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A Is For Aunt

Motherhood was not for me, but having nephews has been a joy.

Two Nephews Photograph Copyright © 2016 by Susan Hooper
Source: Two Nephews Photograph Copyright © 2016 by Susan Hooper

Some observers describe motherhood as a sacred calling, but in my case the line must have been disconnected. I am one of those women who never had the least desire for children.

The reason might be buried deep in my unconscious, accessible only after years of therapy. Or it could simply be that I was the last child of my generation born in my family—the younger of two siblings and the youngest of my seven cousins on both sides of my family. When I was growing up, I rarely came into contact with babies or children younger than I. Like someone who has never tasted chocolate, I did not yearn for what I had not experienced.

I even avoided babysitting as a teenager. The responsibility of having children in my care—if only for a few hours—seemed far too daunting. Babies and small children were like little alien beings to me—squirmy, unpredictable, subject to ear-splitting crying jags and requiring know-how by their handlers that I neither possessed nor wanted to acquire.

In addition to lacking the skill set to keep them fed, sheltered, clothed and happy for short periods, I also had no idea how to raise children who would be anything other than the high-strung, anxious, melancholic and maladjusted creature I considered myself to be. Since this was not a fate I would have wished on another human being, I decided—quite wisely, I felt—to simply eliminate myself as a candidate for parenthood.

After college, I lived on the margins as a graduate student in English literature before settling into a career as a magazine and newspaper journalist. I found the work absorbing and satisfying; my days revolved around reporting, writing and racing against deadlines. I never once felt I might be missing something by not having children. Even watching my friends become parents did not awaken any dormant maternal instincts in me. I admired their courage, but I knew I did not have what it took to follow the path they were traveling with their small pink and blue bundles of joy.

For most of my time as a journalist, I lived in Honolulu—thousands of miles from my mother and brother in Pennsylvania. In 1995, after I had lived there for nearly seven years, my brother and his wife had their first child—a son. I was thrilled for them, but I did not grasp the effect this momentous event would have on my life. In 1998 they had a second son, and on my twice-yearly visits home I began to happily get used to my new role as my nephews’ Aunt Susan.

Not long after my younger nephew was born, my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She held her own for a while, but over the next few years, as the disease progressed, my brother found himself juggling fatherhood with frequent visits to my mother’s apartment a mile from his home to help her with grocery shopping, pill-taking and other tasks that were beginning to be too much for her.

During one of our weekly phone calls, my mother gleefully recounted to me that, as she, my brother and my older nephew were going up and down the supermarket aisles with their cart one evening, my nephew stopped a total stranger and said, out of the blue, “Aunt Susan lives far, far away.”

It was a sweet anecdote, but to me it had a sober meaning. I was far, far away—much too far away, given everything my family was going through. It was time to make a change.

In December of 2002 I quit my newspaper job and, within a few months, I bid a bittersweet aloha to Hawaii—my home for more than 14 years—and moved back to Pennsylvania, where I had not lived since the summer after I graduated from high school at age 17.

My focus was on my mother, whose Parkinson’s disease had worsened so much that she had to move to a nursing home near my brother in early 2003. But at the same time, I acquired two steadfast allies in my nephews, who by then were 5 and 8. I found an apartment four miles from my brother’s home; although this was not my plan when I signed the lease, it turned out to be the perfect place to make the transition from The Aunt Who Lives 5,000 Miles Away to The Aunt Who Lives Five Minutes Away.

Being so close to my family meant always having a place to go for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and family birthdays. For several years, when she was still able to travel by car, I would bring my mother to holiday celebrations at my brother’s house. When my mother became too frail to make those trips, we would bring the celebrations to her—setting up shop in one of the private lounges at the nursing home. On those occasions, the presence of my nephews—her long-awaited grandchildren—filled my mother with quiet joy, although she confessed to me after one visit that she felt so shy in their presence she didn’t know what to say to them.

When I was not assisting my mother, I tried through a variety of means to become an A+ aunt to my nephews. I baked apple pies at Thanksgiving and made-from-scratch brownies for Christmas and their birthdays. I invited them for sleepovers at my apartment, complete with blueberry pancake breakfasts the next morning. I took countless photos of them, compiling my snapshots into annual photo albums for their father that grew more and more elaborate as the years passed. I made a point of attending their school functions and ceremonies. And I took great delight in bragging about them to my friends.

Doing so was easy. Even as children, my nephews were smart, lively, funny and caring; in short, they were excellent company. No matter how frazzled I might be by my worries about my mother’s health or the high-stress, government press secretary job I took after I moved back home, a visit with my nephews was sure to lower my blood pressure and raise my spirits. I began to wonder how I had gotten along without them in Honolulu.

My mother lived at the nursing home for six and a half years, and I did my best to visit her every weekend and call her between visits with my latest news. She soldiered on in the courageous, stoic tradition of her long-lived Irish mother and grandmother, but her last months were marked by dramatic weight loss, a cancer diagnosis and the relentless progression of her Parkinson’s disease. She died just six days before her 90th birthday.

At her funeral in October of 2009, my nephews—who by then were 11 and 14—sat in the front-row pew of my mother's church, between my brother and me. I thought I was holding up well until, just after I finished giving my eulogy and returned to the pew to stand next to my older nephew, the organist began to play “Fairest Lord Jesus”—a beautiful hymn my mother had requested for her funeral. Suddenly overwhelmed by grief, I burst into tears and, without thinking, I turned to my older nephew and buried my head on his shoulder.

Instead of shrinking away in embarrassment as the average teenage boy might reasonably have done, he instantly reached out his right arm and held me in a sympathetic and comforting grip until I stopped crying. Even in my sorrow, I was impressed and humbled by his maturity and his instinctive kindness.

My mother’s illness brought me back to Pennsylvania, but the presence of my nephews has greatly contributed to my decision to stay put after she died. I have told them several times that I came back to take care of Grandma Hooper, as they called my mother, but the bonus for me has been being close at hand to see them grow up.

During the 13 years I have lived here, I watched them evolve from smart, lively, funny and caring children to smart, thoughtful, funny and compassionate young men. As they aged out of sleepovers on my living room floor, I hit upon the idea of taking them out to dinner periodically. This year, our dinnertime conversations have included their wry and trenchant observations on the many not-to-be-believed aspects of the 2016 presidential race. I treasure my time with them, and I wish my mother and father were alive to see what terrific grandsons they have.

This month, both nephews departed for college, and now I am geographically farther away from them than I have been since 2003. The day my younger nephew left for his first year of college in Washington, D.C., I showed up at 7:30 a.m. to get some photos for my 2016 album before he drove off with his parents. I am thrilled about this next step he is taking, but still I felt both a pang of sadness at this second fledgling leaving the nest and a sudden fear that I would say the wrong thing in my farewell to him.

As I hugged him goodbye, I blurted out, “It has been such a joy to be your aunt,” as if my status were a term of office that was ending with his departure. Sensing my panic, his mother, who was standing next to us, said gently, with affection and humor, “You’re still his aunt.”

I knew this was true, but it was profoundly reassuring to hear her say it. I wasn’t cut out to be a parent, but being an aunt has been one of the greatest satisfactions of my life. With my nephews’ guidance and support, I hope to get better at it with every passing year.

Copyright © 2016 by Susan Hooper

Photograph of Two Nephews Copyright © 2016 by Susan Hooper