Privilege Blog

When Your Aunt Knows About Factories, Or, Saturday Morning at 9:20am

The night before last I took care of my niece. She’s eight. That’s important, as eight-year old girls are neither seven nor nine.

My sister and brother-in-law were attending back to school night, so I picked niece A up from religion school at 6pm. We hung out, ate dinner, got ready for bed. She went to sleep, her parents came home. Then I drove back home across the San Francisco Bay.

It’s a shock to the system, leaving a little girl behind, all bathed, jammied, sleepy and tousled, to drive up a freeway on-ramp. Remembering, is left West? Is right East? Startled by signage and reflector lights. Time spent with young children has such a large component of wander.

Niece A. smiled broadly when she saw me waiting at the bottom of her religious school stairs. I imagine her thinking, “Wow, it worked AGAIN!” The joyful miracle of slightly risky business turning out the way your parents predicted.

Then we drove to her favorite Asian restaurant for dinner. We sat at the bar, where we could see the woks firing like industrial furnaces. The cooks turned the gas on and off by pushing a valve handle with their knees. Niece A. had to point out to me just how it worked.

She pays attention, with an intent we lose hold of as we get older.

Having finished the dinner of noodles, fish in wonton cups, and gai lan, we wandered down the street to a frozen yogurt store. Niece A. knew just how to work the delivery machines, which flavors she wanted, exactly how to set the cup down on the yogurt scale. “Niece A.,” I said, “That looks like enough to me.” Happy co-existence of aunt and niece. An unspoken understanding that as the aunt, I would be open to nighttime yogurt, but as the sister of her mother, I was unlikely to agree to a serving as big as her head.

We drove back up the hill. Expecting a phone call, I tried to charge my cellphone. We drove in circles. Niece A. made sure I did not get lost. We parked outside her house. “Niece A.,” I said, “Would you mind if we sat out front so I can run the car and charge my phone a little longer?” “Can we play on the lawn?” she said. “Yes,” I said. Cartwheels, and the unsurpassed leaping of 8-year old girls.

We went inside. She took a bath. I sat on the sink counter. We talked.

Bedtime. She didn’t want to wear the cat pyjamas, preferring the ones with horses. Aunts don’t mind if you put chosen pyjamas aside. We lay down on the bed. She asked to leave the lights on. “Nope,” I said. Aunts are not dummies.

“Let’s talk,” she said. “Let’s talk about orthodontists. Or Chinese food.”

I began to talk about woks, and the stove. “Oh,” I said, “And the deep fryer!” She was happy to know what it was called. “How about factories?” I said. And so it began. Having sold industrial gases for several years, I’d actually been inside of some factories. I explained cement, the cooking of ground rock. Then semiconductor fabs, bunny suits, laminar flow, and all. We moved on to candy, where I have no first hand experience, but we considered where extrusion might apply.

She lay her arm sweetly across me, and fell asleep.

Some cultures honor the role of aunt, creating honorary “aunties” from family friends. Aunts allow for adventure, in safety. My sisters have been wonderful to my children. I am privileged to have the chance to lie still at night, in less-than-total darkness, talking freely to an 8-year old girl.

Everyone should have an aunt, one way or another. We all need a niece. Unsurprisingly, broad definitions of terms of love serve us well.

53 Responses

  1. I loved the bit about the yogurt as big as her head…
    that reminded me what our babysitters used to let us have when our parents were out but in those days it was ice cream!

    Niece A sounds very savvy and clever for her age.

    I am enjoying watching our daughter as she practices her “aunt skills’ with the lovely Miss Isla, our favourite grand child on the planet!

  2. Such a sweet post. My first cousin and I are honorary aunts of each other’s children, as we were both lacking a sister who could fulfill the role. I don’t remember where in Africa, but certain tribes have 5 or more words for the role of “aunt” – lovely, I think.

  3. So sweet…I could almost see your clever niece through your words.
    I was blessed with honorary aunts, and honorary grandmas as well. My children are growing far away from all family, real and honorary, and it pains me to know that they are growing up without all that love that I was so happy to have in my life…

  4. My sister has been a wonderful aunt to my daughters, and I wish we lived closer so that I could reciprocate to the same degree–my 7 year old niece in Sausalito is much like yours. Sweet read.

