Before I go, I have something to say

The Importance of Aunts & Uncles

Lately I’ve been missing my aunts and uncles. A few are still alive – two widowed aunts, living out their dementia-fogged days in assisted living, and one matched set, the aunt a nurse, the uncle my mother’s younger brother. He, too, is in the grip of Alzheimer’s, that hideous malady that stole my mother and her older brother, too, long before their bodies passed on. There were four siblings in my mother’s family, and only her older sister Ethel remained sharp as a tack until other ailments took her.

I can’t remember if I had a favorite aunt as a kid. Aunt Louise, married to my dad’s younger brother, was a lot of fun, loving nothing better than to pull on a sweatshirt at daybreak and head out in a fishing boat to troll for that night’s dinner. I didn’t make much distinction, back then, between blood relatives and those who married into the clan, at least not until Uncle Clayton and Aunt Joanie got divorced. What a shock that was! Four children, and she goes off and marries another man. Clayton found another wife, and they remain the only pair still alive.

It’s hard to think of them as anything but couples. Uncle John seemed tailor-made for his wife Genevieve. Both talked up a storm, and prized the finer things in life. As Dad enviously put it, “John can take any hobby and turn it into gold.” Bob, his younger brother by ten years, married Louise. Both were nature lovers, puzzle completers, faithful churchgoers. Dad’s sister Dorothy and her husband opened Doc and Dot’s Doll Hospital in Akron, Ohio.

The two sides of the family seemed clearly divided, Dad’s all Presbyterian, teetotalers (except for Dad), practical jokers, pun lovers, and always busy, busy, busy, whether at work or at home. Mom’s side tended to be more C & E Christians, drank with gusto (the clink of their ice cubes part of the soundtrack of my childhood), and liked nothing better than to go for a ride in the country on Sunday afternoons. They were awfully busy, too.

When I think of gatherings on either side of the family, I hear laughter. Peals of it from my mother, who might have seemed a nervous wreck until her kin piled through the door. All those holidays, whether Christmas at Grandma’s or Thanksgiving at Ethel and Albie’s, make me think of Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” which asks, “Were there Uncles like in our house?” And the answer: “There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles. . . . Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars. . . .” That would be Albie, waking from his after-dinner nap to light a fresh cigar.

I hardly ever saw my Uncle Dacil once he married Arvin and moved to South Houston, where he lived the rest of his days with no kids, but the wife of his dreams. He called my mom weekly; I knew it was him by his charming Texas accent. Mom was fifteen when her younger brother, Clayton, was born, and Dacil was already in the Navy. I wrote a poem about them, based on a picture that puts a lump in my throat. Tall, tanned Dacil, all long arms and legs, sits on my grandparents’ porch reading a book to baby faced Clayton, who can’t be more than three. I wrote about how someday, they would both be men, drinking beer and making small talk in the backyard.

I’ve never been an aunt. I knew from childhood that my handicapped sister would never have children. My first husband had three cousins, but they never called me Aunt Pam. (It sounds funny, anyway.) My new, improved husband has scads of nieces and nephews, but they tend to see me as “Uncle Bob’s wife,” and I don’t blame them. I missed their births, their christenings, their first days at school and camp, everything except the handful of weddings that have taken place since I married their uncle.

We get along fine, though. I’m not sure how I imagine an ideal aunt would comport herself. From what I’ve seen, the best of the bunch become confidantes, big sisters without the sibling rivalry. I’d love to have spoiled my sister’s kids, reading to them, making cookies and Halloween costumes. I’m in no hurry to become a grandmother. Aunthood seems good practice for that, though. I am already the step-grandaunt to two adorable little boys I don’t see nearly enough.

When I think of aunts and uncles, I think of holidays, and special flowers in the garden (blowsy peonies in one, prize-winning dahlias in another), and signature dishes (Gen’s suet pudding, better than it sounds, or Albie’s grilled-on-the-outdoor-rotisserie turkey). It seems like it’s always a holiday when I think of them.

Except for a time late in the last century. I’d had to put my mom in an eldercare home when her mind grew unreliable, so I drove endlessly between Dubuque and Davenport. Every time I said goodbye to Mom, I would head over to Wilkes Street for a dose of Ethel and Albie. Despite their own fragile health, they never failed to cheer me up. The word “unflagging” was invented for those two. As long as they had each other, they were fine, even though Albie could hardly walk and Ethel’s vision had been robbed by macular degeneration.

No matter. I would tell them how Mom was doing, and then they would tell me stories, and before we knew it, we were laughing at the comedy of the world. I miss them, my aunts and uncles. God bless them, every one.

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