Auntie’s Greatest Gift
has an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second Language and has completed all the coursework for a Ph.D. in American Literature
Meredith Heath, aunt to nephews A, B, and C, erstwhile graduate student, and coffee master extraordinaire, writes about her feelings of loss during a period of transition in the lives of her nephews. An avid aunt for nearly six years and surrogate aunt to countless (no, really) other nieces and nephews, Meredith spends much of her free time with “the babies.” When not playing with the little ones or serving a hot cup o’ Joe at the local coffee shop, Meredith can be found researching family history, reading texts from the literary canon she missed during ten years of college, and wrangling ideas about how to return to graduate school without paying for tuition.
I’ll never forget my mom telling me she had a surprise for me at the end of summer camp in 1993. At 10 years old, I had no idea what such a secret might be. But when my aunt stepped out of my parents’ car that Friday, one absolutely delighted little girl literally jumped into her arms. My aunt was and is a recovering alcoholic, and she had been gone for a lot of years. She had sent me a doll from Washington State and had left a voicemail on our answering machine, singing “I Just Called To Say ‘I Love You.’” Now, she was finally home.
By the time I was a teenager and young adult, though, I began to realize a portion of the havoc my aunt wreaked not only in her own personal life and those of her two children but also within my immediate and extended family. At one family gathering, she told me that I could always tell her anything; but my response was mere lip service to politeness: I already knew better. It was too much to let myself be emotionally vulnerable with her. My siblings and I had been shielded from much of the painful truth regarding our family, but we were finally old enough to recognize and grapple with it on our own. To this day, despite what I know about my aunt’s general tendency to be unkind and untruthful, I struggle to alienate myself emotionally from that relationship because of how close I felt to her as a child.
Last Christmas catapulted my relationship with both my aunt (my mom’s sister) and my uncle (their brother) to the forefront of our holiday gathering. As I rounded the corner into the front hallway at my grandparents’ house, I found my uncle in my mom’s face, cussing and shouting at her over issues he had truly created for himself, ones for which she had tried to find him assistance. When she finally reached her limits, his response was more ugliness than I could handle. In that moment, I was so angry that I started shaking, and I proceeded to get in his face and let him know in no uncertain terms that he was never to speak to my mother that way again and that it was his own doing that he found himself in such a bind.
I wasn’t – and am still not – proud of letting my temper get the best of me, but it was the proverbial straw that broke that camel’s back. My aunt stood there mute the entire time, not a word in my mom’s defense or in mine when her brother turned his fury on me. The rest of the night, he too tried to pretend like nothing had happened, and I overheard them conversing that same evening about me: they were stumped as to why I had pulled back from my relationships with him. I reached the veritable end of my limits with both of them that night. No more. That was it. Until they could decide to play nice, I could only love them from afar. I will respect them because of the roles they hold in my life, but my boundaries are firmly delineated. I don’t have to be a party to their negative behavior anymore.
My decision impacts this year’s Christmas celebrations. I have no desire to interact with either my aunt or uncle. I told my mom that I realize they are her siblings and thus her immediate family, but I hoped she could respect my feelings. Thankfully, she may not like it, but she understands.
I’ve decided this year that, instead of focusing on what I have perhaps lost as a niece to my wacky aunt and uncle, I will focus on my own three nephews. I try to be the best aunt I can anyway, but this holiday clarifies the distinctions between my aunt and uncle’s behavior—and my own. Whereas my aunt and uncle are concerned about what others take from them, my priority is what I can give to these three precious monkeys. Where my aunt and uncle allow personal grievances within relationships to make everyone in the family uncomfortable, I refuse to let any conflict between my sister and I get to that extent, especially when it concerns her kids.
While I learned that trusting my aunt was akin to passively allowing a horse to kick you in the noggin, my boys hear me even now: “You can trust me. I won’t hurt you.” This applies even if it’s just about not getting shampoo in their eyes when they take a bath or getting my oldest to take the “yucky” fever reducer when he had a stomach virus. Whereas my aunt opts to retrieve gifts she has given when the going gets rough, my boys know that at least some of the gifts they receive from me inspire tradition and meaning. Every birthday, they each receive quarters in the amount of dollars of the respective ages they are turning, and together we put the money in the change banks I bought for them.
I’m not patting myself on the back. I know from experience and observation that sometimes the very act of attempting to be the complete opposite of something can drive you to extreme behavior that either mimics or is worse than the conduct you were trying to avoid. I can’t promise never to hurt those kids – I am one of six billion fallible human beings on planet Earth – but I can strive not to do it on purpose. Being a good aunt myself won’t make up for the relationships I’ve lost either; my relationship with my nephews isn’t a replacement for the mangled mess I call my aunt and uncle.
The idea is that I recognize how adults other than your parents, especially those within your own family, can impact your sense of security and even community. Children can’t distinguish the nuances of manipulation and intimidation within relationships, and so I remained naïve to my aunt and uncle’s ugliness for many years. Despite having been protected from it for so long, it was still an offense to my sensibilities when I discovered the truth. My nephews will not be compelled to make those difficult decisions regarding their relationship with me or about my character. What they see is what they will get from me: transparency, honesty, integrity, compassion, loyalty, commitment, and love. It is the greatest gift I can give them this Christmas and always.
Published: December 19, 2012