Winter 2017 — THE POTOMAC

How to Be an Aunt

  Alison Morse

     Fall in love with a man who does not want to have children, by candlelight, on your first date in a Minneapolis bar with exposed brick and Belgian beer. He has the body of a marathon runner, says he has no interest in kids in a soothing baritone; asks your opinion. You are a fourth grade teacher, surrounded by kids you like—love. But you are in your mid–thirties and lonely for an adult companion. You say you are ambivalent about children.

     At your first Christmas with your new lover's family, stare into his cloudless blue eyes and exchange smirks as you both refrain from praying to Jesus for the deer roast on the table. He is the only agnostic in his family; you are a Jew. Memorize the names of his Lutheran minister father, mother, brother and newly unemployed adopted sister, who ended her stint as an escort in Atlantic City with drug rehab back home in Minnesota. You, whose Jewish family was not allowed to own a home in most Minneapolis suburbs until the 1960s, imagine how difficult it was for this nappy–tressed, cappuccino–skinned sister to grow up with your lover's blond family in their Frosty–the–Snowman Minnesota town. She could have fit in with Jew–fro'd, olive–skinned you in North Minneapolis, where blacks and Jews ice–skated together in Sumner Field, and your elementary school best friend was a black girl named Jackee. You want to like this sister. But she rattles on about Jesus and never seems to stop talking to take a breath.

     Prepare for the possibility of a next generation.

     You have no immediate family at your wedding. Your parents died young and you are an only child. Your friends arrive pregnant, with infant twins, toddlers in–hand. Your husband's adopted sister, who you haven't seen in five years, shows up newly sober, again, with her three–year–old daughter, who runs to you, throws her tiny, espresso–dark arms around your white wedding skirt, won't let go of your legs. During the reception, play peek–a–boo with her; decorate her hair with the entire contents of your wedding bouquet.

     Decide, once and for all, not to have kids. Your clock has slowed past the point of safety. Besides, you have a fatherless niece, whose mother is dry but spends her free time chasing the men in her D.A.A. group.

     Buy your favorite children's books for your niece: tales of rabbits and mice. Help her try to sound out words on the page. She can't. When she turns seven, help her with homework. She barely sits still, switches parts of words around. Your husband's sister says, "She's like me, not into reading."

     Arrive at your sister–in–law's to pick up your niece for a dyslexia test. Ring the buzzer. No answer; the door is locked. Your sister–in–law has disappeared into a world of crystal meth. Child Protection Services does not allow you see your niece until she is placed in foster care.

     Once a week, prepare roast chickens, baked potatoes and salad for your niece, her foster mother and four foster sisters.

     Purchase the Minnie Mouse cake your niece picks for her eighth birthday. After a chorus of "Happy Birthday," one of her foster sisters says, "Happy Birthday, stupid." Your niece threatens to shove a piece of cake up the girl's butt. Coax your niece into the bathroom and say: "that's no way to talk to the people you live with. You're better than that." She says they threaten to beat her up almost every night.

     Ask your husband if you can adopt your niece. He says no. The one time he helped his sister, by lending her his apartment during his junior year abroad, her boyfriend pocked the bathroom door with bullets. "I can't get involved in her life," he says. "She's too dangerous." "But she's gone," you say. "She always comes back." Build an invisible fence between you and your husband's icy logic.

     Your niece says her mother showed up at a corner near school looking skinny, pimply, and "dressed like she's turning tricks." She begged your niece to come talk to her. "Don't go near your mother," you say, sure you know what's best. Your niece promises not to, lets you kiss her berry–round cheek.

     Bring up adoption again with your husband. Again, he says no. Imagine being married to a Jewish man. He, too, would know otherness. It would be written into his DNA, nurtured by his upbringing. Adoption of his abandoned niece would be a given.

     Your niece says her mother was at the corner again, crying, shivering, coatless in the cold. She hobbled across the street in high heels, hugged your niece and said: "I'm coming back for you."

     "Why didn't you run?"

     Your niece stares at her shoes. "I don't know."

     Certain only you can protect your niece, ask for a separation from your husband. Rent a two–bedroom apartment near her school. It will be a haven for both of you. Drive her there for dinner, your niece's favorite: spaghetti with gobs of hamburger, a mountain of cheddar cheese. Show her around the big living room and kitchen. Open the door to the second bedroom, where bed linens, table lamp, dresser and mirror are decorated with Minnie Mouse. Ask your niece if she likes the room. She nods.

     Ask if she'd like to live here. Your niece freezes.

     Ask again. She leaves the room, locks herself in the bathroom.

     Stand outside the bathroom door. Hear your niece cry for the first time: tiny animal sobs. Tell her you love her. Ask if you can help. Her crying subsides. The door opens.

     Your niece lies curled in the tub. "I want my mama," she pleads, whimpering. You kneel and place your hand on her shoulder. She swats your hand away.

     See, for the first time, the fence between you and your niece. Your empathy has fallen short. She already has a mother. Learn how to be an aunt.

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