  5. This was sweet. As someone who will never be more–or less–than an aunt, I very much appreciated it.

    I think what aunts do best is love their nieces and nephews unconditionally, unburdened by a need to protect so primal that it can be suffocating. We love them, we want their happiness above all else and we do what we can to help them achieve it, but we do not risk trying to live vicariously through them the way we might had they come directly from us. And, of course, we offer them a safe portal into worlds outside their small ones and even the larger ones of their parents. (And I don’t mean to say that *all* parents are suffocating or live vicariously through their children, only that it’s a potential hazard of parenthood.)

  6. This, this is so very much how I remember it – “She’s eight. That’s important, as eight-year old girls are neither seven nor nine.”

    I’m lucky enough to have had plenty of “aunties” growing up, in the important sense. I’m honored now be an auntie, both by family and by friendship.

  7. “She pays attention, with an intent we lose hold of as we get older.” No truer words.

    Love the story. Niece’s are the “horse’s” pajamas! ;-)

  8. How special I felt when my mom drove up with my nephew yesterday and he just started exclaiming: “Aunty Beth! Aunty Beth!”

    We’ve been quad riding and hiking all morning now we’re relaxing with classic The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh. Being an aunt is just delightful.

    Oh, I’m being called. It’s hiking time again.

  9. What a sweet sweet post. I like the part about being slightly confused which way is east or west on the freeway. It’s because you have to think so quickly. Not always easy.

    I LOVE aunts. My aunt is visiting my mother this week and we were able to have lunch with both of them today. My aunt is 80. Today I invited her to come to our house for Christmas. I told her that she would make the holiday SO much happier if she would come. It’s so true. I hope she comes.

  10. What a perfect post. ‘Aunts are not dummies’… Love it!. I LOVE being an Aunt too and am lucky enough to have some gorgeous nieces (and nephews)XX

  11. Aunts… the perfect combination of mom and not-mom. I became an aunt when I was only 12, and so sadly missed out on a lot of of this magic.

    Great post.

  12. I couldn’t agree more about aunts and nieces. I am now great aunt to my nieces’s first child and it amplifies our relationship in ways I couldn’t anticipate when I let her fall asleep in a tutu! Somehow, this relationship doesn’t get enough recognition for all the potential it holds. I cherished the closeness I shared with an aunt also. It is a treat to read your thoughts on the subject.

  13. Lisa

    As usual, a beautiful post. I love it when you write about relationships. You capture the essence of being human in those posts. I was raised in an extended/joint family and so, aunts galore! I have twin nieces and I still remember the first moment that I laid eyes on them. Lovely!

    1. Yes, I love it when you write about relationships too — especially your connection to children. Your love shines through so strongly and almost startlingly. For some reason I haven’t read much about parental/familial love for children, at least not in such a poetic way.

  14. I agree, aunts are extremely important, and you sound like a most excellent aunt. Let me know if you’re ever in the market for a 43 year old niece!

  15. Lovely story! Little girls are the best. I have a passel of nephews who I am fond of, and dutifully send birthday gifts to, but it’s my friend’s 4 year old daughter who captured my heart, utterly, starting the day I met her. My own daughter has now taken over first place, but I still adore Y., and feel incredibly proud every time she asks to hold my hand or have me read to her.

  16. What perfect timing! I have made flight reservations to visit my nieces in CA mid-October. They are no longer 8, but 14 and 16, and yet the special relationship deepens and sweetens. Now the negotiations involve driving lessons and parties rather than yogurt and jammies, but I love how their fresh new lives unfold before me.

  17. Lucky Aunt, very lucky Niece.

    Sounds like a wonderful, magical evening. My nieces, except one, are actually much older than my children – in fact, one of my nieces was our babysitter this summer – but I remember the feeling of being special to them when they were little.

    My children enjoy being almost the youngest in their generation of my family, as I imagine your niece does.

