My earliest years were spent in southern California, which means that I have a deep love for those tiny yellow cone flowers, which I just learned are called pineapple weed or wild chamomile. My family has always eaten fish tacos with cabbage and lime.
And I tended, as a child, to call my parents’ friends by their first names. I’m not actually sure that I can blame the last one on California, but it seems like when I moved to Wisconsin at age 6, suddenly everyone was introduced as Mr. or Mrs. Whoever. At the time it just seemed like part of growing up, part of going to grade school and having piano teachers and formal relationships. But it also seemed like I left behind a gentle and intimate part of my childhood in California where everyone was on a first-name basis.
I suppose, growing up, people would occasionally would call me “Miss Rogers,” but it always seemed about as serious as being knighted “Ladye Amy” at the Renaissance Fair. I still remember my first day as a nanny being asked if I would like to be called Mrs. Hays. Dear me, no, I did not. Their last nanny had really wanted to just be “Nanny,” which had seemed a little too Edwardian British for them. How about just Amy, I suggested? No they wanted to instill a bit of manners and respect in their toddler. We compromised on Miss Amy. But as toddlers are wont to do, Corin solved the problem for us. A month or so later he attempted “Miss Amy” and it came out “Meme.” I rejoiced and from then on only referred to myself as “Meme” to him.
It’s not just the laid-back California girl in me; there is something about names that define a relationship. And my sweet relationship with Corin was unique and special, just like his name for me. And within the year of starting to nanny him, we were asked to be his godparents. My goddaughter, Teresa, on the other hand always called me Auntie Amy from the time she could form the words. I love that too. Even before I got to be an Aunt by blood, I got to be an Aunt through baptism.
When I was christened Auntie Amy first by Teresa and then by my niece Anika, it was the first time that I slipped into a name that I had only ever had for the generation older than myself. I got to take on being an Aunt, becoming a little more like my own three beloved aunts — Aunt Laurie, Aunt Emma, and Aunt Karen — who flitted in and out of my childhood with grace and love, occasional corrections and advice. Respect and manners and intimacy and love are all wrapped up in one name. I love that for the first year of her life, I got to help take care of Anika most days, getting to watch the moment she learned to crawl at Christmas or take her first steps that spring. It was a beautiful foreshadowing of what it feels like to put on the name Mama.
When I think about getting to be an aunt I think of Aunt Beast from Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The naming of Aunt Beast is one of my favorite scenes. It takes place after Meg is nursed back to health by one of the planet Ixchel’s kind, but strange mind-reading inhabitants:
“What should I call you please?” Meg asked.
“Well. Now. First try not to say any words for just a moment. Think within your own mind. Think of all the things you call people, different kinds of people.”
While Meg thought the beast murmured to her gently. No mother is a special, a one-name; and a father you have here. Not just friend, nor teacher, nor brother nor sister. What is acquaintance? What a funny, hard word. Aunt. Maybe. Yes, perhaps that will do. And you think of such odd words about me. Thing, and monster! Monster, what a horrid sort of word. I really do not think I am a monster. Beast. That will do Aunt Beast.”
“Aunt Beast,” Meg murmured sleepily, and laughed.
“Have I said something funny?” Aunt Beast asked in surprise. “Isn’t Aunt Beast all right?”
“Aunt Beast is lovely,” Meg said. “Please sing to me Aunt Beast.”
From A Wrinkle in Time p. 184
I love that idea that “No mother is a special, a one-name” but Aunt is by contrast a name for many people to inhabit. Aunt Beast might be the only official “aunt” in the book, but Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which are also very aunt-like, well perhaps great-aunt like since they are pretty old and venerable angels. (The youngest is “2,379,152,497 years, 8 months, and 3 days old. That is according to your calendar, of course, which even you know isn’t very accurate.”) Ancient Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which have that quality of relationship with Meg that is part mentor, friend, and protector.
