The Nature of Being an Aunt

As a child, I didn’t think deeply about my aunts and uncles. They were a kindly presence at family gatherings, people who smiled at me, asked me about school, sent birthday cards, and gave me first communion and graduation gifts.

I recently saw my 10-year-old grand nephew. If pressed, he might recall that we had fun exploring a nearby creek and that I gave him Halloween candy, but I wouldn’t expect him to know more about me than that. I didn’t know much about my aunts and uncles when I was 10 years old either.

When I was a child, all I knew about Aunt Corinne was that she didn’t have children of her own, but she was fond of her nieces and nephews. She and Uncle Bob always gave us treats when we visited—cookies or candy from the stock Uncle Bob used in his vending machine business.

When I became a mother, I suddenly got it—I saw how much my brothers and sister cared about my children and in turn how much I cared about theirs. The connections between us are strong.

Aunts and uncles are part of a whole circle of people standing behind a child. We’re interested our nieces and nephews’ activities. We know this one is a sprinter, that one is good at hockey, another one loves theater. We’re concerned about their problems—this one got laid off or that one is going through a breakup. We’re pleased about their accomplishments—this one won a prize at school and that one is getting promoted at work.

When things are going well, we’re more in the background, but if something happened to one of our siblings, we’d come forward to help out.

Aunt CorinneI gained new appreciation for my aunts and uncles, especially Aunt Corinne, who would have been 90 on her birthday a few weeks ago. As an adult, I understood more about her life. She had systems for running her household and was meticulous about details. For example, her address book was always up to date and she kept her coupons in an organizer. She worked full-time as an office manager. I can imagine her as an organized and competent worker. She was also a sympathetic listener and seems like the sort of person who would have brought baked treats for her coworkers.

I’m glad I got to know her well enough to discover what we had in common—she liked NPR and cared about politics. She was funloving and always willing to go out to lunch, to a show, or to travel. She was as particular about coffee as I am. If it’s warmed over, we would rather skip it. Only when I was middle-aged, was I able to talk to her woman to woman. Then I could ask about her health or we could share insights and concerns about family members.

Because I live hours away from my nieces and nephews and don’t see them often, they don’t know me very well. They would probably be surprised at how much I know about them. But I’m observant. And your parents talk about you! My nieces and nephews may never know how much love and support their aunts and uncles have invested in them, but being a secret supporter is a pleasure. If our relationships deepen as we get older, that will be a gift, too.

Who knows? Maybe twenty years from now at some family gathering, my grand nephew and I will discuss politics or the books we’re reading!

A Cautionary Tale: How does a beloved friend and aunt fall off the face of the earth?

My Aunt Corinne was someone who stayed in touch with dozens of people. She had 18 nieces and nephews and a similar number of grand nieces and nephews. She had three lifelong friends and approximately 10 good buddies from the various groups she participated in. She sent birthday, holiday, and thank you cards to all of them. Her photo albums were filled with meticulous notes—names, dates, and locations. She was serious about keeping up with people.

Aunt CorinneYet when my siblings and I were planning her funeral, we were thwarted in our efforts to notify her friends and in-laws. We didn’t have her address book, and we didn’t know the last names of some of the key people in her life. Uncle Bob, her husband, had been dead for 15 years. We’d never met his relatives.

The breakdown in communication occurred over the course of several years.

Her address book got lost when she moved from her assisted living apartment into a nursing home. My siblings and I didn’t know it was gone or even think to ask about it. We assumed she kept in touch with the people who mattered to her.

The problem was compounded when the apartment management couldn’t or wouldn’t tell Aunt Corinne’s in-laws and the nieces and nephews from that side of the family what nursing home she had gone to.

Aunt Corinne lost the drive to manage the details of her life.

She was still lucid, but her world had shrunk to a bed in the room she shared with another nursing home resident. She simply didn’t have the emotional energy and mental focus to reach out to family and friends or to ask us to do it for her. We wondered why she didn’t have more visitors and why more of her many nieces and nephews didn’t get involved with her care. But we didn’t want to be judgmental or make her feel bad by asking, so we shrugged off our questions.

Someone at the church Aunt Corinne attended heard about her death and told her circle of friends, so half a dozen of them came. Eventually we tracked down the names of Aunt Corinne’s in-laws and they spread the word. A few more friends and former coworkers read about her funeral in the newspaper. We were relieved that nearly 30 people were on hand to remember this special lady who always made a point of remembering them.