  18. what a lovely post! im been lucky to have four wonderful aunties, all special and fun in their own way who have had a profound effect on my upbringing. i feel so luck to have so many!

    unfortunately, i wont ever get to be an aunty but do have similar close bonds with all my (much younger) cousins, all my aunt’s children. im sure when i have children, they’ll take on a similar big cousin/almost aunty role too :)

  19. Oh, yes aunts. When I went to university in a country at the other side of the ocean, there was an aunt there who made life so much easier for me, who was there to give me “student grains” (a mix of nuts and raisins) and would listen to me and explain the little things that make the cultural shock easier. Thanks for pointing out the importance of this kind of love in life.

  20. This post is such a delight to read. What a sweet and intelligent niece you have, too. Must be a joyful experience sharing time together – you are blessed.

  21. Noodles, fish in cups, gai lan, frozen yogurt, followed by cartwheels on the lawn. I braced. But am SO happy this had a happy ending, fretful-aunt-Flo here was imagining….well.

    “I explained cement, the cooking of ground rock. Then semiconductor fabs, bunny suits, laminar flow, and all. We moved on to candy, where I have no first hand experience, but we considered where extrusion might apply.”

    Speechless. I mean it. Explaining cement as a bedtime story. What a lucky little girl to have been born into your clan of vigorous minds and limitless mental horizons. Plus a gut that can hold noodles, fish and sugared dairy in place while cartwheeling. I bow!

  22. What a lovely post; so touching, as I never had an aunt, nor am I an aunt to anyone.
    When I was a child, we had a maid, with whom I spent my time. The maids came, stayed for some years and left. Then came a new maid.
    Several years ago, our very first maid took contact with me. We talked on the phone. She suggested we meet, and that she was willing to tell me things about my childhood. Such a nice gesture, but I never have been able to fill her wish. At the time, I was in the midst of my psychoanalysis, and her appearance then and there, brought an enormous amount of anxiety.
    I did not ( and still don´t ) wish to hear that the bad things I remembered, were not only my phantasy. I did not want to hear, that the past, as I remembered, was really true.

  23. My elderly aunts live out of state, so I don’t see them as often as I would like. No nieces, but I enjoy my time with my young adult nephews. I stopped my car the other day to say ‘hello” to my college freshman nephew when I spotted him walking along the sidewalk. I’m sure I caused great embarrassment, but I somehow couldn’t stop myself.

  24. You make this evening seem so magical…and yes, children do have better attention than adults, a lesson I am learning with the 6 year old grandson.

  25. Oh Lisa, this story is so sweet and innocent. How fortunate you both are to have one another in your lives. You’ve laid the foundation for a very meaningful friendship as she grows. I’d love young children in my life again. Maybe we can do something about that. ;) xoxo

  26. My twin nieces are 9 and I miss them (they live in the far off land of Florida)!

    I keep begging their mom to send them up for a week, but I’m afraid she’s going to wait until they are dislike-able teenagers.

  27. I was not fortunate to have an aunt, but my sister is a delightful one to my two daughters. I am also blessed to be the godmother (she calls me Aunite) to a 12-soon-to-be-13 year old girl. I have had the priviledge of talking on the phone and emailing to her about all sorts of things and when her mother didn’t quite understand her. It doesn’t get much better than that.

  28. What a lovely post. Being an aunt must be such fun! I love the bit about the yogurt…. sums it all up!

    I’m not an aunt yet, but my aunt and I are very close. She’s only 15 years older, so she’s a bit wiser but we’re still pretty much of the same generation. Her children are my delight, and I cherish getting to know them. When one of my own sisters or brothers (but especially sisters) has a child, I’ll be over the moon!!!

  29. Hostess – Oh how wonderful to have a daughter being an aunt! An extra fillip on the process.

    Kathy – I think first cousins can often fill in very well for sisters.

    Marcela – (taunties!)

    Susan – Thanks:). She is that.

    Marcela – Do you do anything to try to create that feeling of extended family, I wonder? Creating little aunts, if we can borrow the term.

    Marcy – Thank you. The way we all scatter has changed the aunting game, no way around it.

  30. first milk – <3

    Staircase Witch - You have it exactly.

    Melissa - And 8 and a half is different again, right:)?

