Little-girl hug makes childless auntie happy

Sue & Riley 62318Being an aunt is the best. You don’t have to earn it, justify it or explain it. Yes, there are honorary aunts, and I’ve got a relative who insists on dubbing all adult cousins “aunt” and “uncle,” so the kids grow up thoroughly confused, but I’m talking about real aunts (and uncles).

I just came back from my dad’s house in California. No Wi-Fi, hence no post last week. It was a challenging trip. I was originally going to attend my niece’s party to celebrate her birthday and the adoption of her little boy. But she got sick and had to cancel. I should have canceled, too, but I had already gotten the time off, and I had told my 96-year-old father I was coming. I put Annie in doggie jail and drove almost 700 miles to San Jose. The drive felt extra long. I was sleepy and tired as I dodged trucks, RVs, and cars on I-5. When I arrived, my father was in a terrible mood, but I did my best to help him, despite temperatures nearing 100 and no air conditioning. I was alarmed at how his health had declined in the two months since I saw him last. I cooked, cleaned, gardened, and assured him I would do whatever needed doing.

Early on the second morning, I woke up sick. Stomach flu. The sites online describe it as a sudden explosion, followed by a strong desire to die. Yes. Total output, fever, chills, aches, the works—on the hottest day of the year in San Jose. I lost six pounds in two days and wasn’t much help to my dad (who wasn’t much help to me). As soon as I could drag myself out of bed, I continued trying to help him. We fixed the bathroom sink, I pulled weeds, I cleaned the refrigerator (pleasantly cold), cooked, and washed dishes. I went to Jack in the Box and bought him a milkshake.  I listened to hours of stories about the old days on the ranch, in the Pacific during World War II, and on the job as an electrician. Eventually my stomach stopped threatening to erupt, and I could stand for more than a minute.

My brother came to visit with his son William and his two-year-old granddaughter Riley. My nephew explained to his little girl that I was “Papa’s big sister.” Riley has lots of aunts, including four with names that are variations of “Susan,” but I’m Papa’s only big sister.

Any doubts about whether I should have gone to California were erased when Riley came running to me with a big smile, arms open wide for a hug. Yes, aunthood is good. She’s at the age where she’s discovering the world and is rarely still or quiet. I’m glad I’m not responsible for her 24/7. I don’t understand half of what she says. But I loved interacting with her and watching her as she explored my dad’s backyard and got soaked playing with the sprinkler on that hot afternoon. And I loved spending time with her daddy, a giant of a man I remember as a funny little boy with glasses who didn’t mind hanging out with Aunt Sue.

Aside from our Saturday with the kiddos, it was just Dad and I, two people who usually live alone. I’m alone because of the whole widow-without-kids thing, but my father has two children, two grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. He rarely sees any of them, doesn’t know when their birthdays are or what they care about. He expects nothing from them and offers nothing in return. Part of that is being a guy. Mom was the one who kept the family connections going. Part of that is the sharp-edged side of his personality that I have known all my life. Big sigh.

Dad is uncle to nine wonderful adults, along with their children and grandchildren. Again, not much connection. He talks a lot about his family history. He loved his Uncle Louie and his Uncle Walter. I don’t know what happened. I guess you make what you will of the opportunity.  I think you have to start when the nieces and nephews are young, offering your love, your time, and your interest in what interests them. The rewards can be great. And it’s way easier than being a step-parent.

I know sometimes it feels too painful to be around other people’s children. Perhaps seeing your siblings become parents just reminds you of what you’re missing. But if you’re lucky enough to be an aunt or uncle, don’t miss this chance to love and be loved by a little one.

For more about being a childless aunt or uncle, read Melanie Notkin’s book Savvy Auntie and check out her blog at the Savvy Auntie website. Ten years ago, Notkin established July 22 as Auntie’s Day, so if you can claim aunthood in any form, go celebrate.

Also visit my previous posts about being an aunt. “Free to Be Aunt Sue” is about my relationship with Riley’s daddy, William. “Learning How to Be a Great Aunt Sue” talks about my first time meeting Riley.

I welcome your comments on being an aunt or uncle. Also, do you say “ant” or “awnt?”

 

 

 

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A Childless Life Well Lived

Jill Baker
Jill Baker photo posted by Maureen Little on Facebook

Dear readers,

One of the women I interviewed for my Childless by Marriage book passed away last week. Jill Baker had been suffering from major heart problems for years. She was married once in her youth, divorced and never remarried. She never had children. But none of that defines who Jill was. Full of life, even when her body was failing, a large presence even though she was a small woman, Jill stood out wherever she went. She was funny, opinionated, and loaded with talent.

