Being an aunt is not something you think about or dream about as a kid. I certainly didn’t, though I wonder why not? My aunts, my mom’s two sisters and her cousin, were an integral part of my childhood. We are still pretty close. They were major members of the village that raised me.
My mom has 2 younger sisters who lived nearby when I was kid. My youngest aunt started college at the local university right around the time I was born, and stuck around until she got married and moved to South Carolina for awhile. She was the last to get married but the first of the three to get divorced. When she moved back to Michigan afterwards, we spent a lot of time together. My friends thought she was a long-lost older sister of mine. One summer evening we were walking down the street near campus holding hands and a group of college dudes yelled, “Lesbians!” at us. I was probably 11. I remember that very clearly for some reason. She moved back south after the tragic dissolution of a potential relationship with a former high school sweetheart. He had lived out west somewhere and she visited several times after they reconnected and she believed they were heading in the same direction: a marriage. He was not so sure and told her so. She came home so broken from her last visit that my mom had me stay with her (on school nights!) for awhile. After she put herself back together she packed herself up and moved to the Carolinas. She was sick of the cold. She remarried a short guy with a big heart, had 2 kids, and moved to his home state of Kentucky.
My mom’s middle sister is my godmother and was, and is, always around. She was the one who would pick us up some days after school when things weren’t going that well in my house. She had 2 sons, her oldest being the same age as my sister (they were both born in the summer of ‘89), and her younger son who for a long time was the baby of the extended family. She was the second of the three sisters to get divorced, and the first to get remarried. Her second husband had 3 of his own kids, and lived in a big old eccentric house in a rural city a half hour away. My sister and I spent a lot of summers out there, drinking Kool-Aid, jumping on the trampoline, watching hours of TV and playing various outdoor games like Capture the Flag and Sardines. We felt safe and disconnected out there in a useful way. She was the one who knew the most about the chaos at home, and the one with whom we felt most comfortable sharing how we felt, and what was actually going on. Unlike most of my mom’s family, she understood how much my dad was struggling, and that he was, at his core, a good person with a bad disease. I will always be grateful to her for making us feel less ashamed and more seen.
I feel like I should mention my mom’s cousin, who obviously wasn’t one of my aunts, but in many ways was the woman closest to my mom. The two of them were born 2 weeks apart, and have been best friends ever since. Though they grew up in different towns, they went to the same college, studied the same thing, and became nurses in the same hospital until my mom went back to school and became a midwife. She also had 3 kids, two girls and a boy, just like us. She and her boyfriend got married in college, had kids earlier than my mom, but we all grew up together. We started calling ourselves “The Sweet Six” when we were in our 20s. Despite being, genealogically, less close, the six of us all went to the same schools and spent holidays, work Christmas parties and picnics, birthday parties, and sporting events together. However, there was this distance. I have this memory of their dad being cold and wary of our dad, I think because he recognized the illness from his own family. Though we all spent a lot of time together, we lacked this intimacy. When he and my mom’s cousin got divorced - the last of my mom’s “sisters” to do so - everyone was shocked except my dad. At the time he was in a rehab facility nearby and I remember going to visit him and excitedly shared this gossip. Without missing a beat, he said, “well, that guy has always been an asshole. Everyone thought I was a bad guy because I was sick, but honestly he was the one who was a selfish prick and as far as I know doesn’t have the excuse I do.” Since that divorce, our families are much more intimate with one another; with my cousins, we are all more willing to be vulnerable with one another, and my mom and her cousin are now, in many ways, platonic life partners. “Her divorce is the best thing that happened for me,” my mom once admitted honestly.
My mom my sister, my “aunts” and me, 2013.
I have six aunts on my dad’s side of the family. Two of them lived in a nearby town when I was growing up. We never spent time with them. When my parents were married, we made obligatory appearances at their family holidays when we were in my parents’ hometown for Christmas. They smoked and drank more than my mom’s family, sharper tongues and meaner eyes. Since my parents had been together since high school, they knew my mom, knew that she came from an affluent part of town and they didn’t. I think this juvenile resentment grew into a bitterness and a blaming of my mom for all of my family’s problems, for my dad’s problems. This, of course, didn’t explain their own problems - poverty, addiction, suicide. I haven’t seen anyone from my dad’s side of the family in at least 10 years. I have dozens of cousins I haven’t seen since childhood, ones whose names I have forgotten.
