Six years in the making, and I finally understand what an aunt can be in a child’s life. Or, at least, in the lives of the children who call me auntie or some such garbled variation. And there are many such children.
I have two nephews, one niece, and three dear friends’ babies who I claim a little bit as my own flesh and blood, too, because each of those friends are like sisters to me anyway, and I am quite certain I will watch their little boys and girls get bigger, get baptized, blow out candles, run across the beach, and then graduate, and then grow up altogether. Just as we once did.
As each of these sweet souls came into my life, so did these odd feelings of excitement, worry, fear, hope, sadness, and supreme happiness. The combination of these emotions was, I assure you, confusing enough. Factor in trying to interact with new mothers and fathers who are suffering sleep deprivation, hormonal upheaval, roller coaster highs and rock-bottom lows and, well. It’s no wonder it took me six years to adjust and to appreciate, finally, the incredible role I have to play in these young lives.
This past weekend, my eldest sister came all the way from Pennsylvania to visit, carrying in tow her husband and her two sons, ages six and almost-four. These boys—they were my introduction to children; I was just 25 when the first arrived. I got the call when I was at happy hour in Washington, DC, and I’ll never forget running outside, onto K Street, into a warm, humid May evening so I could hear my father yell the news of Jack’s birth from the hospital waiting room, and then heading back inside to order another round. I drove home two days later to hold Jack for the first time. Less than three years passed before I made the same drive north to hold his brother, Sam, just three days old. They have grown into sweet, tender children: sensitive, warm, curious, brave, funny, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and achingly sincere.
Grace, newly obsessed with her cousins, spent the Memorial Day weekend tottering after them, calling their names in an ecstatic squeal.
I spent the weekend observing them all. And thinking about this special place I inhabit in their lives.
I thought about how I want my nephews to remember the days when they asked me to draw “tracks” in the sand, when they shrieked in delight at six-inch high waves and begged me to hold their hands as they braved them, when they knew only snack time and bed time and everything in between was play time, when they lived like kings of the long, late, sun-dappled afternoons, wooden swords safely in hand. I want them to remember how they tucked tight in my lap, how they sat with their legs splayed, how badly they wanted to be big and how badly we wanted them to stay small. I want them to remember rolling in the backyard grass, climbing the sea-sprayed rocks of Prescott Beach, throwing pebbles across the low, shallow tide alongside Fort Sewall, and asking all the while if I was watching, listening, did I want to come play, too?
I want them to remember; but I know it is I who will keep this chronicle for them, as a dutiful aunt will do.
I want my niece to remember when she called me “da da” and pinched the back of my arm and clung to the drape of my shirt as I carried her home. I want her to remember when we chased the sun across the sand in the mid-morning hours of high tide. I want her to remember making coffee, dancing in the car, pointing out cars and trees and boats and signs. I want her to remember me and her this young, living together, awaking to and parting with each day under the same roof.
I want us all to remember the sounds of the full, busy house: endless showers, slamming doors, laundry ever-churning, scuffed carpets, a scared cat scrambling around underfoot, sprinklers spraying on, the clap of the grill lid closing, the slap against a mosquito, the clank of ice collapsing in yet another half-drunk wine spritzer, children netting fireflies and the last light of day, while we sisters sit and marvel and love and wonder: did we live like this once, too?
I think I remember us then, in our Stoneyway childhood.
On weekends such as this, my sisters lives, full of children and households and husbands, flutter up and around me, like a swarm of graying dandelion ends: hopeful and old and afloat on the breeze, uncertain of exact direction but buoyed by the promise of arrival, somewhere, sometime, in some other day’s twilight.
It has always been this way: me chasing them, fascinated by their dance across the days, oh so curious to see where we’re headed. I want so desperately to know my place—and our conclusion. Maybe that is the struggle I will wrestle all my life.
Maybe that is the role of the aunt, too. Playing along but not necessarily leading the way.
I recognize the wonder and beauty and amazement of a weekend such as this: sisters, children, fathers, beach mornings, napped afternoons, slow walks to town, sun-reddened skin, strawberry-stained mouths, and a thirst for summer, now, bright, blazing, bring it on with the surf and sand and ocean spray.
I see the fragile innocence of family.
These are precious, young years. This is time to savor.
As an aunt, I understand this. Because I am witnessing these children in ways even their parents can’t: I see their perfection (and their flaws) through a loving and devoted but distanced lens. I can nurture and scold and teach and play—but the time is finite. Every last minute counts, because at day’s end, that child isn’t mine. I give him or her over. But, I do so knowing I have loved every last inch of that little boy or girl, eyebrows to toes. What else, as an auntie, am I to do?
In some quiet moments, though, when the children need tended and I, the childless one, am left to enjoy my drink or my book alone, I catch myself wondering when, or if, I will be the mother someday, instead of the aunt. Sometimes, pangs of sadness push me nearly to the brink of tears, because I fear that “when” won’t come. Other times, I almost laugh at the absurdity of such a fear. If I am meant to do anything in this life of mine, it is to love and raise a child. Of that, I am sure.
And, until then, being the auntie who can buy frivolously expensive clothing and sticker books and bags of Starbursts, who can show a little more leniency than the disciplinarian parents, who is silly and child-like, too, who can’t seem to tire of knock-knock jokes, or stories about school, or playing Legos, or making the grass and sky and trees any color I please across dozens of coloring book pages, who loves earnestly, who is so proud, who will remember all the early years—yes, being that auntie is just fine with me.
Someday, I will tell them all about who they were then. I will tell them their stories.
I will say to Grace how, one Saturday evening, as her mother and I carried her off the beach and began heading home, the sun warming our shoulders and the boys calling our names as they ran to catch up to us, as she whimpered, sad to see the day’s end, her mother whispered, into the pink ear of her daughter, “It’s alright, sweetheart. We get to do this all over again tomorrow.”
They were precious, young years indeed.