I first met Jill at the Central Coast Chorale, a singing group that I joined shortly after I moved to Oregon. Jill was the one always raising her hand with suggestions or laughing loudly from the alto section. We were both chosen to sing in a smaller ensemble that used to be called Octet Plus and is now Women of Note. You could count on Jill to hold down the low notes while the rest of us warbled up above. She was also a talented flute player. After I moved on to other musical endeavors, Jill rose to assistant director of the chorale.

Jill taught music—piano, flute, voice, and more. She sang in small groups and major choruses. She had also worked in bookkeeping, accounting and computer software because it’s hard to make a living with a music degree, but she was finally able to focus on music after she moved to the Oregon coast.

Back in the 1960s, she was engaged to be married when she discovered she was pregnant. Her fiancée took off as soon as she told him. She had an abortion in a motel room. “She was some kind of a nurse and did illegal abortions and it was awful,” Jill said. “I hemorrhaged for six months, during my final six months of college.” Once the baby wasn’t an issue, her fiancée came back, and they got married. He refused to even discuss having children. Eventually the marriage ended. She said she never found another man she felt strongly enough about to marry.

Before our interview, Jill had never told anyone about the abortion, but she had reached a point where she was willing to share her story and happy to have me use her real name. Telling me meant she would have to tell her family, she said. She was a brave woman.

Jill never knew for sure whether that abortion affected her ability to have children. Suffering from fibroid tumors, she had a hysterectomy in her 40s, . “I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” she said.

When I asked how she felt about never having children, she said, “I felt lucky in that I didn’t have that massive craving to have a child. I would have liked to have kids, but only if I was in a marriage where the husband could be a father. I never wanted to have kids just to have kids.”

Instead of having her own children, she dove into the role of aunt to her siblings’ children and dog mom to her precious canine companions. Jill was the one holding her sheet music with one hand and petting her dog with the other in the chapter of my book about dog moms. Asked if she felt left out when her friends talked about their children, she laughed. “No. I get ‘em back; I talk about my dog.” She added, “I get irritated when people feel sorry for me. I really detest that because I think I’ve had a good life. I don’t believe you have to have a husband or kids to be happy.”

As for old age, she was determined to live on her own as long as she could, moving into a retirement home if necessary. She never had to. As she left this life, her hospital room was full of friends who loved her like family.

Rest in peace, Jill.

Pondering sons, aunts, and untold stories

How are you? I’m struggling a bit. So I offer a few random thoughts today.

1) Last week we were talking about workplace conflicts between moms and employees without children. (Why is it never about dads?) You might be interested in this article, “Four Things Your Childless Co-Workers Think About You as a Working Mom.”  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

2) Two of the three readings for this Sunday’s Mass in the Catholic Church are about widows whose apparently dead sons have been brought back to life, one by Elijah and one by Jesus. Religious considerations aside, in those days, when the husband died, the sons were expected to step in and take care of the widowed mothers for the rest of their lives. In fact, before Jesus died, he asked one of his friends to take care of Mary. I don’t have a son. My stepsons have stepped far, far away. While I’m a full-fledged adult and far from helpless, there are sure times when the idea that I could have had a son who cared about me and was available to help me just makes me want to sob because I’ll never have that. Know what I mean?

3) I’m an aunt, but I live far from my niece and nephew and don’t feel included in their lives. I don’t even know my late husband’s nieces and nephews. He didn’t know them either. We read a lot about how being an aunt can be almost as good as being a parent. Maybe in some families, but not in mine. Sure, we saw them at family gatherings and got presents from them. We were friendly enough, but extended hanging out or confiding in them? It didn’t happen. Are you close to your aunts? Or uncles? To your nieces and nephews?

4) I have just published new editions of one of my older books, Stories Grandma Never Told. The print version has a new cover, and the book is now available as a Kindle e-book for the first time. Read more about it at my Unleashed in Oregon blog. Working on this book again made me think about those stories Grandma never told. The book is oral history, with lots of Portuguese American women talking about immigration, education, work, family, ethnic traditions, and more. I never heard these stories from my own grandmother. She died before it occurred to me to ask. I frequently preach that we should not let our family stories die, that we should ask our elders to tell us what it was like when they were young because when they’re gone, who will be left to ask? I’m always coming up with questions I wish I could ask my mother, but she passed away 14 years ago. I grill my dad regularly.

But here’s the thing. For those of us who never have children, who will never be grandmas, who will we tell our stories to? Being a writer, I can share everything in my books, essays and poems, but what about people who are not writers? Where will their memories go? Suggestions? Maybe we could make a list of possible ways to leave something behind.

5) Enough depressing thoughts. Have any of you had trouble commenting here? What happens when you click “comment?” Are there too many steps to take to get in? Please me know. Sometimes I get emails (sufalick@gmail.com) from people who have trouble with the comment function, and I don’t know whether the problem is them or the settings. I don’t want anything to get in the way of our conversations. If you can’t get in, email me.

