On Becoming An Aunt: What Our Extended Families Teach Us

I became an aunt 9 days ago. It is a funny thing, this waiting for a baby to arrive in a family. All spring and summer we teased the expectant parents about nerves and anticipation. I watched as my mother-in-law spiraled up into a whirlwind of child-like excitement and watched as my father-in-law quieted and deepened into a place of settled pride and contentment. But never once did I think about the two of us living in Northampton, far away from this little expected angel, who were overnight changed from mere siblings to an aunt and uncle.

My husband and I are both family people. His is larger than mine, but they are both equally tight knit. Growing up I had a vast array of aunts and uncles spread out over the country. Looking back I see that one of the unspoken and perhaps overlooked offerings of an aunt and uncle is the showcase of a different way of life.

Growing up in a middle-class upstate New York suburbia, I was well versed in how to hang out at a mall, how to go to a movie theater with 14 different movies, how to get lost in a competitive high school, but I had to go see my mother’s family if I wanted to ride horses, watch maple syrup boil, see chickens hatch (or be butchered), pick asparagus or learn the names of flowers.

I traveled to a redwood forest for the wedding of one of my aunts, to Florida for an uncle’s wedding and managed to live with one uncle so I could work in Berkeley for a while and get to better know my California cousins. I’ve watched as my aunts and uncles have changed jobs, states, spouses and maneuvered life in a way very different from my parents. By the time I was picking my lifestyle and creating my vision of a world I had a vast selection of options.

One of my aunts is an amazing baker and a wealth of information about canning, fermenting and gardening. Another aunt is an expert gift-giver and taught me the important lesson of how to gift an object of beauty rather than something necessary or utilitarian.  Another aunt is an animal person always taking in a stray and minding a houseful of creatures. Another aunt is a new mother and I get to see her raising my cousins while I am an adult and contemplating babies of my own. Each of these important females in my family has helped guide me in the direction of how I want to be female. What kind of complicated woman, wife, mother, friend I would like to be.

When I think back to all the ways I’ve witnessed different types of love, different types of relationships and different ways of defining a family or a household I am so thankful for my extended family for offering out options. I hope that this little niece of mine is as blessed as I am with so many people to love her throughout her life and to offer her guidance.

I hope someday she will look back at something we have taught her and decide to carry that on into her life; some little snippet of wisdom she deemed perfect for her. It is not possible to wish for a more perfect world for her. This world will be as it is and as she enters into it the world will continue to change and evolve. However I can hope for the right people to offer her the right information at the right time. I often think about how one of my uncles taught me how to grieve when I witnessed him turning to the soil and planting a magnificent garden after my grandfather’s death. These are the small ways the universe provides for us. The small ways our families teach us the important lessons even when the adults are too busy to really notice the children are watching and learning.

Our legacies are far more complex than we know.  We don’t know where we cast a shadow on our brightest days, where we leave our mark. So we must continue just being our best selves and hope that in someway someone in our lives is benefiting from our authenticity.

Image credit: siamphotos / 123RF Stock Photo

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