Thoughts on Aunthood

Many families are close-knit with aunts and uncles living nearby who attend every birthday party, soccer match, school play, and graduation. But I’ve always been the aunt who lived hundreds of miles away from my nieces and nephews. I wasn’t around so they haven’t known me well, but I knew more about them than they realized (after all, brothers and sisters do talk).

My side of the family 2022

I used to regret living too far away to actively participate in their lives, but lately I’ve realized getting to know each other as adults is good. I can see them for who they are now. The adult version. Minus the endless stories of their youthful foibles to trip us up. We visit in-person once or twice a year and supplement our ties with social media posts and occasional texts.

During visits, I ask about their work or whatever is most important to them. When several of my nieces became mothers, we talked about their experiences. I validated their challenges—sometimes caring for tiny people is monotonous. Breastfeeding can be hard—do what’s best for your situation. A couple of nieces have expressed their thoughts about relationships, and I’ve supported whatever approach works for them. I happened to be around when one nephew was having a bad week and he shared his feelings with me. Conversations with another nephew might cover philosophy or food. 

No doubt there are other older people in their lives—coworkers, in-laws—but as the sister or sister-in-law to their parents, I have a special perspective. I can share history and insights about their parents and other family members, rounding out what they know. I’m free to appreciate and accept them without the judgment a parent brings. Sometimes I offer different views than their parents’, but my nieces and nephews are old enough to draw their own conclusions. If nothing else, I’m an additional older person who likes and supports them.

In the moment, I think they appreciate my efforts. I don’t expect too much though, especially when I recall how little I knew my aunts and uncles when I was younger. They were kindly presences but largely peripheral, or so I thought. Now, I understand how aware aunts are, even if we remain behind the scenes.

My interactions with my nieces and nephews are brief—not much to go on—but they mean a lot to me. I always knew being an aunt was important, but I didn’t always know why. Finally, it’s this—they add to my life and I hope I add to theirs.

My husband’s side of the family 2018

One Generation Gives Way to the Next

When our sons were small, my husband and I invented our own customs for Christmas, because my parents and his lived hundreds of miles away. Making the holiday special was up to us. We missed our extended families, but we were free to do whatever appealed to us—there was no other schedule or tradition to consider.

A few years ago

We read “The Night Before Christmas,” filled stockings with candy, assembled big toys like the play kitchen, and added batteries to toy guitars and handheld games. We took a bite out of the cookies left for Santa and scribbled “Thanks!” on the notes our sons wrote (Santa has good manners). 

As our boys got older and Santa became a sweet memory instead of an actual visitor, our habits changed. The four of us began cooking elaborate meals together—three days of them. Christmas Eve Eve’s dinner would be whatever the group craved—maybe Southern BBQ or cassoulet. An Italian feast (calzones, fagotch*, and homemade pasta) became a required ritual for either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and the third meal might be something fancy like Beef Wellington. Later we welcomed our sons’ girlfriends (now wives) into the kitchen.

When they married, we understood some traditions would have to flex; after all, our daughters-in-law and their families have traditions, too. Changes have already begun. This Christmas the six of us will be together on Christmas Eve. My husband and I will miss our three-day extravaganza, but believe this is the right way forward.

If we have grandchildren, I envision more changes on the horizon. I’ve watched and learned from friends and family who have married children and grandchildren. They’ve all had to adapt and invent new approaches to holiday gatherings. My brother and sister-in-law spend either Thanksgiving or Christmas with their married child and her family, but not both. Other relatives get together after Christmas, because their child’s divorce means accommodating two separate parents and three sets of grandparents. A friend doesn’t see her children and grandchild until New Year’s Day—scheduling the group at Christmas has gotten too complicated.

My friends and family don’t relish being alone on Christmas, but they accept the situation and make the best of it. As grandparents, they are no longer the center of holiday celebrations—their adult children and grandchildren are. It’s their turn now.

I expect changes will continue for my family. As my husband and I age and grandchildren arrive, we’ll adapt again and again. Gracefully, I hope. After all, this is how life is supposed to go. One generation gives way to the next. Inherent in raising children is the assumption they’ll become independent adults, and as a parent, I will be less central. One day, they’ll be responsible for arranging (and cleaning up!) our holiday celebrations, and eventually their children will do the same for them. 

That’s as it should be.

 *The family’s phonetic spelling for a form of focaccia in which ground meat, tomato paste, fennel seed and other spices are spread on bread dough, rolled up, baked, and sliced into pinwheels.

Learning a New Language: Love

“Every household has a first language, a kind of language of the home,” says Alex Kalman in The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration and Discover Joy in the Everyday.

If that’s true, the language of the home I grew up in was chaos.

My dad worked long hours in a Honeywell factory, assembling parts for our nation’s space program.

