Philadelphia Metropolis


The Great Aunt's Club

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By Susan Toland

On Saturday, March 3, 2012, at 10:03 a.m., Grace Marianne Lauber came into the world, unwittingly making me a great-aunt for the eighth time.  Several days later, we were properly introduced through the marvel of SKYPE.  I was curious to meet her.  Since we were not privy to her sex before she was borr, we referred to her as Baby Lauber.  Now, there she was, on the screen; a new little person, complete with a gender and a name.  Her parents and grandparents clustered around Gracie like planets orbiting the sun.  Seeing them together, I felt the same mixture of relief, joy, curiosity, optimism and love I've experienced with every baby that has come into the family. 

At first, I think of each newborn as a living, breathing stockpile of the combined heredity of two families.  It is a staggering thought.  But then I remember that it is merely the rich soil out of which this new life has sprung.  Gracie, not yet a week old was already curious and kicking with energy; staking her claim to be entirely herself. And I say Brava!

Until my nephews and nieces began to marry and have their own kids, I'd never thought much about becoming a great-aunt.  After all, what's the difference, really, between being an aunt and being a great-aunt?  There is a difference and it is one of repositioning.  I'm still in the picture, just standing a few paces back to allow my nieces--newly-minted aunts themselves--to take their places in the immediate circle around the recent arrivals.

My reconfirmed status as great-aunt has gotten me thinking about the three great-aunts I was lucky enough to know growing up; my dad's aunts Kas and Kitty, and my mother's Aunt Agnes.  They would have found the term, role model, laughable, but they have enriched my concept of what it is to be a great-aunt.  An inveterate traveler who wore bright colors and quantities of jewelry,

Aunt Kas worked as an art supervisor and taught third grade in the Philadelphia school district.   Though Kas was twice married, neither husband exerted much influence on her overall life.  She juggled her work and home lives, family and friends and her travels with aplomb.  I've come to appreciate this balancing act since I joined the great-aunts' club.  When my father was a boy, Aunt Kas discovered that he was being mistreated by his step-mother and convinced her parents to bring him to live with them. I've always admired her and been grateful to her for that. 

Aunt Kitty was inclined to be as prickly as the cacti that surrounded the white adobe house she designed and lived in on a mountainside overlooking Santa Fe, New Mexico.  She never came east to visit us, and sometimes returned Dad's letters with corrections in red.    Still, she sent us postcards from her travels in Europe and South America.  And when we visited her in the summer of '65, she introduced us to her friends in the Santa Fe artists' colony.  She was passionate about painting and taught many others her craft, including workers at the top-secret nuclear project in Los Alamos.  While I work at my writing, I think of her.  She made me see the possibilities of a fulfilling life in the arts.

Aunt Agnes, a wee Scotch woman with a significant hearing impairment, was mechanical by nature.  She worked for the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, repairing trolley-car motors in a noisy shop.  That she was hard-of-hearing made no difference in that environment and she minimized its impact on her life.  She considered her deafness merely one of the cards she'd been dealt, of no greater or lesser significance than the rest.  "Everybody's got something," she once told me, with a shrug.

Aunt Ag lived with and cared for her mother in their well-scrubbed house on Water Street in Kensington.  She also took in her sister Mary and helped raise Mary's son and daughter.  She revered education, though she'd had to leave school at an early age.  Aunt Ag would be thrilled to know just how many of her nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews have gone on to receive advanced degrees in a variety of fields.

Thanks to Aunt Kas, Aunt Kitty and Aunt Agnes, I've come to realize that there's no such thing as the Perfect Aunt.  They never fretted about falling short of any such arbitrary ideal; they simply went about their lives, including us where they could.  I see now that the best way for me to be a good aunt and great-aunt is to share who I am-- quirks and all--with my nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews.

I have no control over how they will remember me, so I think I'll just relax.



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