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.