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Aunt with Niephews

“You’re a good aunt,” Carla said, “I’m not sure I’m even invited to graduations.” My friend was commenting on the number of family graduations I attended this past spring. One niece graduated from college, another from high school and a goddaughter marched out of eighth grade.

“Oh, I’m not sure I’m always invited. I just ask for the date and show up.” I responded. “I consider it part of my auntly duties and privileges.”

Jane Austen wrote, in a letter to her 10-year old niece, Caroline: “Now that you have become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great interest whatever you do. I have always maintained the importance of aunts as much as possible…”

Unlike Aunt Jane, I place the importance of the aunt-niephew  (my collective noun for nieces and nephews) relationship on the niephew. He or she is important, not me.  I am not a person of consequence simply by being an aunt. However, I am guilty of trying to “excite great interest” at all times.

I’ve been an aunt forever.  I am the fourth out of five children and therefore acquired niephews quite easily and early in life.  I was aunted for the first time at age 10. Today I have 23 niephews (including great and great-great) and several other young people whom I consider honorary niephews, as well as multiple godchildren. I certainly don’t have the same relationship with each of them, but their presence does inform my identity as Aunt Julie.

From my perspective an aunt is always there for you. She is an open door for when you want to talk, be heard and be engaged. She is a confidante and a friend who gives it to you straight in a safe environment.  An aunt is part of the conversation around the table, listening and inserting her views on topics she thinks people should be talking about.

One of the benefits of aunting is collecting auntidotes. An auntidote is part antidote, part anecdote and wholly my take on my experiences while aunting.  It is informed by what I believe defines “aunting”: humor, honesty, empathy, impartiality, nuance and a little rule bending. An auntidote may offer observations, advice, encouragement and/or insight on all the things that encourage, impede, confound and catapult us through the world.

Here’s one from last year’s beach vacation with my brother’s family, offered in honor of Savvy Auntie’s Day, which was yesterday – July 22nd. This post was held up due to a full weekend of aunting with a young nephew. I never knew that hermit crab races could be so interesting or a dying mole so distressing.

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The silence in the car is louder than the a million vuvuzuela’s at a South African soccer match.  It challenges me to keep quiet when my impulse is to fill the void with observations: “Look at that sky.”  Ask a question: “So, do you have a crush on anyone?” Or, read a sign on the side of the road, just like my Dad, “Stomach issues, Come to Indiana’s Stomach Specialists” But I don’t. I hold my tongue and find I’m also holding my breath. So then I just breathe in the quiet and out the tension.

I’m not sure if my 17-year-old niece feels the tension. She exudes a certain teenage tension now. Angst of being on a family vacation without a sister or friend to pal around with. I’ve dragged her along on an outing – a made up outing actually – with me, just to get her out of the house while the rest of the family – her younger brothers, mother, and father go on a boat ride. She hates boats, she says. I share her lack of enthusiasm.

She was always game for a ride with Aunt Julie when she was 8, 9, 10, even 12 years old.  She jumped at the chance to ride up front – something she rarely got to do with two older siblings claiming dibs on the shotgun seat. She would play with my phone and make up riddles or rhymes.

But today, this teenage niece controls any display of playfulness or interest in conversation. Today, this teenage niece has her own phone on which she sends and receives text messages, breaking the silence in the car with a click, click, click, and click.  So I listen to the clicks and I observe, silently: “What a beautiful sky,” I remark, silently, on the billboards: “Thank goodness I don’t have stomach issues,” and, I resist asking, “Who are you texting, is it a boy?”  I can wait until she’s ready to talk again. Being together is good enough for right now.

 

 

 

It’s at close to Leave It To Beaver as I/we get. My brother’s family visits my lake cottage every July 4th. He and his wife bring anywhere from three to five of their children and assorted playmates for a week’s worth of beach time bonding and blueberry pancake breakfasts. Friends from the city weave in an out of the activities adding another three to five to seven more people at the dinner table. Scattegories (a game where answers to categories have to begin with the same letter) teams challenge each other post-dinner for the most ridiculous answer. This year’s winners were all generated when we had to come up with answers that started with the letter “O”.
• Something found on a hike: Onions
• Items in a salad bar: Oysters
• Things at school: Obnoxious children.

My brother and my 10 and 12-year old nephews caught 14 Coho salmon from Lake Michigan this year. I threatened them with pizza for dinner if they weren’t successful – guess it worked. Husband grilled perfect salmon filets for four nights running with no complaints. It’s hard to believe that I rejected salmon the first time I ate it. But a salmon patty made from canned sock-eyed salmon is about as different from fresh caught lake salmon as a cocoa bean is from a chocolate truffle.

These lake vacations do and do not resemble the lake vacations my family took when we were children. We stayed in rented cottages where Mom had to pack sheets and towels for the week. Dad wore socks with his Bermudas shorts and Mom tried to stay out of the sun. The fish we caught were either returned to their lake home or begrudgingly eaten by all of us. Air conditioning was something we left behind.

Instead of Scattegories we put together puzzles (minus one or two missing pieces) over the course of the week, played endless rounds of Gin Rummy or Rummy 500, read books, and bathed in the lake after sweeping the beach of dead alewives.

