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Aunt Envy

by Julia Sneden

My childhood was pretty close to perfect, except for a happenstance that rankled and deprived me of one longed-for object: an aunt. Both my parents were only children, so my brother and I lacked not only aunts, but also uncles. Now uncles I could do without. I figured they’d be something like my older brother, smarter and bigger and rougher than I, and usually too busy with their own pursuits to have much time for me. But from what I could see from the families of my friends, aunts were entirely desirable: young, fun, indulgent, and likely to make a very satisfactory fuss over their nieces.

Oh, I had plenty of great aunts, two on my mother’s side (and one more by marriage) and three on my father’s (with an additional three by marriage). There wasn’t anything specifically wrong with them, but they weren’t young and adventurous like the young aunts of my friends.

Aunt Martha, my maternal grandmother’s sister, came the closest, for all she was in her 70’s when I was born, and rather frail. “I have a bum heart,” she said matter-of-factly as I fetched her digitalis for her. Her heart didn’t keep her from being my boon companion even though our adventures were imaginary. She knew all sorts of little verses and games of word play. She told delicious stories about her childhood on the Great Plains. She was willing to engage in imaginary play of a kind to delight a four-year-old. All I needed to do was whisper, “Let’s play witches!” and she would start cackling most convincingly. When I grew older, she taught me how to play Chinese Checkers and Backgammon, and she never let me win. When I remonstrated, she said: “Ah, but if we play enough, you’ll be able to beat me without help and without cheating, and then you’ll know you’ve really done something.” So we kept at it, and eventually I did beat her, and she was right.

Aunt Julia, for whom I was named, lived nearly 3,000 miles away and was in her 80’s. Although my mother adored her, and described her as a bright, liberated woman, I didn’t really know her, having met her just once when we visited her for a few days.

I was five and she was 88, and the age gap was a little intimidating.

Aunt Della, my paternal grandmother’s sister, was a powerful and sometimes frightening woman, for all she had a good heart. She spoke in a loud, nasal voice, and tended to swoop down at small children, seeking a hug. Among the grownups, she didn’t swoop, but there was never any doubt about her opinions. She insisted on calling my grandmother, whose name was Prudence, “Prude.” Grandma explained that it was an affectionate name, but something inside me bristled anyway. Della was a demon bridge player and a very intelligent woman, and she was always nice to me, so I can’t justify my reserve when it comes to loving her. Let’s just leave it at respect.

Aunt Reuby (named for her Uncle Reuben) was Grandma’s next younger sister. She was a chunky little woman, very red of face and white of hair. My father told me that she had been the family tomboy, able to throw a baseball over the big barn on the family’s ranch. I was tremendously impressed with that, and might have found a kindred spirit in Aunt Reuby, except that by the time I knew her, she had defected to the more traditional role for women in those days. She seemed to me to spend most of her energies on her bridge club and her hair dresser.

Aunt Carra, the youngest of my grandmother’s family and only six years older than my father, was a darling. She had two wonderful boys who might well have filled in for my non-extant first cousins if only they had lived nearer. We rarely saw Carra or her family, but when we did, I thought them all quite perfect, including Carra’s husband, a quiet, dear man who really listened to others, even the young.

I learned a lot about family history from all those great aunts, and I was certainly the recipient of their benevolent interest. It feels a little chintzy to complain, and I don’t want to downgrade their importance in my life, but ...

My next door neighbor and best friend, Connie, had a real aunt, no “great” involved. Aunt Faith was young and attractive; she drove a yellow convertible; she was a WAC (this during WWII). When she came breezing into the driveway at Connie’s house, bearing presents for Connie and her little sister, looking really spiffy in her uniform, top down on the convertible, I thought I would die of envy. And while she was always very nice to me, it was quite obvious that her attention was really focused on her nieces, whom she adored. I could hardly stand it.

I would trudge home and complain to my mother about my aunt-less existence. It never occurred to me that my poor mother, who would have given a great deal to have had any sibling at all, even a (shudder!) boy, probably shared my discontent. She, wise woman, would just shrug and find something to divert my attention from Aunt Faith’s visit next door.

What I didn’t know then was that as much as Connie loved and enjoyed her Aunt Faith, it’s for certain that Aunt Faith got every bit as much and maybe even more out of the relationship than the girls did. I know this because when I grew up, I became an aunt, blessed with two nieces and two nephews.

We don’t live near each other, and my presence in their lives has been carried out largely via the US Mail, but those times that we have spent together loom large in my memory. I’m not sure I’m a particularly wonderful auntie, but let me tell you, I love all four of those rascals with all my heart. They seem to me to be remarkably well-rounded, intelligent young folk – but that figures. It has something to do with their parents, I guess, but then too, they never had to suffer from aunt-envy, which can, let me tell you, warp the soul.

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