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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Learning how to be a Great Aunt Sue

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Riley’s parents prefer that she not be shown on the Internet, so this is her “cousin” Hazel

Riley was the star as soon as she arrived at my brother’s house on Thanksgiving. Mike grabbed her right away. He is the sweetest grandpa, holding her while he sits in his big recliner, feeding her and talking to her.

At five months, she’s just beginning to tune in to her surroundings. She can sit up. She watches everything and responds with squeaks, laughs and cries. She’s definitely more interesting than she was when I first met her in September.

Before Mike’s kids arrived with the baby, I had spent considerable quality time with Hazel, my niece’s dachshund, hugging her up against me, petting her, and talking to her, much like a baby. Hazel was jealous of Riley on Mike’s left knee. She jumped up and claimed his right knee.

Mike passed Riley to Susan, Sharon’s sister. Mother of four, also a grandmother and aunt, she seemed blissful holding the baby, watching her suck on her bottle. If Susan didn’t have to go to work, she probably would not have let her go.

After burping the baby, Mike brought her to me next. “Go see your great aunt Sue.” I mumbled about not necessarily being “great” just mediocre as I struggled to get her into a comfortable position, aware that everyone was watching me and I was the only one who didn’t know how to hold a baby properly. Riley whined and stiffened up in my arms until I finally got her into a sitting-up position facing away from me. I kept rubbing her fat, full belly. Only later did I realize that’s what I do with Annie, my dog. Anyway, we got comfortable. She gripped my big wrinkled fingers with her tiny smooth ones. So smooth, not a dimple or mark on the white, white skin. I replaced a sock that had fallen off her little foot. I kissed her downy head. So hot, I said. Normal, Riley’s mom, Courtney, said. Like all the grownups, I talked to the baby. Quietly, like sharing secrets between us.

While I was holding Riley, she made some grunting sounds and Courtney asked, “Are you having a bowel movement?” She instructed me to smell her. I leaned down and sniffed. Nothing. But my sister-in-law picked her up, smelled her butt, and nodded. I felt a rush of panic. Who was going to change her? I had no idea how to do it. To be this old and still not know how to change a diaper . . . Courtney did it. Soon we heard shrieks of baby laughter from the bedroom.

Courtney brought her back out and changed her into soft flannel pajamas. It was like dressing a doll, a warm, soft, pudgy-bellied doll.

Everyone wanted to hold the baby. With Riley in their arms, each person turned soft, kind and playful.

I wanted that, too. I want to watch Riley grow and know me and smile when she sees me, but I live so far away. It will probably be many months before we meet again. She won’t remember me. Do I wish she was mine? I don’t think so. I want to be one of the older people with grandchildren and great-grandchildren to enjoy and hand back to their parents. I want that big wonderful family to celebrate holidays and birthdays with, to help when things fall apart.

It’s like some people say they hate writing but love having written a book. I don’t want to be raising a baby or small children now, but I wish I had done it when I was young, so I could be holding my own granddaughter on Thanksgiving, keeping a crib and toys at my house for when she visits, and buying Christmas presents for my granddaughter.

Being my age and no longer having a husband, I didn’t have to deal with anyone asking when I was going to have children. I remember how hard that was, and I know many of you are going through that. Nobody asked how many children I had or why I didn’t have any. A few asked about my stepchildren and were surprised I hadn’t heard from them. I didn’t expect to.

I was just Aunt Sue, who comes all the way from Oregon to hang out with her elderly father. Nobody understands that I’m still figuring out how to interact with live babies instead of with my Chatty Cathy doll. There’s a magic in those tiny people. I want a share of it, but it has only been a few years that I could be around other people’s babies without crying. Know what I mean?

Riley has two older half-sisters who were with their dad on Thanksgiving. Will I ever be anything to them but a stranger? We’ll see.

I’m never going to be “Mom,” and that hurts. I’m still figuring out how to be Aunt Sue.

So, how did your Thanksgiving go? Feel free to share in the comments.