I don't recall my first memories of my great-aunt Katherine (or my great-uncle Dick). She is my paternal grandmother's older sister, older by three years, and as I grew up with (two) sisters of my own, I'm not sure how two sisters could be more different than Marion and Katherine. We often describe Katherine as the most right-brained person we've ever met, whose creative talents never led to culinary success. We also often say that Katherine could burn water. A couple of weeks ago, she sent my father an email that ended with "Gotta go change clothes. Going dancing tonight." and nobody was sure if she was kidding or not. She has neuropathy in her legs and can't feel them, but it's entirely within her character to go dancing anyway. She and Uncle Dick were married for 55 years before he died in 2007 at the age of 94, almost one year to the day after my maternal grandfather died. Today is her 90th birthday.
|Dad and Katherine|
Katherine and Dick never had any children of their own, though Dick had two daughters from his first marriage who I've never met. But my grandmother had five children and there are thirteen of us grandchildren and so many great-grandchildren now that I have to sit back and count them all out. Whether it was because my father was the oldest or some other reason, our branch of the tree has always been close to Katherine (and Dick, whose impish little smile I still miss). I'm the one who has taken up Katherine's duties as family historian and every time I visit, she sends me home with more pictures, more objects, more pieces of the puzzle. The thing about visiting with Aunt Katherine is that she is always beyond thrilled to see us (this is not to say that our grandparents were not this way, but aunts and uncles are a special kind of energy), even when my sisters and I were little and annoying in the way that only little kids can be. She and Uncle Dick always greeted us like we were important, always asked about what we were doing and actually cared, they played with us, they wanted to know.
Aunting, as an active verb.
|Katherine and us, 2008|
When I finally brought my Scamp (my little 13-foot camper) home, Katherine was more excited than anyone. I’m sure that some of the genetic predisposition for movement comes from her as well, she who had a private pilot’s license in the 1940s, she who worked for Ryan Aeronautics, she who traveled everywhere imaginable with Uncle Dick, she who had always wanted a Scamp for herself. To say that Katherine is independent is not completely accurate. Unpredictable might be a better description--but that doesn't cover it either. When she worked for Ryan in the 1950s, as the family stories go, they were laying off men with master's degrees in engineering and keeping her on, even though she was a woman.
My dad's favorite Christmas story to tell of Katherine and Dick takes place when they lived in Ramona, CA and is more a story of Dick than Katherine, but there's a reason I'm telling it: when my dad was little, Katherine and Dick spent the Christmas Eve night at their house and due to the distribution of beds, Uncle Dick ended up in my father's bed and my father slept on the floor. All night long, as the story goes, my father would pipe up, "I think I hear him, Uncle Dick! I think I hear Santa!" And the incredibly patient Uncle Dick would answer back, "Go back to sleep, Danny." A few minutes of quiet, then, "I think I hear him, Uncle Dick! I think I hear Santa!" "Go back to sleep, Danny." All night long. I tell this story of my father and his uncle because it was from Katherine and Dick that I learned how to be an aunt.
But I also learned how to be an aunt from my father's sister, my Aunt Teresa, who is twelve years younger than my dad. My earliest memories of her involve being in my grandparent's house and running into her room in the dark of the morning and jumping on her bed. I couldn't have been more than three or four. I remember the curtains pulled against the morning and I remember the red of the Tab cans. When she married Uncle Robin, I remember being really disappointed that I couldn't go to the wedding (I was, maybe, six). But from them, I learned again how to be an aunt. Aunt Teresa (and by extension Uncle Robin) was always glad to see us (my two sisters and me) and it was never the perfunctory hug that adults often give kids. She wanted to do things with us, to sit at the kitchen table with us, playing with rubber stamps, tie dying, or whatever other craft or activity that she was excited to share. She wanted to be with us, not just around us, and I remember how that made me feel as a kid and how it makes me feel as an adult to have this relationship--and I want that for my niece(s) and my nephew(s). Uncle Robin recently passed away, unexpectedly, and among the many facets of loss I am still grieving, today I grieve that C. and her new brother won't get to grow up with that sunshine in their lives.
