The good aunt’s legacy

What is a good aunt’s legacy? What does a woman without children leave behind in the world?

One of the women I spoke with wants to make sure her American niece knew the Nancy the Spider (or Anansi) stories that she inherited from her African background. Another spoke of her struggle over not having somebody to pass material things down to, saying with a bit of relief, “That’s where my nieces come in.” Others spoke of the way they are teaching nieces and nephews to carry on other family traditions: baking together or learning to cook a family recipe, going on family vacations together, and passing on the stories of past generations.

For those of us without children who have family heirlooms and traditions we want to pass down, this issue of heirs can be something that weighs on our minds. What will be our legacy when we’re gone?

Elizabeth Gilbert writes:

In leaving no descendents, [sic] however, childless aunts do tend to
vanish from memory after a mere generation, quickly forgotten, their
lives as transitory as butterflies. But they are vital as they live, and they
can even be heroic. … Often able to accrue education and resources
precisely because they were childless, these women had enough spare
income and compassion to pay for livesaving operations, or to rescue
the family farm, or to take in a child whose mother had fallen gravely ill. (Committed, 192) Continue reading

Proud aunts

I’ve written before about the pride we aunts take in our nieces and nephews, and the 10 days I spent in Oregon at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials brought out a number of proud aunts to cheer on their family’s elite athletes. Today, I’ll share three “good aunt” stories with you from the competition.

Proud aunts follow through on a father’s inspiration
Early into the trials, I saw an article in the The Register-Guard talking about Amanda Smock, an expert in the women’s triple jump. She competed in the 2008 trials, but finished 5th and didn’t get to go to the Olympics that year.

After those trials, her father encouraged her to keep pursuing her dream, though he didn’t live to see her succeed. He died from cancer a year later, but four of Smock’s aunts (her father’s sisters) made the long drive from Minnesota to the trials to surprise her and cheer her on.

Smock finished first in the trials, and because of qualifying requirements to compete in the Olympics, she’ll be the only athlete to represent the United States in her event. Of winning and what it meant to have her four aunts watching from the stands, she said: Continue reading

When being an aunt isn’t all sunshine and roses

In Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert writes of aunts:

Often able to accrue education and resources precisely because
they were childless, these women had spare income and compassion
to pay for lifesaving operations, or to rescue the family farm, or to take
in a child whose mother had fallen gravely ill. I have a friend who calls
these sorts of child-rescuing aunties “sparents”—”spare parents”—
and the world is filled with them.

Even within my own community, I can see where I have been vital
sometimes as a member of the Auntie Brigade. My job is not merely to
spoil and indulge my niece and nephew (though I do take that assignment
to heart) but also to be a roving auntie to the world—an ambassador
auntie—who is on hand wherever help is needed, in anybody’s family whatsoever. … In this way, I, too, foster life. There are many, many ways
to foster life. And believe me, every single one of them is essential.

Gilbert’s discussion of “sparents” and their ways of fostering life reminds me of a story I heard on NPR’s StoryCorps back in March. Abby Libman’s life changed forever when her brother-in-law killed Abby’s twin sister, leaving behind two children (ages 7 and 4), whom Abby took in and raised. I encourage you to listen to the brief interview between Libman and her now 23-year-old nephew. For Libman, her role shifted from aunt to mother, and as she navigated through that difficult time, she was most importantly fostering the lives of those two precious young children who would grow up to think of her as “mom.” She was the ultimate “good aunt” to her sister’s children. Continue reading

The good aunt’s family

In last week’s post, I talked with you about some questions to avoid when talking with someone who doesn’t have children. This week, I want to encourage you to ask a broader question beyond the typical, “Do you have children?”

When you learn that a person doesn’t have children, you may want to consider asking about that person’s family and friends. After all, good aunts have people in our lives we love (and love telling you about), but our family may not look like a conventional one.

A good aunt’s family may not look like this one

I don’t know when those little family stickers started popping up on minivans and SUVs, but I do know it’s hard to drive down the highway without seeing a few of them. Some of them are cute, some puzzling and some simply bizarre. (On a trip this past weekend, my husband and I saw one with goat stickers next to the rest of the family. Very strange.) Continue reading

A good aunt’s influence

Thanks for joining me for the second installment of “The Good Aunt” series. Today, I’d like to share some stories with you from the women I interviewed and from my own life about the role models our own aunts were for us.

There are as many different ways an aunt can influence as there are different types of aunts: free spirits and disciplinarians, great cooks and those who loved takeout, teachers, nurses, career women, homemakers, aunts who had children of their own and aunts who were childless, aunts who lived with us and aunts who lived many hours away.

Two of the women I interviewed spoke of aunts whose presents they always especially looked forward to unwrapping, because they knew it would be something special: a prized treasure from an exotic location or another piece of a special collection dear to that child’s heart.

One of my beloved great aunts entertaining me while my mom looks on

Continue reading