I treasure this week with my brother, sister-in-law, cousins and niephews (my collective noun for nieces and nephews) because I feel I’m part of a happy family sitcom snapshot of Middle America – the laughing and fun part. And I’m exhausted by this week because I am not a mother or keeper of a large household outside of this week and I feel as if I’m part of a dysfunctional family sitcom snapshot of Middle America.

I don’t normally push two shopping carts through Costco for a week’s worth of provisions, and still need to go to the grocery store. It’s rare for me to run the washing machine every day or go through all my dishtowels in one meal. Cleaning the floors on my hands and knees? Unheard of unless the brownies/ice cream/syrup dessert mixes with the spilled lemonade. I do sweep on a regular basis. So it’s different for me to just stop and give in to an acceptable level of sand in the house. My hair hasn’t seen a blow dryer, or my eyelashes a mascara wand in seven days. I’m afraid no one noticed.

Over the July Fourth week I get as close to June Cleaver (without Wally and The Beaver to call me Mom or pearls around my neck) as I ever will. Making my house a place to gather and do and laugh and sometimes even learn something.

“Dark chocolate,” I announced as the answer my teammate and I had come up with for items found in a desert that being with a “D.” Guffaws, belly laughs, incredulous looks from the kids in the room.

“The category is desert not dessert,” my brother said.
“Oh no,” my teammate and I convulsed into laughter. “How did we read that wrong?”
“Because you didn’t have my fourth grade teacher,” my 18 year-old niece said, “She told us to remember that there are two S’s in dessert because you always want more.”

And just like in a modern day sitcom, it is the child who teaches the adult a thing or two.

Cousins-on-the-Lake

Cousins-On-The Lake, my lakeside cottage, sits silent this morning save the sound of various workmen knocking loudly on the front door because the doorbell is broken (and bats have invaded the basement.) Last night’s giggles from two young nephews wrestling on a sugar high from confetti cake have long evaporated. Those boys, their father and sister are now golfing in the morning heat while I sit with their mother in the kitchen ready for lunch.

The annual Fourth of July week festivities started in earnest last Friday. So far we’ve boated, water-skied, paddled-boarded, swam, boogie boarded and set off last year’s left over sparklers.  Blueberry pancakes (more blueberry than batter), grilled chicken, burgers, and ribs. Sweet corn and watermelon. The fishing charter takes off tomorrow at 6:30 AM and I hope it returns with dinner or we’re ordering pizza!

Feels like an episode of a sitcom. What will upset this tranquil scene?

No Guts. No Glory.

The graduation season starts this weekend for me. One niece from college, another from high school and a goddaughter from 8th grade all enjoy a little pomp and circumstance this year. I hope to enjoy a good inspirational speech laced with a bit of humor. I won’t hold my breath. In my experience, commencement addresses rarely rise above platitudes or offer a thought that will be remembered at any reunion.

Last year, at another niece’s graduation, one of the three speakers (one or two would have been sufficient) spent his allotted time emphasizing that if history repeats itself things will get better, but not any time soon. This Civil War historian told the student audience that they would probably not get a job right away and if they did it probably wouldn’t pay what they wanted or be in their preferred field. But don’t worry. If he/his parents survived the Great Depression, they will survive the Great Recession.

I applaud him for not offering any platitudes and for delivering such a depressing speech that I still remember it one year later. I don’t remember anything from the three higher education commencement ceremonies in which I marched the long aisle to receive a diploma. (Yes, three. I had a course correction on the way to my eventual career.) Not one of them included an innovative businessman (Steve Jobs, Stanford 2005), statesman (John F. Kennedy, American University 1963) or comedic pundit (Steven Colbert, (Northwestern University 2011) of whom I would have at least remembered the name if not the words. (For a list of great commencement speeches see: Time Magazine 10 Best Commencement Speeches www.time.com/time/specials/packages/completelist/0,29569,1898670,00.html)

The only words I recall from my last degree are “Not Guts. No Glory.” That phrase became my motto in business school. It’s what I repeated to myself as I prepared to take my seat in the cubicle farm wearing a floppy bow tie and pinstripe suit. In the mid-1980s I was part of the surge in women infiltrating the male business world. I needed guts and a whole lot more to succeed.

I didn’t have a motto until I was asked by my university to talk to a local news anchor doing a segment on businesswomen. Hard to imagine that just being a woman in business school was news. I guess the public wanted to know how were we different from our male counterparts? What did we want out of a career? Did we have a business philosophy?”

I looked for a sound bite so I would make the evening news and found it in a Sandra Boynton Recycled Greetings card where an adorable little pig dared a large hippo, standing on top of a ladder, to jump into a teeny bucket of water, or something like that.

“My philosophy is no guts, no glory,” I told the seasoned anchorwoman. I am not proud that I used a greeting card greeting as my anthem. I’m not so proud that I spent time trying to figure out how to game the interview. I am pleased that I made the news – that was fun. And now that I know history repeats itself I’m pulling my platitude-like motto out of the mothballs to prepare me for the challenges ahead and to offer it to any new grad who wants it.

 

 

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