This weekend, for once, I was the aunt I want to be. Marshall and I went to the park with my sister and her two girls. We packed a picnic for the girls, complete with basket and blanket and a variety of sandwich toppings. Never mind the day’s cold-searing wind; it was a beautiful day, and when the sun wasn’t behind a cloud, we could all take off our woolen hats.
My nieces have another aunt, too—my other sister, who lives in Chicago. The difference between their two aunts could not be more pronounced. There’s one, who slips them three or four cookies more than their mother allows and plays the same shrieking game for hours on end, and there’s the other one, who adheres to all the dull rules set by their parents and promptly disappears when she can, to some bedroom where she reads all afternoon and doesn’t want to play much at all. The fun aunt and the boring aunt. I know where I stand. What can I say. I like books.
I am a lot like my maternal grandmother in this sense. A child’s truth requires little weighing of subtleties, and when my sisters and I were children, there was no contest in this matter. My father’s mother, whom we called Banny, was our favorite. My first perception of Banny was always of that long, head-crushed-to-ample-bosomed embrace, in which gulping breaths of Paris perfume stood in for oxygen. Everything about her was expansive. While my other grandmother—my mother’s mother—is an elderly version of my own fairly lean form, part of what made Banny seem the better grandma was her amplitude. She was composed entirely of round, soft flesh. There was no part of her that didn’t reach out, grab you and hold you to her. She was the grandma who’d wake you up at midnight to make ice-cream sundaes, take you out for surprise shopping trips that lasted hours, slip you a multitude of other sugary treats right before the family meal and then hover over you during dinner itself, asking why you didn’t eat more ham, more sauerkraut, more mashed potatoes; she thought they were your favorite. She’d made them just for you.
Since Nona lived much farther from us than Banny, in eastern North Carolina, we’d visit her only once every couple of years—usually in the summer, on the way to a beach. I remember arriving at her house after hours in the hot car. That small house carried the scent of the farmland that surrounded it for miles on every side. That and dust and old wood and the cold cream Nona slapped on at night. I’d heft my red Snoopy WWI Flying Ace suitcase through her small house, back to the bedroom my sisters and I would share. I’d plunk the suitcase down, come back to the kitchenette and look up at Nona, waiting for something to happen. She would only pause while cutting up chicken for salad and say, “Didn’t you bring a book?”
For a few years now, I’ve comforted myself with the idea that as my nieces grew older, I’d become a better aunt to them. After all, when I grew to be a teenager and a college student, I became more interested in Nona’s long conversations and sitting out on the porch. We’d sit out there for hours, inhaling the pine scent of the summer and drinking pink wine as the shadows grew long and she told me about growing up in the Thirties, about peeling dozens of potatoes for her huge farming family’s dinner each day and about the time a neighbor-boy dared her to climb a water tower and she refused until he offered her a quarter, too. At Nona’s house, there were usually no real planned activities. Sitting like this and sharing stories is the activity.
I never think to plan special activities for my nieces. Their other aunt is the one who comes armed with plans to build gingerbread houses, who acts silly and gets them excited and running around and around the house. I’m the one who’s there to talk if they want, listen to music or maybe take a walk. That’s about as intricate as my fun times get.
But on Sunday, I was determined to do something different. At the park, I watched the girls zip around on their bicycles, satisfied. I felt like the clear skies and the park paths and the refreshing air hitting my nieces’ lungs were my doing. The older one showed me an abandoned Civil War era textile mill by the river and, talking fast, told me about other historic sites in her part of town; one has something to do with a Girl Scout badge she’s earning and another with a paper on Teddy Roosevelt. We should go to more such sites together, I said. “I’ve already been to a lot of them,” she replied. But she’d go with me if I wanted. All of us sat in the blanket in the sun and huddled against the cold, taking in the birdsong and the smell of spring. After the sandwiches and fruit, Marshall presented mass-produced chocolate cupcakes and the girls applauded. Through my camera window, the photos of the girls and their mother waving the colorful picnic blanket against the blue sky and laughing is proof of success. Success, even though my eldest niece politely refused a sandwich at all once she saw that I’d packed no white bread; even as the younger one got mad at the older one and burst into tears, and as, hours later, the older one sat and sulked in frustration about the unfair attention the younger one gets. As we ran errands and the girls and their mother sang along to pop hits I’d never heard and which made my skin crawl, I thought of how my one idea for an entertaining outing was now spent. About the next weekend or the next, I had no clue.
I am not the brand of cool aunt I had planned to be when these girls were born. But you can’t make yourself over for anyone you plan to know for very long, and imagining myself an expansive, larger-than-life personality for children was just unrealistic. If I can plan nothing else, at least I know I firmly intend a lifelong relationship with my nieces, and we’ll all get to know one another only as we are.