The question is: “What makes an Aunt a real Aunt?” Since relatives happen largely by accident, being a “blood Aunt” doesn’t automatically qualify you as “real.”
It also means that “honorary Aunts,” the ones who get the title without having a genetic claim to it, are still in the running to be genuinely and absolutely “real.”
Those who have read the grown-up children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit know that it provides a test for what it is that makes someone real. That test, which has to do with time and availability and loyalty, could be applied to the matter of what makes an Aunt “real.” Now this doesn’t mean that the Aunt, to use the book’s example, has to have the fur loved off of her to become as real as the enduring skin horse. (Unless, of course, the Niece/Nephew is an avid animal rights activist. But then that’s another matter.)
What it comes down to is that the Aunt, whether she got to be one by blood, proximity or respect, isn’t real just because she has the title. Like the characters in that children’s classic, she becomes real by the painstaking process of being there.
Being there for the first teeth and the loss of them; for the first steps and the first ones taken, independently or defiantly, in a direction quite unlike what the adults would have planned for a particular Niece or Nephew. Being there when a nightmare marches too aggressively towards the world of waking. Being there when a Niece or Nephew is finding it so hard to believe that his or her parents can actually have friends. Being there as friends who actually understand his/her parents and can even explain them to their children, who are probably just standing too close to see them clearly.
Being there sometimes means being welcomed. But it can’t depend on that. Sometimes an Aunt’s “being there” is a matter of having the spear carrier role in the drama that is her Niece or Nephew’s star vehicle. She may sometimes be barely visible, but it’s still important that she be there.
World class “being there” includes sitting on hard benches at grammar school hockey games. And applauding at your tenth performance of “Our Town” as if you had never seen it before. And taking the grade school pageant about the parts of speech building a sentence as seriously as if you were the drama critic for The New York Times reviewing a new play by a Nobel Prize-winning playwright.
Sometimes the “being there” is best done passively, as when a Niece/Nephew just needs to vent and knows that he/she can count on you, later, to have as good a “forgettory” as you have a memory.
Other times the “being there” is best done actively, as when you attend a town meeting with a Niece/Nephew and show yourself unafraid to take a strong, even if unpopular, stand on an issue you both consider seriously important.
An Aunt’s “being there,” when at its best, includes listening, laughing, remembering, forgetting, sympathizing, challenging, crying. It is sometimes expected to include (not necessarily in this order): shelter, transportation, ready cash, arbitration, hostage negotiation, fashion consultancy, relationship counseling, whimsy, academic guidance, personnel and placement services.
And to the very end of her life, it means that the Aunt stands as a shield between her Niece/Nephew and his/her mortality.
A pretty impressive portrait, isn’t it? But the most impressive part of all is that it’s drawn from life. Real memories, real stories. Real women, remembered by real men and women, boys and girls. Stop the videotape of your own memory and explore the images that popped up as you read the descriptions of Aunts real and honorary. You may find the Aunts who, in your own life, became real. You may find women like some of these.
Cousin Helen was of an age to have been given the honorary title of Aunt, yet she was always known simply as Cousin Helen, which is what she was to my Father. Not the child-of-your-Aunt/Uncle kind of cousin; but cousin in one of those distant ways that people discuss and keep track of only at family reunions. Cousin Helen played the piano. She had a canary whose cage had to be covered at night so that he would know not to sing. She wore dark glasses, even inside, which was unusual when I was a child, though it might not be today. But it was all right for her to wear dark glasses because Cousin Helen was blind. And I thought she was a magician because she could feel pages that didn’t have any visible words on them and know the words to a story. She had been able to see at one time but an accident when she was a little girl had put her into a lifetime of darkness. It was obvious though, even to a child, that Cousin Helen’s darkness was all on the outside of her. On the inside, she had her own sources of light and there was enough to light up her life, her always bright and spotless home and the lives of her friends and family. Since she was an only child, that family comprised mostly cousins, like my Father, but she was anything but peripheral in their lives. My parents asked her to be the godmother of their youngest child, born as a surprising addition to the family when my Mother was 46-years old. That is how I got a singular godmother who became an honorary Aunt of the kind called “Cousin.” And whose courage and absence of self-pity qualified her as a “real” Aunt by even the most exacting standards.
