Another moment of truth. How old should a great-aunt be? I mean, a Really Great Aunt?
Over the Great Aunt Hill
[This piece is dedicated to four generations of Davis, Klein and Gottlieb women.]
I've just become a great aunt. So I guess that means I'm old. I can pretend that great refers to my being a vital, remarkable, noteworthy, prominent, distinguished aunt rather than a second generation one, but the unbelievable fact is, my big sister--only a few years my senior--is now a grandmother.
I can't stop thinking about it. My sister, the grandmother.
It doesn't roll off the tongue like "my son, the folksinger" or "my mother, the car" or even, "my therapist, the punk rocker."
This grandmother is the sister with whom I negotiated an invisible line across our shared bedroom to designate her airspace from mine. Neither of us could stick our heads over it and draw a breath, or we'd be in violation of a written agreement that could have gotten Henry Kissinger's approval. It's the same sister who once threatened to sell me to the Fuller Brush man if I didn't trade Barbie heads with her. She wanted the updated "bubble" hairstyle and I was stuck with the less fashionable ponytail. (I, of course, got the last laugh because mine is currently worth close to three million.)
The Historic News
The historic news about my niece's baby came too late in the workday to send an e-mail announcement to all 800 of my colleagues and expect to receive at least 799 congratulatory replies. Yet I needed immediate recognition. At 5 p.m. sharp, I rushed out to my car and taped a computer-generated flyer to the rear window that said: Honk If You Love A Great Aunt.
The drive home was, I'm sorry to report, uneventful.
I swallowed my disappointment and greeted my younger son by saying, "Your first cousin had her baby, which means I'm a great aunt!"
His face lit up and he said in a hopeful tone, "Am I an uncle now?"
It's times like these when parents have to make the tough choices. Should I tell him Yes, figuring that he won't know the difference, and if it tickles him to think he's an uncle, why not? Then I remembered that we don't live in a vacuum--and don't use one often enough either, but that's another story. In particular, he doesn't live without an older brother, who he is constantly measuring himself against. I understand completely: my big sister was the salutatorian of her high school class and could spell antidisestablishmentarianism before her third birthday.
If I affirmed his status as an uncle, the first thing my son would do is run, not walk, to Big Brother and declare, "Guess what? I'm an uncle!"
Not an Uncle
Predictably, brother will hit the pause button on his portable CD player, smugly say, "No you're not--I don't have any kids yet. That's the only way for you to be an uncle," and then resume listening to the music.
"Yes, I am an uncle," he'll retort, "Mom said!"
The discussion will deteriorate until small but not insignificant pieces of furniture are being flung across the room and parental intervention is required. My older son will scold me for making false statements, causing him to lose a precious minute of listening to the latest Britney Spears song, and my younger son will hate me for having misled him, not appreciating that it was for the sake of his happiness. He'll never trust my word again. I might as well put myself on eBay for Mom adoption. But I don't know how many bids will come in because who would want an old Mom like me?
More Sibling Rivalry
Despite my initial excitement, it took every last ounce of maturity not to phone my sister and accuse her of robbing the cradle by making me a great aunt before my time. After all, I couldn't really blame my sweet niece for having a baby. As I always say: when in doubt, sibling rivalry rules.
In an attempt to resolve my confusion, I arrived at one of the great enigmas of modern life: being a grandmother is "in"; being a great aunt is "out." Which sister becomes which, and at what age, is merely a matter of numbers. My sister was only 28 when her first child was born. This is the child who, at 22, has just given birth, but please resist the urge to add these two figures because Grandma may not want everyone to know her exact age. I was 34 when motherhood hit. Extrapolating from there, with any luck I'll be a cool 68 before I'm a grandmother.
And if things get any worse between my sons, they might both decide to remain childless forever.
When in Doubt, Make a Bulleted List
I lay in bed that first night and ran through a mental checklist of qualities I could recall among my great aunts, rating myself point by point.
- They were old.....No check.
- They had stylishly coifed hair.....Nope.
- Their makeup was tasteful.....Subjective, but checked anyway.
- They were dignified.....Forget it.
- Given half a chance, they were quick to pull photos of their grandchildren out of their wallets.....Ouch.
Clearly I didn't make the grade.
The media is filled with slogans designed to present a positive image of aging to women. You're not getting older, you're getting better. You've come a long way, baby. Look years younger by getting a face lift at our state-of-the-art, drive-through surgical facility. So what's my problem?
Miracle cosmetics and pharmaceuticals aside, the fact remains that each year I get older, just like everyone else (except Dick Clark and Jane Fonda.) My kids have outgrown diapers; they can even tie their own shoes--for very special occasions or when offered a suitable bribe. My sister is a grandma and, despite failing my own checklist, I'm a great aunt. If a healthy chunk of age-related milestones are as great as these, I think I'll be okay.
Meanwhile, I'm going to enroll in charm school, majoring in dignity and stylishly coifed hair.