new rightful place. I pictured my sister, opening drawers while dandling her newborn, and swearing under her breath. I wondered how long it would take her to find her knives.

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