On Aunts & Impending Aunthood

December 9th, 2013 § 0 comments

At a recent gallery opening a friend and I were discussing our impending entry into aunthood as both our brother’s wives are pregnant this winter, and I exclaimed half joking, “it’s a lot of pressure!” Obviously being an aunt is like being a babysitter compared to the pressures and weight of motherhood, and yet what lead me to the thought is how much I remember of my own aunts. My mom is the middle of three sisters, and while my aunts weren’t around as much as I hope to be for my already adored niece, I still have vivid memories of them reaching back as far as I can remember. Though they didn’t loom as large in my life as my grandfather or great grandmother, who together filled the void of having one grandpa and no grandmothers, my sporadic memories of them range from the silly to the profound. Anyone you remember like that, who is a permanent if inconsistent fixture throughout your life, has played a role in shaping who you are, and the idea of being the shaper rather than the shaped is a daunting one. Thinking about what my niece might remember about me made me rethink what I remember of them.

grandpas house

Childhood impressions, while often undiscerning and backward, are also the most enduring. I remember my aunts as slightly different incarnations of my mother, women whose voices sounded disturbingly similar on the telephone, and I remember their characters in the oddest of situations. My oldest aunt, who I renamed sometime during my teenage years “the racy aunt,” is the voice I remember the last time I saw my grandmother. Leading me toward the bed, she told me she was going to try to wake her up so she could say goodbye. She was a looming and orderly presence amidst a confusing situation I didn’t understand but remember as my earliest memory. I was 4-years-old when my grandmother died. I also remember my aunt as the woman who exclaimed tersely, “sometimes modesty simply isn’t possible!” on a family vacation to Grover Hot Springs when I was perhaps five or six. She was the aunt who lived far away, had a husband who used words we weren’t allowed to, a dog named Bud, and one Christmas sent us a lovely book called The Way Things Work. The title is humorously indicative of her personality in hindsight, and how nice would it be if aunts actually could send their nieces and nephews such a primer on life.

lisa

My youngest aunt, teasingly renamed “the grumpy aunt,” for all her gloomy reserve, was funny and blunt, and her open uncertainly about my brother and I only made her more of a target for our attention. I vividly remember as she answered my pesky questions one Christmas when I was about seven or eight.

“Why aren’t you married yet?”
“Because I haven’t found the right person.”
“Why don’t you have children?”
“Because I was afraid they would turn out just like you.”

She was the easiest adult to be around when I was a tween and teen, partly because she shrugged at life, rules and authority in much the same way we did. She was disaffected too but with greater humor and the gift of age and perspective. She didn’t behave the way we all thought adults should, and cultivated an air of mystery. At twelve or thirteen I had the sense that she’d been places and seen things. At my going away party, before I left for college, I remember her smoking in the front yard of a suburban housing tract much to the delight of my friends. I always coveted her knickknacks, perhaps because they told me more about her than she ever did herself. She was almost a different person in the presence of her sisters, when the similarities between my aunts and my mother dissolved into a single childish giggle. I can see them in my mind, sitting in a row on my mothers bed, laughing at things I didn’t understand. A dynamic trio, I recognized that strange bond siblings have, and remember realizing that my mother was a sister long before she was my mother.

mom and sarah

In a lot of ways, I remember my aunts by proxy, by their distance rather than by their proximity, by their absence rather than their presence. One of my childhood treasures was my grandpa’s house in Los Angeles, empty without my grandma, but so full of memory. While my brother and I claimed the toy chest, pool and surrounding fruit trees as our own, the bedrooms and trinkets in them belonged to a different generation, and my favorite room was my youngest aunt’s. The last to leave home, her room remained preserved as she left it and was full of her life, or what I imagined her life was. I wondered long and hard about the little girl who had lived there, about the grown-up, collegiate woman who had left pins and pictures of her travels. There was a little rocking chair, dusty stuffed animals, a Japanese doll just high enough on a shelf that I couldn’t reach her as a child. Like the novels on my parents bookshelf that I used to imagine reading long before I could, I wanted to know who had lived in that room and imagined stories for her.

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Thinking about the influence you might have over someone’s life can be intimidating, and never occurs to us in quite the same way with regard to our parents or siblings. You take for granted that your parents, for better or worse, have shaped your life and personality. Siblings, you just can’t imagine a life without, although perhaps that’s the gift of being the youngest: I don’t remember a world in which my brother didn’t exist and I’ve never cared to. As I’ve aged my aunts became people rather than impressions, the fragments of my ‘aunt’ memories became something more substantial, and perhaps I don’t have to worry too much about my niece. Much like my aunts she’ll remember my scattered visits west for holidays and birthdays, summer vacations and inevitable losses. If I am very lucky, she will wonder about her aunts as much as I used to wonder about mine. When I am old she’ll be a person in her own right and I’ll have become that “whacky New York aunt” who, turns out, she is a lot more alike than she ever would have thought.

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