In which I attempt to impress my niece with “Teenaged Girl Underwater”

My 7-year old niece wants to be a marine biologist. She was explaining that her first favorite are great white sharks, but dolphins are her close second favorite. At the time, she and I were standing on a paddleboard, cruising around the sadly shark/dolphin-free Bass Lake in California.

I don’t get to hang out with her, or my 5-year old nephew, very often, since my sister-in-law and her family live on the opposite side of the country. As an only child, I was never sure that I’d have the chance to wear the label of Auntie – so whenever I do see them, I always bring gifts to try to bribe my way into being Cool Aunt Lisa. I’m not naturally good with kids, so I rely on books, baseball hats and interesting stories. I jumped at the chance to get into her good graces.

“I got to swim with dolphins.”

She quickly turned around on the paddleboard to look at me, almost dumping us both off.

“Really? Why?”

Shit. I hadn’t really thought this through. Should I just say something about Sea World? No, I shouldn’t lie to 7-year olds.

“Ummm. Well. You know I used to be in movies, right? Didn’t you see that one with your Grandma?”

I thought I had remembered that she came across Mrs. Doubtfire with my mother-in-law, and she had been totally confused about why Aunt Lisa was on TV and looking so young. Other than that, we’d never talked about it. In fact, my former acting career so rarely comes up with any of my in-laws, it’s easy for all of us, including me, to forget it happened at all.

“No. Ohhhh. Wait. I do kinda remember that.”

I explained that I had done a TV movie called Bermuda Triangle and that’s where I got to swim with dolphins. And actually, there was a shark in it, too.

“Great white?” She asked.

“No, it was just a blacktip reef shark.” She tried to cover her look of mild disappointment.

I tried to get my cred back.

“I think there might actually be a clip of it on YouTube, if you want to see it.” She brightened and nodded, but she was clearly lost in a different thought.

“You know, I think being on TV runs in our family. My Grandma used to be a dancer and she was on TV. So, it’s just like that!”

(When her Grandma was 8 years old, she was in a dance troop called the “Hi-Steppers” and they were once on some sort of variety show wearing top hats and white gloves.)

“Yep, just like that!” I agreed.

When we got back to dry land, I was able to find clips, here, here and here to show the kids my dolphin encounter. I tried to ignore the fact that these were clips of me in a hot pink bathing suit in family-friendly TV movie that somehow got removed from context and categorized under the slightly pedophile-ish sounding title of “Teenaged girl underwater.”

As my niece told me about her school play and swimming practice, it got me thinking about what I was doing when I was her age. I was filming a seriously intense movie with John Malkovich called Eleni. (And since my entire life seems to be on YouTube, you can see my somewhat terrifying scene at about 23:15.)

These clips remind me why it’s challenging to explain to my young friends what I used to do. Because the movies still exist, and while the experience of working was formative for me, the finished product – the actual movie – was not.  It’s kind of like having your yearbook pop up unexpectedly.  It seems totally dated and you can’t believe your hair really looked like that. It’s an inadequate representation of something that is simultaneously important and irrelevant.

Those movies have nothing to do with her relationship with Aunt Lisa, and yet, when my niece stumbled into the TV room post-nap that one time – there Mrs. Doubtfire was, pretending to be something that she needed to care about, just because it was right in front of her.

In the end, while the dolphin swimming was sufficiently interesting for a few moments, the Junie B Jones books I got her had a more lasting impact. I also taught her some yoga postures that seem to have solidified my position in her heart.

Together, the two of us can really rock out a Tree Pose.

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