Well it’s that time of year again, when we’ve got to shell out the cold, hard cash or the slick, shiny plastics to celebrate yet another Valentine’s Day. Maybe it’s the candy heart this year, or the flowers, or maybe an elegant dinner for two at Brunetti’s or at the good old Chew Chew Cafe.

But what do you do, when your valentine is pining away for you, in a distant land? And you are missing her, equally?

I am not speaking about any grown woman here but, rather, my little niece, Julia Travis, who has developed a strong attachment to me. And I, over the course of her seven-and-a-half-year life, have become much attached to her.

Readers of this column will remember that I mentioned that she left Brookfield for Lake Carroll on Aug. 19, 2004, from the Travis family home at 3729 Morton Avenue. I have known and loved this child from the very day of her birth, July 23, 1997. It was on that very day that she was shown to me. She was red, as many newborn babies are, and her left hand was curled up into a fist, as if to show that she was ready to take on the world. Who couldn’t help liking a kid like that?

I was proud and pleased to be asked to be that baby’s godfather, and determined to do all I could to teach her to grow up to be a fine and intelligent person.

Every Sunday, nearly without fail, I’d make the “long” two-block trek to the Travis house to talk with my sister, Beth, and also to my mother and father on the phone. It had become something of a tradition.

In Julia’s early years, Beth also appointed me as baby sitter when I came over. I’d feed Julia, play hide ‘n’ seek with her, teach her some songs, and act as a companion while her mother caught up on house chores; that sort of thing.

After an hour or so of this, Julia would grow tired, and I’d lie back on the rug. The she’d come over to me and slap me a few times on the stomach while I made funny noises. Finally she’d crawl up onto my stomach, and lay face down. That was the signal for me to, as my sister said, “work my magic.”

It really wasn’t so mysterious or anything like that. I’d gently put my arms across her back so she didn’t fall off, then I’d hum slow soft songs, like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” although sometimes Beatles tunes worked, too.

All of that, combined with the warmth of my body, put her to sleep. Then carefully I’d raise her little head to my shoulder, and carry her up to her crib, still humming all the while. I almost never had any trouble getting her to sleep, which always seemed to amaze my sister.

After a few years of this, Julia would fall asleep sitting on the couch, and I’d still take her up to bed. That was my job, along with feeding her, and I was glad to do it. Both me and my sister read to her at an early age and taught her phonics.

I was always there for her, not only on Sunday nights, but also on holidays and birthdays. I became something more than just a relative that visited. I was a kindly teacher, a storyteller, a magician and a friend—-a “best friend” as she still calls me. Maybe I’ve been a little like a brother, too. If she needed me, I was there for her.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. We were, and still are, a two-person mutual admiration society. Both last Thanksgiving and Christmas I made the trek to Lake Carroll, in northwestern Illinois, and spent two separate weeks with them. You should’ve seen the smile on Julia’s face when I arrived. And it would have tugged at your heartstrings to see her crying at my departures, saying “I’ll miss you” and “I don’t want you to go!”

Now we talk on the phone each weekend. I have been many imaginary characters to her, and right now I am Aladdin and she is Princess Jasmine. (She is into a Disney Princess phase.) Oh, sometimes I get to be the Genie, acting up.

On Valentine’s Day, 2003, she gave me a ceramic photo holder with her picture n it. The legend on it said “Be Mine.” Last year’s Valentine’s day, I gave her a tiny pink book. I put my picture inside of one cover, and one of hers next to it, on the other side. She still loves it.

This Valentines Day I won’t be with her in person, but I’ll call her, certainly. And I know that, even across the miles, I’ll still be her favorite uncle, her best friend and her handsome prince–well, at least until some boy in her class really captures her heart. But even when that happens, I know that she will forever be my favorite niece.

Now I have to find something valentiney to send her. I wish it could be me.