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When she was a toddler, I showed my niece Leslie the Atlantic Ocean.
I can’t recall if she’d never seen it before, which seems unlikely, or if she’d just never seen it at an age when she could understand and comment on it. But I remember clearly that we were in Hilton Head, S.C., for a family vacation, and I stole her just minutes after she and her parents arrived at our big rental house so that I could carry her to the beach.
I loved the gentle weight of her in my arms, the feel of her soft cheek against my scratchy one, the riot of inquisitiveness and wonder in her eyes. The world was so big to her and so brand new. We reached the sand and then the water’s edge, and I angled her so that those eyes could take in the blue-gray expanse. What, I asked her, do you make of that?
Her parents had been teaching her both English and Spanish; her answer reflected that. “So many aguas in there!” she trilled. My heart did cartwheels. I kissed her about 100 times. And I thought to myself that this uncle business was possibly the best thing that had ever happened to me.
More than two decades have passed since then. I’ll be back in Hilton Head with Leslie again next weekend, for another family gathering. Only this one’s bigger — it’s her wedding. I’m whiplashed by the passage of time, wowed by the woman she has become, braced for many more aguas in the form of my tears as she walks down the aisle. And I still think that this uncle business is the bomb.
Leslie gave me my first sweet taste of it but hardly my last. Courtesy of three fecund siblings, I have nine nieces and nephews, all of whom have graduated from high school and four of whom have graduated from college. Yes, that makes me feel ancient. But it also means that I’m full to bursting with memories like that moment on the edge of the Atlantic, which captured the singular blessing of being an uncle or aunt.
You get to skim the cream of the child-rearing experience, even more so than grandparents do. You’re on the hook for little in the way of obligations; you’re in line for lots in the way of fun. You’re all escapades, no drudgery. If it takes a village to raise a child, well, you’re the village rec center. It’s the ultimate cheat.
Or at least it is for many of us. I’m familiar with uncles and aunts who have had to step into the breach of parental hardship or dysfunction, becoming surrogates of sorts. There are also families whose members are too estranged from one another for uncles and aunts — or grandparents, for that matter — to participate easily and elatedly in a child’s life.
I got luckier than that. Growing up, I had three uncle-and-aunt sets, two of whom lived reasonably nearby: my father’s brothers and their wives. I experienced them as thrilling vacations from my parents, whose love was necessarily mingled with judgment.
My Uncle Jim didn’t judge. He took me to “Cats” (and, over time, I came to forgive him for that). My Uncle Mario didn’t judge. He took me out on his boat. My Aunt Vicki and my Aunt Carolyn didn’t caution me about eating too much. They chided me for eating too little. When I visited them, seconds were a given, “calorie” was a four-letter word, and the doggie bag contained enough leftovers for a week.
Needless to say, I loved visiting them. I also learned, for those occasions, to wear loose pants.
And because my uncles and aunts weren’t compelled by any firmly established norms to spend X amount of time with me or pay Y degree of interest, their attention made me feel special in a singular way. It still does.
I’m certain that I haven’t succeeded to the same degree with my nieces and nephews. But I’ve given it my best flawed shot, and when all goes well, there’s a kind of ease between uncles or aunts and their nieces and nephews that’s noticeably different from the relationship between a child and a parent or grandparent. Becoming friends with my mother and father lagged years behind becoming friends with my uncles and aunts. I admitted things to my uncles and aunts that I would never, at that time, have admitted to my parents, and a few of my own nieces and nephews have shared with me sides of themselves — sloppy sides, self-doubting sides — that I believe they were more reluctant to let their parents see.
My uncle experience is no doubt colored by the fact that I have no children of my own. That’s not uncommon for gay men and women of my generation: When I graduated from college, into adulthood, in the mid-1980s, gay parenting was much rarer and less accepted, so many of us never factored progeny into our plans. We’re some of the world’s most devoted uncles and aunts, and while I’m not aware of any research into this, I’d bet that diminished bigotry toward gay and lesbian people among Americans in their 20s and 30s owes a bit to how many of those Americans had us in their lives.
Lately, there have been articles and fresh hand-wringing about declining fertility rates in many countries — about fewer people becoming parents and parents having fewer kids. We could be on the cusp of a generation of Super Uncles and Aunts.
But my sister, Adelle, manages to be both a devoted mother and an indulgent aunt. I’m a fascinated student of her interactions with her nieces and nephews, of the precise measures of authority figure (just a dash), role model (a teaspoon), confidante (two heaping tablespoons) and cruise director (a full cup) that go into the recipe. She’s gentle with her counsel, generous with her tequila. I take the same approach, but I swap out the tequila for white wine.
And I get to communicate my love for her by lavishing affection on her kids — by watching football with Gavin, who’s a Philadelphia Eagles maniac, or claiming one of the front-row seats for the production of “Mamma Mia!” in which Bella, who had a juicy supporting role, sang her heart out. That’s yet another joyful facet of being an uncle or aunt: It can deepen your bond with your siblings, adding layers to it.
The whole messy, merry lot of us — all my siblings, all their spouses, all their children — will be on hand for Leslie’s wedding, when she’ll be the most beautiful bride ever. I’ll tell her so. That’s what uncles are for.