Sometimes he came home after his 12-hour shift. Often, he went out drinking. Sometimes he got drunk. Occasionally bad things happened. Like the time a buddy who was driving plowed into the back of a parked car, sending my dad through the windshield and to the emergency room to have his scalp stitched back together.

I learned about that the next morning when my mom sent me into my parents’ bedroom to wake my dad. I was in sixth grade at the time and, nearly 60 years later, can still picture his dried blood on my parents’ white sheets and the rows of stitches that ran up my dad’s forehead and into his balding scalp.

There was also the time my dad drove his car off the road and into a house. And the many times he just didn’t come home. By then, he owned a neighborhood bar where he and his favorite customers often stayed drinking until the wee hours of the morning.

And, no surprise, there were the frequent fights his drinking caused, fights he often didn’t remember but that I still find hard to forget.

Although there’s a lot about our COVID-induced isolation that I resent, one thing I do appreciate is that it’s given me the time and space to think more deeply about the patterns of behavior I grew up with and which ones no longer serve me.

Therapy and a supportive partner are a big help. So is Dr. Gary Chapman, whose work centers on helping people learn what he refers to as the five “love languages”:

  1. Affirming with words
  2. Giving gifts
  3. Offering physical touch
  4. Performing acts of service
  5. Spending quality time together

Although I wish the language of my home would have been different when I was growing up, I’m working hard to make love its language–and mine–now.


Tomorrow I’ll join my extended family for a weekend gathering we jokingly call ShrinerFest. Because of COVID it’s been three years since my three siblings, their children, grandchildren, my sons, and all of our spouses have gathered, although I did see my siblings in person last year. In the intervening time, many important events have taken place off-stage, away from the full circle of family.

One niece announced her engagement. A nephew got engaged to a woman some of us haven’t had the opportunity to meet. Our two sons married in small COVID-style weddings. A niece and her husband welcomed their first child earlier this year. My second oldest brother and his wife had a rough year. She and their son-in-law experienced bad fractures requiring surgery and rehab. My sister-in-law also had a close family member die of cancer.

Despite the distance (we are spread across five states) we’ve all done our best to stay connected via text and calls. We’ve congratulated each other about joyful events and commiserated about the hard times. We would have preferred to visit in person, but we did what we could manage, and our connections stayed strong. 

I expect our weekend together will encompass lots of storytelling, silliness, and good food. Cousins who are scattered across the Midwest and are still getting to know each other will likely bond over fantasy football or the best way to cook a Beyond burger. No doubt we’ll talk about wedding plans and new houses. 

My two older brothers, younger sister and I will fall into familiar patterns. Although our interests, politics, and religious views aren’t always aligned, we’ll focus on what we have in common and try to avoid topics that jangle nerves! 

As always in this group of 25, there will be emotional cross-currents. Sometimes grievances might get aired quietly off to the side (Why’d she say___? I can’t believe he did that!) After all, we are still family and although there is a lot of love, there are also strong personalities. 

As we drive away I expect to be tired, but I’ll let the good moments sink in. We’ll talk over whatever changes—for better or worse—we see in the extended family. I might be shaking my head over some new development. But no matter what, I’ll be grateful we were able to be together again, fostering connections and cementing our ties.

Ink on Paper

We opened most of the Christmas cards around January twenty-eighth. That’s not a tradition or a day of any significance. I just stopped procrastinating about opening the rest of the cards and putting away the last bit of the holidays. 

As cards arrived, we always look at the envelopes and talk about connection with each individual or family. Not so much connection with our HVAC contractor, eye doctor, car service place and insurance agent. I am family ‘owner’ of holiday cards, so I own that each day I planned to open the cards after dinner and enjoy pictures or notes. We had produced a virtual card to most of our list with a video of a holiday song which kind of changed the rhythm of our traditional card handling.

I hadn’t noticed one holiday card addressed to me alone during my daily shuffle. My amazing daughter-in-law had sent me a card with a note that fed my heart. The best Christmas gift. The best. Maybe even better opened in the quiet of winter after the rush.

An unexpected Valentine postcard from a friend, an untraditional card sent to my on my birthday, certain travel postcards from friends and relatives inspired me to design a decorative wide ribbon where I could hang these treasures in my office. Some of the ribbon is in my credenza along with a bag of tiny brass clips, but the completed project remains in my mind. The treasures are in a tray along with letters from my mother-in-law and one from my father before I was married.

Kind emails and texts mean so much often because the message is unexpected. The gift of a caring personal message in ink, on paper, which is then mailed delivers a flush of happiness followed by days or weeks of remembering each word. Coming from the era of pen pals and mailed greeting cards for every special day from Valentine’s Day to Easter to Halloween and Thanksgiving, I appreciate the effort taken to shop, write, and mail. 

Though we’re all past the age of decorated shoe boxes to hold our Valentines, I hope you find happiness in sending a text, an ecard, or paper card to a person you value, or a whole lot of friends and family members who might need a smile.