    TPP - Let's be each other's aunts, OK?

    Ally Bean - And I didn't even notice that cat's pyjamas reference. Thank you.

    Beth - It sounds so wonderful. My nephew lives far away, so I haven't had that experience yet. Enjoy.

  31. Susan – Thank you. I hope your aunt comes, and I bet she’s great company.

    Sarah – :).

    kerry – Wow. I am imagining becoming an aunt at 12. I hope you get more aunt time:).

    Jan – I can see you with a whole pack of uncles.

    Frances – Thank you very much.

    Erin – What a lovely, evocative comment. Says it all better than I did. Thank you.

  32. Sandra – In the best cases luck goes both ways, right?

    Latha – Thank you. If I capture anything, it’s only because I felt it so deeply that all my possible cages got rattles:).

    Dawn – What a great idea. Aunts for adults. I should work on that.

    Aleatha – And maybe your friend’s daughter can be a quasi- big sister to your girl?

    Louise – Driving lessons! An aunt is the perfect person to teach someone to drive. Perfect.

  33. Meg – Were I a wiser and deeper person, of course:).

    rb – There are big cousins and little cousins. It’s wonderful. My son has babysat for my niece.

    mimi – Thank you so much. And your extended family sounds wonderful, if if the technicality of aunthood isn’t there in this generation.

    Amanda – “Student grains” are exactly what we all need, or at least the idea of them.

    Englishvers – Thank you – it is joyful.

  34. Golla – Thank you so much!

    Flo – Ha! So funny! I didn’t even think about the gut! I enjoyed the bedtime story – nobody else has ever wanted to hear my factory tales.

    Mette – Aunts are the best antidotes to mothers, even good mothers, that exist.

    DocP – I am sure you embarrassed him way less than his mother would have:).

    Danielle – Thank you very much. How odd, then, that our culture doesn’t write poems to the love of children. It’s so compelling.

    Ida – I certainly hope so!

  35. Terri – It felt magical. And I wonder if there’s any way to regain the attention span?

    Marilyn – Thank you. And, um, yes:).

    Stephanie – :). Thank you.

    Patsy – Of course she’s going to wait until they are teenagers…

    Debbie – You’re right, it doesn’t. You can feel so competent, as an aunt, in a way that motherhood doesn’t often allow.

    Princess Freckles – I think you will be a fantastic aunt.

  36. Beautiful story….very heartwarming and yes, as the mother of four year old who notices everything, we should take a step back and just admire them before they grow too big. My favorite from Lallie as of late? “Mommy, I love my polka-dot naynay (blanket) because I love to poke the dots.” Such innocence in every way, shape and form.

  37. I can so relate to your feelings, me being an aunt without the experience of being a mother I treasure my nieces and nephew. For the last weeks I have been munching cornflakes, because I was collecting the codes what would allow me to order custome-made-stickers as a gift. You could design the stickers with colours, icons and fonts. Which colour to choose?
    Text message to niece, 8yrs: Which is your favourite colour?
    Answer: red, purple and blue
    Me: Beautiful!
    There are so many things I still want to know about her. Choosing gifts helps to get to know them better!
    In the next days she will receive a letter with 30 Name-and-Adress-Stickers. If she is the tiniest bit like me (which she is), she will get red cheeks and stick her name in every book.
    btw: she was the first familiy member to notice my diamond studs I bought this summer. She looked at them thorougly, from front and back and finished by saying how much she likes my name and that she named one of her barbies after me. *swell*

  38. I’m a little late reading this, but I just had to comment and say how beautiful this post is to me. We have many “honorary aunts” in my family, and my daughter calls many of my closest friends “Auntie.” Your post also reminds me that the bedtime chats with my daughter (who never stops talking and is sometimes exasperating in her desire to stay awake) are really special moments that I will miss terribly when she grows up. Thank you for this important reminder! I heartily agree that spending time with an eight year old girl is really amazing!

  39. Oh aunts. I had scary aunts, ones with children of their own, the same age as me. Uncles were the thing, when I was little. Uncles took you to the cinema and played you songs on their guitars and bought you bags of sweeties as big as your head.

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