Keep reading and commenting. I’m so glad you’re here.

Free to Be Aunt Sue

Published in the Oregonian 12 years ago. William is an adult now. He’s going to law school. Although he loves his Aunt Sue, he is currently entranced by a girl named Andrea.

“Aunt Sue, Aunt Sue!” says the little boy in the man’s body, urgently seeking my attention. I seem to be the one person in the family who doesn’t answer his persistent attempts to join the conversation with an annoyed, “William, be quiet!” His words are the chorus of a sweet song to me.

I actually want to hear what William has to say. I enjoy listening to him fumble through questions and statements that fall easily from the lips of adults. He’s 17, heading for college next year. The world of grownups is just beginning to open up to him, and he is anxious to leap forward feet first, even though he doesn’t know where he might land. He resents not being able to taste beer, play Keno, or try a slot machine. He fantasizes about his first romance and his first apartment. He has his first car and his first job. He wants to try out all the other perks of adulthood. Now.

William, a giant at 6 foot 4, is impatient, hyperactive, always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Teenage girls enter the room and he gawks in a way that will cause them to laugh at him rather than date him. He eats four times as much as anyone else and still claims to be hungry. He mopes when he doesn’t get his way.

No matter. I love being Aunt Sue. I’m the one person who will let him play the same passage of “Fur Elise” on the piano 50 times and let 20 times go by before I make him correct the wrong note he keeps hitting.

William is full of questions, goofy ones and smart ones. “How come you look so much like my father?” I explain genetics. “How come it’s okay for Uncle Fred to be 15 years older than you but I can’t date a 25-year-old?” I tell him that the differences level out in middle age. “Why haven’t your novels been published? You’re a good writer.” I can’t answer that one.

In the pocket of my red jacket is a red plastic parachute man, a treasure. My nephew won it at the casino in Lincoln City. While his parents gambled, I accompanied him to the arcade. I dropped quarters in all sorts of machines, so baffled by the games that I often ran out of time before I figured out how to play. William confidently cashed a $5 bill and went from game to game, fighting monsters, driving a race car and a space ship, catching a bass. When it was time to go, he had a fistful of blue tickets to trade for little-kid prizes. He picked three parachute men, said the red one was his favorite and then gave it to me. Outside, we tossed our parachute men into the wind, running after them as they crashed into the dirt, then letting them fly again. For a few minutes, I was not 47; I was 17, playing with a friend.

It’s a special thing, this aunt-nephew bond. William is a kid with an insatiable need for love. Because I have no children of my own, I have plenty to give to him.

Perhaps someday he will find a wife who will love his dimpled face and smile at his idiosyncrasies, but just as his parents have standards they demand of their son, she will have unspoken rules for what a husband should be. Not me. All I need from William is to be himself and call me “Aunt Sue” once in a while. That’s enough.

Do you have a special relationship with a niece or nephew? Feel free to share.

Are you a Savvy Auntie?

I mentioned the Savvy Auntie website last week. Making a visit there, I discovered that they have declared July 24 Auntie’s Day. So, if you’ve got devoted nieces and nephews, maybe you want to drop a hint that they should plan some kind of Mother’s Day-like celebration.

There’s even a Savvy Auntie book by Melanie Notkin, which tells you how to be the best possible aunt–or great aunt or godmother or person who loves a child you didn’t give birth to.

For those of us missing the children we haven’t had, aunthood may be one way to fill that emptiness.

On a recent trip to California for my niece Susie’s 24th birthday party, I found myself absolutely enchanted by her. Between my brother and me, she’s the only biological offspring, although my brother adopted William, his wife’s son from her first marriage. He feels like ours, too. I often forget that he doesn’t share our genes. When he tells me he loves me or comes to me for advice, I feel all squishy inside.

My niece has my name, and she looks so much like my mother it’s spooky (and wonderful). We’re both left-handed and have a lot of other things in common besides her father and curmudgeonly grandfather.

Because we live in different states, I don’t see my niece and nephew that much, but I love being Aunt Sue. I wish there were dozens of young people calling me that.

Meanwhile, on the long drive home to Oregon, I got to thinking about how cool it would be if I had had a daughter, too. My brother and I both got married for the second time in 1985. We were both in our 30s, plenty young enough to conceive. My daughter would be about Susie’s age. They could have been friends, hung out together, shared confidences and clothing tips. I would have been so proud of both of them.

Sigh. These are the kinds of things that many women take for granted, not knowing how lucky they are. I’m not going to give birth. My stepdaughter is almost 20 years older than my niece, so they’re not likely to become friends.

That’s the way it goes in this world of multiple marriages, some of which do not produce children. I wish I had kids, but I’m glad I’m an aunt.

How about you? Are you an aunt? Are you enjoying it? Might you put some of your mothering energy into spoiling a niece or nephew? I look forward to your comments.