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Stones and Bones

“We are glorious accidents of an unpredictable process with no drive to complexity.” — Stephen Jay Gould (paleontologist)

I told myself I was being magnanimous when I invited my sister and her two sons to the San Diego Natural History Museum. In truth, I just wanted to see the dinosaurs. David had refused to go upstairs with me the last time we’d visited the museum. Apparently, I’d exhausted my daily allowance for oohs and aahs on all the sparkly stuff in the All That Glitters exhibit downstairs. David may not have been interested in seeing bones and replicas of prehistoric reptiles, but I knew two little boys who would be.

My sister Heather made me an aunt shortly after I turned 26. Since then, the number of children attending our holiday parties, birthday celebrations, or weekend barbecues has increased from one to five. With nieces and nephews afoot, I had to adapt, transforming myself from detached onlooker into tangential child warden. I kept my distance during the diaper days, biding my time until the rug rats reached the “small, impressionable person” stage. Heather’s boys are just about there.

My sister was prompt. When I stepped outside my building she was waiting in her swagger wagon, the boys strapped to their seats in the back. Usually, I would walk the mile from my place to Balboa Park, but I viewed the vehicle as some kind of child-containment system. If we were to walk, I’d be edgy and apprehensive, half expecting my nephews to sprint into the street after a ball or something. I’m pretty sure they’re too old for leashes.

Anyway, this trip wasn’t about the kids — it was about me, getting to see dinosaurs. While we were standing in line for tickets, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t mind a review of the glittery stuff as well. I formulated a pitch (not that any child could resist the temptation of treasure), and it was decided that we’d check out the gems before the dinosaurs, but after the 3-D dinosaur movie.

A potent combination of soccer mom and high school teacher, Heather commanded her sons to stop playing with the rope and furnish their hands so the nice lady behind the counter could mark them with a dinosaur stamp. I watched as the boys obeyed; they were a miniature blend of their parents, with Heather’s glossy sable hair and spidery lashes, Sean’s long limbs and topaz-blue eyes.

On the short drive over, I had informed the kids that at this museum, you could touch stuff — but only certain stuff, so they had to wait for my go-ahead before making a grab for anything. After wowing at the multicolored diamonds that glowed fluorescent under a black light, Brian ran toward a big lump of metal and rock. “Can I touch it, Aunt Burabra?” he asked. Oh, how time flies, I thought, fancying myself the sage matron. It seemed only minutes ago he was calling me “Ah Baba.”

“Yes, Brian, go right ahead,” I said. “That’s a meteorite. It came all the way from outer space.” This elicited an appropriate gasp of awe. At first he was reverent, running his fingers along the edge where the shiny smooth metal met the rough rock. Then he slapped it a few times and was off in search of the next thing he could boy-handle.

“Kids just want to get their hands on everything, don’t they,” I said, with a patronizing shake of my head. Heather nodded and smiled a satisfied mom smile and then followed after Brian, who had found Liam feeling up a giant hunk of jade. I stayed where I was, waiting until my sister had vanished around the corner before I touched the meteor.

I ushered everyone through the gems swiftly so that no one would lose steam before I got to see the old lizards. Once upstairs, we slowly made our way through the epochs. Heather read, processed, and taught; the boys climbed through caves and grappled with knobs and shafts at interactive learning stations; I gaped at the otherworldly representations and touched what I could.

“What is that smell?” Heather wrinkled her nose in my direction.

“Sorry, I guess it’s kind of strong.” I held up the small container of Winter Candy Apple antibacterial lotion I keep in my purse. “I touched some things,” I said. Heather gave me an odd look and continued on.

We were in the Eocene corner, which was made to look like a lush and leafy wilderness from around 40 million years ago, when Heather happened upon a laminated card with photos of various creatures. At the top of the poster was written the question, “Can you find these Eocene animals?”

“Ooh, like a Where’s Waldo kind of thing?” I asked. “Well, that’s easy, the brontothere is huge.” I pointed at the rhino-like statue to my left.

“Mommy! Mommy, I found the snake,” said Liam.

“That’s great, Liam,” said Heather. Then she turned to me and said, “I’m better at I-Spy than anyone in the family. The boys are always, like, ‘Mommy will find it!’ ”

And just like that, it became a competition. Our obsessive-compulsive cores now activated, Heather and I focused our attention like hungry lionesses prowling the Sahara.

There were 21 critters to find. When we were down to the last 3, the boys began to lose interest. I took advantage of Heather’s need to engage them and searched extra hard while she was distracted. When her attention finally returned to the display, I’d located both the hedgehog and the dung beetles. Only the bat was left. At this point, we didn’t care so much about who found it first; we just wanted it found — something in our genetic makeup wouldn’t allow us to continue on until the task was completed.

“I didn’t expect them to be so small,” said a woman. “Or so many,” responded the man beside her. I followed their gaze to see a colony of bats, each no bigger than a mouse, dangling from a branch that had been right in front of me. Heather noticed them at the same time. “Come on, boys. Let’s go see the big dinosaurs,” she said.

While we were all staring at a six-foot-long mechanical T. rex skeleton that had been robotically animated to look as if it were walking on a treadmill, Heather turned to me with a sour expression on her face.

“I was so irritated they did that,” she said. I nodded silently. “At first, I was in denial,” Heather continued. “I didn’t want to admit to myself that they had found it first — I told myself that I noticed the bats right before they said anything. But they’d heard us trying to find it, and they were just a second sooner. It’s horrible to have that satisfaction stolen away from me like that. Just horrible.”

“I know, Faye,” I said, referring to my sister by her childhood nickname.

“Mommy, Mommy!” Liam appeared at our hips. “Look what I found!” He brandished a card, at the top of which read, “Can you find these survivors from the Ice Age?” Perking up, Heather called for Brian while I snatched the card from Liam’s grasp and made my way to the next exhibit.

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