It's not an easy role to play, not if you want to live up to their example. I do not have children and do not plan to have any children. I've never wanted them, even back to high school. But I like kids. When my friends started having babies (which all seemed to happen in the same six month period in 2007), I assumed the role of aunt. Most particularly to my dear friends L. and J., which really started, emotionally, for me when L. told me she suspected she was pregnant, back when our offices were next door to each other. When H. was born, it was like my own sister had given birth. I love that kid something crazy (something that spills over to her sister, V., who I've only met in person once.) But there was something about knowing that I could go home to my own house that didn't trip any of the triggers that set off these new parents. I actually didn't care if the babies screamed--it didn't raise my blood pressure (still not sure how that miracle happened); I didn't mind changing diapers (though, when my blood-niece C. was born, I had to get used to cloth diapers); I had some gag-issues with spit-up, but after a while, that was routine too. Now that H. is in kindergarten (still not sure how that's possible) and she's got a two-year-old sister V. and a surprise of a brother due in July, there's this security in the family you create on purpose, by choice, that is as important as the family of blood.
|H. and me, 2010|
In addition to today being Katherine's birthday, it's also L's birthday. Two important people in my life, two important women of my family, and it seems fitting to think about what they've taught me about being an aunt on this dark, early Saturday morning, the 26th of January, this day that my sister will be induced and my nephew born. This was not planned--H. isn't actually due till the end of February. This is Week 35. But my sister went for her appointment yesterday and the doc gave her a choice: induce today or tomorrow. K2 chose tomorrow (which is now today). He's about stopped growing, so they want him out, so he can get nourishment. He's perfectly healthy, just tiny--right now about four pounds. I'm just bummed that I'm not there, with the whole rest of the family, so far away from the memory making. But I get to Go North for C's birthday in two weeks and hopefully H. will be out of the hospital by then. In the meantime, I hope to make use of the magic that is Skype on smartphones.
|C. and me, Summer 2012|
These last three years being Aunt Kinny to C. have been more fun than I could have anticipated. Not that she's any more special to me than my non-blood-nieces (and impending nephew), but just in a different way. As I did with H. and V., I've channeled Aunt Katherine to try to create for them and with them the kind of memories that stick. What was so special about our relationship with Katherine? How can I pass that down? When K2 and M. announced in the summer of 2009 that they were expecting, I set up a monthly system of gifts for K2--and the first one was a memory box. I found it at a local antique store and my purpose was I wanted my niece or nephew (we didn't know if she was a boy or girl until she was born) to have something uniquely hers, a physical place for her to put her favorite rocks or diary or anything else special to her, something that could grow with her and be as appropriate for a child as it would be for an adult. I wanted her to be able to look at that when she's in her twenties, thirties, forties, and say, "Aunt Kinny gave that to me." When she was born, I bought a Belleek teapot to celebrate and my plan is to give that teapot to her on one of her special milestone birthdays (haven't figured out which one yet), but I want her to grow up knowing that one is hers every time she comes to my house for tea.
I want to do the same for H, but his early arrival has thrown my plans into a tizzy: I don't have his memory box yet and I don't have his teapot. But I will. I can't wait to make memories with this new addition to our family, to my own tiny branch of the tree. In the meantime, I will sit by the phone, sit by the Skype, and wait for news that he as arrived. Though I'm pretty sure that I'll be able to tell by the new brightness in the day.
Welcome to the world, my sweet nephew! You've picked an incredible day to be born.
Update. H has arrived! 4 lbs, 9 oz, 18" at 3:47 pm--and he's perfect! Doc says he has to maintain his weight and get to five pounds before they'll let him go home (probably in a week or so). The family has been wonderful about keeping me updated with pictures and little videos and I can say--without bias--that he's ridiculously cute. I can't wait to meet him!
A most unexpected update: my dear friend A. is expecting! As I am currently in Aunt Mode and can't turn it off, it's lovely that I keep being handed new nieces and nephews to spoil, making my family-by-choice even bigger!