Introducing tiny Jackson this summer to so many of our cousins, former roommates, church people, and closest friends, we found ourselves easily christening our friends as aunt and uncle — Auntie Julie, Aunt Diana, Tia Jeannete, Oom Justin, Uncle Luke.
While I had always just referred to my Southern California godmother as simply Heidi, I wanted our friends Brittany and Daniel to pick a name that meant the most to them as Jackson’s godparents. They chose Aunt B and Uncle Daniel, what their nieces and nephews called them. It was just another beautiful way in which we get to be family with them.
For the first ten years of my life, my family seemed static: I had no memories of cousins being born, or aunts getting married, or grandparents dying. The casting of my family seemed complete. But of course family, especially extended family, is always changing. Over the next ten years, my family changed quite a bit too. Most of the time it was expanding — an aunt married or a cousin born — but of course it contracted too, through death or divorce. Then in my twenties, my family doubled, as I gained Evan’s family: nine more cousins, three more grandparents, and four more sets of aunt and uncles.
And now in my thirties, as cousins have babies, and we have friends who have been around for more than a decade and seem as close as siblings, the boundaries of my extended family have become even more porous. I love that the terms aunt and uncle can reflect that expansion.
This summer it was so beautiful to watch all the aunties holding Jackson: My Aunt Karen in California, or Evan’s Aunt Sue in Maryland, taking Jackson in well-practiced arms while telling stories of when our cousins were babies and then getting to see those same cousins now all grown up. Sure it’s helpful to know for some genealogical purpose that my cousin is Jackson’s first-cousin-once-removed (and that children of my cousins are his second-cousins) but in English “first-cousin-once-removed” seems to lack a certain warmth that a wide-eyed baby and a grown-up baby cousin have in meeting.
Of course, Jackson’s actual two aunts hold a special place in his life. Aunt Candace got to see Jackson before I did, helping to usher Jackson into the world at his birth as our doula. And I’ll always remember the tenderness in Aunt Colleen, Evan’s sister, meeting Jackson this summer; it was one of the happiest I’ve ever seen my sister-in-law.
Perhaps because I don’t have sisters of my own, I find such comfort in surrounding Jackson with aunties. My best friends, from high school and college and DC, get to be Jackson’s aunties, because in a way it reflects how they are my sisters in this motherhood gig.
One of the great joys of my life has been having my best friend from high school, Kelli, become a mother of baby Frank only three months before me. We call and comfort each other, talking about sleep deprivation and nursing and poop in great detail that would, I’m sure, bore almost anyone else.
In the weeks after Jackson was born, the aunts, by blood, by marriage, and by friendship, flooded our mailbox with outfits. Great Aunt Dottie sent a warm bunting. Great Aunt Sue knit a hat. Great Aunt Karen sent a zip-up fleece. Auntie Heidi sent a onesie with a fox on it. Aunt Kelli sent a Mysterio Tee. Separated by a thousand miles, these women sent their love in ways to keep Jackson wrapped up and warm through his first Wisconsin winter.
We held off creating a nursery so we could host our friends and family who came to help Jackson, keeping our second bedroom as a guest room to welcome all the aunties who came to walk sleeping babies. And then in the spring and summer, those same women opened their homes as we went to California and DC and Maryland to introduce Jackson to his families on the coasts.
Then when it seemed like Jackson might not sleep forever in his co-sleeper, we moved our guest room down stairs, and hosted my three roommates for a summer reunion, Tia Jeannete and Liz and Heidi — all who have yet to have nephews of their own, but who prayed over and laughed with and bounced Jackson as if they had been aunts all their lives.
Our friends may live far away, but we invite them into our lives to stay, giving them a comfortable bed in our small house, call them auntie, and treat them like family.
And I hope that our great aunts and cousins and sisters-in-law know that we feel so blessed, that we treasure their friendship, their genuine interest in our lives and hearts, and most of all their love for our precious little boy.
Did you grow up with honorary aunt and uncles? How do you bring your friends into your family?
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