Upping the Ante

Commentary: Alphabet Soup

I was in Spanish class when the note came. It was a small piece of memo pad paper with an office staffer’s handwriting on it. Someone had called in some news for me.

“It’s a girl,” it said — no exclamation point, no emotion, just matter of fact. And the facts continued: 5 lbs, 8 oz; 18 inches long. I can still see the writing, and still remember the feeling that my life had just taken on a whole new texture.

Aunt Kris.

That was in 1985 — March 8, to be exact. I was in the 10th grade, 15 years old. My big brother, the new daddy, was 17 and apparently had never heard of condoms. Somewhere there is a picture of him — or maybe it’s just in my head — wearing a yellow surgical gown over his clothes, smiling and holding this little bundle of life he helped create. His hairstyle in this picture befits the year, New Wave chic — and he’s a good-looking kid. I have no idea what he’s thinking in this picture, or in the larger picture of the new texture of his life, but I’m guessing it must be something along the lines of: “Oh, shit.”

My first contact with the baby was when I touched her tiny hand and she wrapped her fist around my index finger and held on. I felt an immediate bond — I’m a sucker for things like that, and didn’t yet know that pretty much any infant will do the exact same thing if finger and fist are in the right proximity. Still, it was a bonding gesture, and the significance was not lost on me.

We had many more bonding moments in the years that followed — aunt and niece at the park, at the pond admiring ducks, at the theme park, at the shopping mall, the shopping mall, the shopping mall. I think somewhere along the way I passed along some of my wisdom, such as it is, to her, but what I took from the relationship seems much more monumental. With Tara I learned how to be an aunt — it’s not just a title for me, a way of describing a familial relationship. Tara helped me make that word a verb.

I’ve always strived to be a good aunt. Years later, other nieces would follow — starting in 2000 with my partner’s sister’s first-born, again in 2002 (my brother again, with considerable help from his wife), and most recently in 2003, my partner’s sister’s second kid. I love each of them with a ferocity I can barely describe, and I’d risk life and limb to keep them safe.

Tara, the original niece — the one who wrote shortly after Carney’s birth in 2000, “I may not always be your favorite, but I’ll always be #1″ — is 21 now. A couple of years ago, she got married. She was 19 and, bucking the trend in my family, she married solely out of love, not in response to an unintended pregnancy. In fact, any query about children was met with a “talk to the hand” sort of response.

Meanwhile, she’d harass me occasionally about giving her a cousin, although she never bought into my plan for her to move out here and live with us and be our baby’s nanny. At 35, I’m still halfway terrified about the prospect of being a parent, and in my situation — having no ready access to sperm — it’s pretty easy to put it off, while the biological clock ticks with increasing urgency.

In one of those strange twists — one of those “surely I am living in a parallel universe of my actual life” events — I learned last week that it’s not enough for me to be a good aunt. I am now on course to be a great aunt. Rather, a great-aunt. “Talk to the hand” has become “Dan and I are thrilled.” The owner of the little hand that squeezed my finger in a hospital room in 1985 will soon be changing diapers and cuddling and caressing a little being of her own creation.

Maybe she’ll give me a nephew — no one else has managed that yet. Maybe he’ll grow up to adore me as much as I’ll inevitably adore him. Or maybe it’ll be another niece — can’t have too many of those — and she’ll be sweet and perfect, just like the others.

The thought of becoming a great-aunt in my mid-30s isn’t too scary to me. The thought of my once-little niece becoming a mom is a little odd, but I can roll with it. What’s really blowing my mind is the thought that my big brother, who at 17 held that baby while wearing that sterile yellow gown, will now be a grandfather at age 38 (or freshly 39, if the timing works out). That seems like a crime against the natural order of things.

Recently I was having trauma about the notion that his 20-year high school reunion is this year (meaning mine follows next year). This trumps that, for sure. The idea of a little critter running around in a couple of years calling my brother “grandpa” — whoa. I suppose he’ll have to start smoking a pipe, go gray, wear cardigan sweaters.

Meanwhile, I’ll still be Aunt Kris. Nobody uses “Great-Aunt” as a salutation. It’ll be a description — I’ll just be a great aunt — and with any luck, this little infant will wrap a fist around my finger and squeeze hard, promising to teach me how to make that description a verb.

Kristina Campbell encourages input on how to be a great-aunt, or simply how to be a great aunt. She can be reached at kcampbell@metroweekly.com.

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