Once, when we were “home” (meaning my parents’ hometown) for the 4th of July (a huge holiday in that part of the world, hosting high school class reunions and big bar nights), my brother and I were in our early 20s and reveling in our ability to be at the bars of our own accord. When my mom and aunts headed home, we mischievously stayed out, went to the bar next door where the younger folks hung out. We ordered beers and marveled at the scene. Soon, a woman approached us and asked if we were who she thought we were. She was our cousin. We hadn’t seen her in years. She pointed to the tattoo of our grandma dominating her bicep and thanked my brother and I for showing her how to be compassionate and empathetic to her own mom, my dad’s sister, who had been struggling with drug addiction. The last time we had been together, she saw how my brother and sister and I took care of our dad, fragilely sober, at the last family event. My cousin told us that seeing us love him in that way led her to practice love in a similar way with her own mother. My brother and I, drunk and astonished, merely nodded, bought her a drink and left. We stopped at a gas station, bought a pack of cigarettes in honor of our family, and smoked and walked back to my grandparents’ house, sharing incredulous remarks about the wildness of it all. The intimacy of that walk home is probably the closest I’ve ever felt to my brother.
I mention my own aunts because I bring all of this baggage into being an aunt myself, don’t I? I have role models, but I also have cautionary tales. I see myself as an aunt to all the kids in my life - awkwardly, I am one of those kooky friends of your parents who calls myself “Auntie Jeanie,” which surprises even me. We never referred to our aunts (and cousin) as Aunt Anybody. We just call them by their first names. “Auntie” was reserved for our dad’s sisters that we didn’t know very well, it implies a distance in the relationship that I suppose I am trying to reclaim in some way, though I couldn’t say why.
For lots of reasons, I don’t think I am quite the aunt that my aunts have been. Part of this is because of literal distance and part of it is because of figurative distance. My sister lives 3,000 miles away. We FaceTime and I try to visit regularly, but my nephew lives down the street from his family on the other side, so I can’t compete with that. My brother’s kids live 15 minutes away. I see them sometimes, but we still haven’t established that intimate relationship where they feel like my home is an extension of their home, especially now. I hope I’m able to build that as they get older. It is similar with my best friend, with you. “Auntie Jeanie” as a persona in a kid’s life is not limited to the ones in my family. I think when you had children and I didn’t (or haven’t yet! Or won’t! Or will! Jury is out every single day), we gave each other too much space, were too worried about each other’s feelings with this new dynamic in our friendship that we didn’t allow me to be as close as I could (and should) be.
A comforting vibe for me, via @richauntiesupreme
The pandemic has not helped this, of course, but I want to be there more for all of “my” kids. I want to go to soccer games and school performances. I love that shit. I love being around kids, I think they are some of the most interesting people on the planet. I hope as all the kids in my life get older, they want to spend more time with me, see me as an ally and a friend. I think aunts have this unique chance to be close with kids in a very different way than they are with their mothers - willing to express interests and fears, knowing that this adult in their life will listen, but also cannot dictate what they should and will do. There is magic in that, I think. Especially if I never have kids, being someone’s kooky aunt gives them a chance to see a life lived differently, hopefully shows them that it’s ok to do or not do what your parents did before you. Activist and author Rachel Cargle has this online space called Rich Auntie Supreme, which she defines as, “women who choose a journey of being childfree and indulgence in the villages around them.” Being a part of that village is so important to me, and I have so many skills that make me a valuable part of the village - despite not having my own children, I am good with children, I am knowledgable and unafraid of things like poopy diapers, car seats, skinned knees, sleepovers, or underage drinking. That is not to say that I don’t also have kooky aunt vibes - there is definitely this distance between having the ability to take care of kids and knowing what kids’ lives are like right now. I still buy stupid Christmas presents for my nieces and nephews that scream, “My knowledge of children is secondhand.”
What I am trying to say is that I want to help, that I am good help, that everyone with kids deserve more help from their communities, and I want to champion that. Let me babysit your kids! Send them to me for DC summer internships when the time comes! I want so badly to be special in someway to a kid, even if they aren’t my own. I’ve seen my own mom be adored not only by her own kids, but nieces, nephews, great-nieces and nephews, cousins. I want “Auntie Jeanie” to mean as much as “Auntie Derba,” lol. Even if I never have my own children, being some kid’s favorite grownup would mean a lot to me.
I haven’t read this book yet, but this podcast interview made me think about a lot of things
I think the argument could be made that this story is microcosm for…everything?
Not everyone likes to admit it, but this relationship has a lot to say about culture, I think
This documentary made me feel a lot better about how much TV I watched as a kid