“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.
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.