Lucille was another of my Father’s cousins. But she was the immediate kind, child of his Mother’s Sister. As a contemporary of our parents, she had every reason to be called “Aunt Lucille,” but never was. She was always just Lucille. And she was always there, for all her family. Her profession was career counseling. Her genius was getting people to recognize their own talents. Asking them the right questions and then taking the time to listen. She was an only child and never married. So her contribution to her extended family was not to give it more members but to give the current members of all ages the chance to know each other better than we ever would have without Lucille. Hers was the house where we gathered for family reunions. Hers was the will that remembered each of scores of cousins with a modest bequest that gave them access to fulfilling one of their dreams. Mine financed my first trip to Ireland. Hers was the living room that had boxes of View Master slides to entertain visiting children while the adults conversed. (Proving that you don’t have to give birth to children to understand them.) In the world of her living room, children could discover a wider world. She also mediated family disagreements, firmly guiding whole families to discover that they had more in common than they had differences. Lucille is a perfect example of all the very real Aunts who are never called by the title.
Aunt Julia was another matter. She was the lady who walked down a Dublin street the day that Carmel Quinn’s Mother died, and from that moment, unceremoniously commenced to “be there” with her Nieces for good and always. Especially for “good.” The multitalented singer-actress-entertainer-storyteller could fill an evening with stories of Aunt Julia. She was apparently a decidedly “real” Aunt, especially in her roles as defender of virtue and champion of all those people whose kindness stops short of “suffering fools gladly.” “The medals” and “the hat” demonstrate those points.
Aunt Julia made it a point to give Carmel and her sisters a large selection of religious medals and then to pin them to various pieces of their clothing. Especially, and obviously not by coincidence, just before they went out on dates. If a young boy found himself overwhelmed and hands began to stray, it was sure that what he’d contact first would be a medal. Where Aunt Julia’s actual “being there” ended, “the medals” began.
But when it came to being there for people other than her Nieces, Aunt Julia had limits. “The hat” proves that point. It seems she always made it a point to have a hat near at hand to be prepared for when the doorbell would ring. When the doorbell rang, unexpectedly, she quickly placed her hat firmly on her head before answering the door. If the visitor was a known bore, she was dressed to say, “As you can see, I’m just on my way out, or I’d surely ask you to come in.” Aunt Julia is a good example of the fact that there is nothing saccharine sweet about a real Aunt’s brand of “being there.”
Great Aunt Rebecca was, unfortunately, still on the cusp of the recent legalization of marijuana when she began to be troubled with a glaucoma-like condition. When she heard her doctor comment, offhandedly, that some people felt the smoking of marijuana could alleviate her symptoms, Becca displayed one of the qualities that marks an Aunt as “real” whether or not she is related by blood. The “real” Aunt demonstrates an ability to get the best from Nieces and Nephews by simply expecting it. Prompted by her, the Niece or Nephew can do what he or she never believed possible. In the case of Great Aunt Rebecca, you could substitute “demand” for “expect” and “marijuana” for “the best.” Here is how it happened. Her great Niece was an actress, Becca reasoned, and was living in New York. So…..”How hard could it be?” Becca would never be accused of being an Aunt who got too little from her Niece by expecting too little. She picked up the phone and began to put the wheels in motion. She was not one bit shy about asking for what she needed. But she was somewhat guarded in her the language she used. In her conversations with her “worldly” great Niece, Becca was circumspect: “Just in case the authorities are listening.” As a result it took quite a while for the young actress to recognize the exact identity of the “vegetable” Becca was asking her to secure. And so began a real life chapter in what would pass for a Jimmy Breslin book. Niece began calling friends and asking how it was that one secured “vegetable.” A “nice young man” was identified and because Becca found him to be up to her standard he became her “vegetable” dealer. Before her death, Becca actually became highly opinionated on the varying quality of his continuing supply of “vegetable.” And as she did, she also became a highly aromatic illustration of how futile it is to expect either Aunts or their Nieces to fit into stereotypes of their roles. For there was the great Niece, occasionally laughing, occasionally anguishing over how to figure out whether Great Aunt Becca was perhaps enjoying ill health a little too much. And what, if anything, she should do about it. Great Aunt Becca may have started out being real in genetic terms, but it was her ability to get her Niece to exceed her wildest expectations of herself that truly mark her as an Aunt that would become “real,” whether or not she was related by blood.
Adapted from a Chapter in “Aunts : a Celebration of Those Special Women in Our Lives” by Annette Sara Cunningham, presently being updated to appear as “Aunts: the Best Supporting Actresses.”
Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears on Sunday.