Losing touch is easier (and therefore, more troubling) than I ever thought possible.

When I consider the many ways I stay in contact with friends and family members—phone calls, texting, emailing, social media, Skype, snail mail—it seems astonishing that anyone could drop off the radar. Most people associate accidentally losing contact and being unable to find friends and family as the sort of dilemma that could only happen to refugees who are separated because of war or a natural disaster. But Aunt Corinne lost many of her connections because of a series of small mishaps and unasked questions.

Well-intentioned people lose touch even when they’re trying. It isn’t that hard.

“Does Antonio Have A Dad?”

Antonio and Crystel - seven months old

Antonio and Crystel – seven months old

“Does Antonio have a dad?” the five-year old boy holding Antonio’s hand asked me. I glanced down at him, and then looked at my son. He eyed me as if he was waiting for an answer, too.

I imagined Antonio’s friend asking him on the return bus to school from the spring field trip to the apple orchard. Maybe he asked him during the hay ride, while we bounced over ruts and down the dusty lane that left a cloud in our wake.

Aunt Amie and Antonio

Aunt Amie and Antonio

Perhaps he knew better than the other children that the two women in the family picture taped to the kindergarten wall were not the same woman but two moms. Earlier, I had one child in his classroom attempt to convince me that I was the same person.

“It’s not me,” I said. “That other woman is a different person.”

But how do you argue with a five-year old who isn’t your own child and can’t conceive of anything but a mom and a dad in a household?

 

Aunt Kathy, Crystel, Aunt Pat, Antonio, Uncle Marty

Aunt Kathy, Crystel, Aunt Pat, Antonio, Uncle Marty

I think he won the argument.

I imagined Antonio shrugging his small shoulders in response to his friend’s question. Did he look away from his pal and stare at the dust hanging in the air or at the apples ready to be picked?

I hope not.

Maybe the boy took it upon himself and said to Antonio, “I’ll find out for you.”

Aunt Cara and Antonio

Aunt Cara and Antonio

While I was forming my answer, I thought about his classmate who sat next to me on the way home. His mom was dead, he said. After saying that I was sorry, I wondered about the children who called Antonio their friend. Maybe it was because of his very difference — being adopted and having two moms — that they thought that they too would be accepted.

 

Tia Anna, Antonio, Tio Scott

Tia Anna, Antonio, Tio Scott

The two kindergarteners expected an answer from me. This was a yes or no question.

Yet, how to answer? Though Antonio will most likely never meet his dad, does that mean that he doesn’t have a dad? Does that mean we will never celebrate Father’s Day?

 

Aunt Pat, Antonio, Aunt Mary, Crystel

Aunt Pat, Antonio, Aunt Mary, Crystel

Jody and I had prepared for this very moment — this question — and created a village of chosen aunts and uncles who would stand in for the missing people in Antonio’s and Crystel’s life. This village was formed before they even came home.

So I said what any mom would, “Of course, silly. Everyone HAS a Mom and a Dad. You HAVE to have a mom and dad to be born.”

Uncle Marty

Uncle Marty

I poked Antonio. “He feels real to me.”

Antonio smiled. That was good enough for him.

These chosen aunts and uncles have accepted their roles seriously. That was part of the deal — to have play dates with the children regularly, as well as show up for birthdays, dances, pinewood derbies, and holidays.

We’ve never asked them to fill the ‘dad’s’ role. Though when Antonio was much younger, I woke one night in a panic, and at the first opportunity I asked Scott and Marty to take Antonio into public bathrooms to show him what a urinal was and to tell him NOT to touch the urinal cake.

Crystel, Sam (babysitter), Antonio, Charlie (babysitter)
Crystel, Sam (babysitter), Antonio, Charlie (babysitter)

I have asked Antonio on occasion if he would like me to ask one of his uncles to accompany him on a Scout trip (and take my place) but he’s always declined. Darn.

Even after the babies came home, Jody and I continued to intentionally bring males into their life. Charlie and then his brother Sam were their fulltime nannies until each boy graduated from highschool.

Charlie, Antonio, Crystel

Charlie, Antonio, Crystel

I believe that all of the above people have brought so much love into Antonio and Crystel’s lives that they may really need to search for what’s missing when asked the question, Do you have a dad?