This morning, during school time, Isaiah asked me just how many Aunts and Uncles he had. Asked to clarify what the parameters of the question were, Isaiah asked me how many people he would call by the title “Aunt” or “Uncle.” Which led me to do some quick addition – and to a number that came out above 70.
Now Eric and I don’t have that many siblings. In fact, I have two sisters, and until into adulthood, Eric was an only child. Nor do my parents make up for it at the great-level – each of them had one brother. So how on earth do I get 70 aunts and uncles for my kids?
Me, Eric and the boys with just a small selection of aunts and uncles and cousins!
Well, we’re a weird family – like a lot of families. Both Eric’s and my parents were divorced and remarried, we have more than our share of in-laws and out-laws, and all of our family, because of this, are accustomed to making space for a lot of people. And one of the courtesies that accompanies this making space is the formal acknowledgement of relationship – when you can hurt someone with your title, welcome them in or cut them out by how you describe it, you get careful about making space for people in both language and in person. Add to that our tendency to pick up chosen family, and, well, it makes for big (and fun) holiday dinners.
It also makes it a little confusing for kids. My sons have four Uncle Davids, three Uncle Jons, three Aunt Karens and two Aunt Sallys (to make the latter extra confusing, one is called great-aunt Sally, but she’s not the kids’ great aunt, while the other one is called plain aunt Sally, but actually is their great-aunt ;-)). It can be hard to figure out who we are talking about – there’s a lot of “No, not Uncle David in Maryland, Uncle David in New York City.”
In one sense, it also doesn’t tell you anything very clear about the relationship between my kids and the person in question. An Aunt, in our family, could be a mother’s sister or father’s step-sister or step-sister in law. She could be biologically your great aunt, or come through marriage. She could also be a first or second cousin of your mother or father. She could be your mother’s step-mother’s cousin, or the intended of a even more distant relative. She also could be an old friend of either parent, or their partner. They could be former housemates of either parent or both. They could be old friends of Mom’s parents, who *she* always called “Aunt” or “Uncle” growing up. There are a couple of people called “uncle” whose relationships are even more complex.
In another sense, however, it tells you something very clear – this person is part of your tribe. In general, it marks a longstanding relationship, or a formalized one. That is, most of the people who get the honorary title “aunt or uncle” get it by having that kind of near-family relationship before the children are born or when they are very young. Those relationships that have evolved into deep friendships from more casual ones since we have children don’t generally have those titles – not because they don’t deserve them, but because the children began calling the adults something else before the relationship was strong enough to merit the attachment. Others get it by marrying or partnering in – when my old college friend “Aunt” Bess brought Chris to visit for the first time, it was something of a formal announcement, and the kids got “Uncle Chris” from the beginning.
There are occasional odd moments – I once introduced my “Aunt” Luana as “Aunt Luana” whereupon she, startled, observed “You know I’m not your aunt, right?” Well, yes, I do know that. I’m sure some language has an official name for “my mother’s lesbian partner’s cousin who has functioned since you were a kid as approximately an aunt,” English is not among them. Another close set of friends, whose own children call them by the Hebrew names for mother and father “Ima” and “Abba” are called “Ima and Abba” by my kids as well. We weren’t using them, and this was their suggestion. I like it, but we’ve gotten some strange glances by Hebrew speakers who wonder why my kids are calling someone else Mom and Dad.
Now in many cultures this wouldn’t be strange – many cultures address nearly every adult in familial terms – “Tia” or “Grandfather” are honorifics to be applied to any older adult. In our own, however, where formal markers of relationships are often handed out more sparingly, I think it is, a little.
We talked a little, this afternoon, about what all these people have in common. A relationship to my kids, of course – although a few have never met my kids, and some may never meet them. Some of them are very close indeed, and some very far away, both geographically and relationally. Some times it marks a distant biological or social tie that on some level may not matter much.
And yet, I think it does matter – I will never forget my own experience, walking up to the houses of members of my husband’s family how nervous and uncertain I felt, and how that changed when Eric’s step-sister, who had only just met me, introduced me to her children as “Aunt Sharon” or when Eric’s grandparents asked me to call them “Grandma and Grandpa” and referred to me as their granddaughter. I grew up in a complicated family where relationships were not static – where family ties were made and remade, where people married and divorced, where you could suddenly acquire new siblings through marriage or foster parenthood, new relatives of all sorts – where it wasn’t uncommon to meet a new aunt or uncle. And everyone was hesitant those first few forays into relationship – but there’s nothing like saying “you are part of the family and here’s your part – whether it is literally true or not.”
Moreover, because my mother was a lesbian, it was always possible to blight the relationship with the failure of acknowledgement. It was always possible that someone could indicate in word or deed that we were not “really” connected, that that family did not count. To their enormous credit, most of my family tried incredibly hard not to do that. My paternal grandmother, who did not approve of lesbianism, and certainly did not approve of my mother leaving my father and moving in with a woman did her damnedest to hide her disapproval and to welcome Sue, to remember that they were tied through the children. Susie’s family, that might easily have considered the children of her female partner from a previous marriage to be different than their biological children welcomed us. I have the strongest memories of my childhood of those moments of acknowledgement, that I was theirs – that my step-mother’s aunt and uncle included us among the children they remembered at holidays, that people whose comfort levels were pushed worked hard to be inclusive.
I remember every snub, though, every time someone indicated that you mother’s lesbian partner’s family wasn’t like a “real” family, every time I self-consciously used a title that we weren’t technically entitled to by force of law and custom, waiting to see if it would be questioned, or someone would disavow the relationship. If this were the only argument in the world for gay marriage, IMHO, it would be sufficient – that no child ever be told theirs family is not real and does not count.
All of this hyper-awareness of who is in and who is out and how we place them gave me an appreciation for tribal ties – for the virtue of acknowledging by title and action “you are part of us.” It also gave me a taste for big tents – for the inclusion of those who fit neatly in categories and those who don’t. I would always rather welcome someone in than leave someone sitting outside, with no spot at the table.
My children are living in a stable nuclear family, and with luck, it will stay that way. I moved 10 times during the course of my childhood, and my parents had joint custody, so we shuttled between two homes. Except for Eli, who was 15 months when we moved here and does not remember our previous home, my children have lived their whole life in one place, with the same two parents. I can see the merits of that kind of stability – the fact that my children lived a less disrupted life than I did. They have an implicit trust that things will be ok that my sisters and I, and my husband didn’t have.
But I also think of the advantages of the fluctuating tribe, of the complicated family, both biological and chosen, where no, everyone doesn’t like each other or get along all that well, but where people try hard to make space for one another. I think of the virtues of that instinctive reaction that says “here, we can make a place for you, because we’ve done it before.”
I think of this when I think about the adaptations that will be necessary in the coming decades – the tribe, I think, is due to come back. There’s too much work for one person, or even a nuclear family. Sometimes the tribes will be biological in nature. Sometimes they will be mostly chosen. Most often, I think they will be odd intersections of both, of ties that are formal and informal, broken and whole. Not everyone with a title will be connected – some ties will be lost in the mists of time and space. But it seems that the big tribal tent is a place to start teaching my kids about how they are tied to other people – that a wide range of possible connections all matter. That you can be tied by love, or liking, by biology or by someone else falling in love. That you can tie and untie, but not necessarily undo relationships – that breakups and divorce, death and the failure of formal acknowledgement do not mean there is nothing there.
I do not know what this tribe of mine will shake out to be – how many of these people my children will still know and love in a generation, how our ties will change and bind. I do know that I counted for my sons, the names of the people who cared for them, and that the numbers rose higher than my littlest one can count.