The Enduring Power of Aunties
The Enduring Power of Aunties

The enduring power of aunties

A collection of stories about the complex relationships we have with our aunts.

Kelly Conaboy, Gaby Del Valle, Aaron Edwards, Tirhakah Love, Judnick Mayard, Diamond Sharp, Vidal Wu

Nov—30—2017 9:00AM EST

The enduring power of aunties

A collection of stories about the complex relationships we have with our aunts.

When I think of the word “aunt,” a few scenes come to mind, like fleeting vignettes blurred softly at the edges. I think of my Aunt Pat, a sharp-witted, strict, and adventurous matriarch, leading my family in an exercise to determine our individual “love languages.” We each express our love differently, she’d say, and it was crucial that we understood those differences if we were to stick together.

I think of my Aunt Natasha, with a voice like Whitney Houston’s, singing and playing a baby grand tucked into the corner of her home office. I think of the many family friends who were introduced to me as “auntie” and would forever be an extension of home. I think of the electric slide and “let him have a little bit of wine, he’s old enough” when I wasn’t old enough. I think of a spanking delivered by my mother’s proxy and “let me tell you about your mom at your age” at Thanksgiving dinner. I hear arguments in Patois, hijacked games of Taboo, and crackling slams of dominoes on table glass because someone is winning, or bluffing, or both.

Aunts, chosen and by blood, shape us in ways that our mothers and fathers cannot. There is no singular way this works. To some, they are a primary guardian. To others, they parachute into our lives with profound grace or infamous messiness. These are stories of our aunts: what they teach, who they influence, what they cook, how they navigate the world, and most of all: why they matter.

— Aaron Edwards

Lou’s fearlessness

Auntie Lou has a clever and secret gravity. She knows a little more than she says, and she says a lot in a little bit of time, but don't get it twisted: my aunt is not a quiet woman. Her voice is dynamic: a deep Mississippi twang shooting out of gapped teeth, rattling commands like a gatling gun — "c'merelilBOY!" — and dishing wisecracks at a rate only trained ears could catch. In another life, at another time, Auntie Lou and her virtuosic, high-pitched squeal-talk contrasted with low bottoming bellows would be honored at a Def Comedy Jam anniversary show, along with her remarkable black-ass wit and stage presence. Like the Sommores, Sheryl Underwoods, and Adele Givenses of the world, my auntie could have you in stitches by her strut alone.

Auntie Lou loves to tell jokes wrapped in biblical parables that always end with positive messages (Stay in school! Stand up for yourself!). Sometimes they delve into the corporeal, like when she told me how to avoid bubble guts when my cousin had an acid reflux scare (“a Sprite or a ginger ale would knock that right out.”) Other times, she waxed revelatory, like when she reprimanded my 12-year-old self for telling her and my mother that I wanted to be a P.I.M.P after the 50 Cent record dropped. "Boy, you don't even know what a pimp is," she said before explaining exactly what a pimp does, Schoolhouse Rock style. She’s a fearless comedian and storyteller, an almost polar opposite of her stoic husband, my Uncle Don. Every time we'd roadtrip to Mississippi from Houston, their home was the first place I'd want to stop.

“She knew a thing or three about the ingredients of beauty, about the essence of honest, human aesthetics.”

My biological parents are divorced and my father (Auntie Lou's brother) has never been a steady presence in my life. I am my absent father's child: a quick-witted troublemaker who gets bored easily and has a trauma-fueled temper. A handful. But in Lou and Don’s sturdy two-bedroom home, I was kept tame with fried chicken (all the soul food fixings, really) and hours of HGTV.

Auntie Lou could have been an interior designer or maybe even a life coach. She knew a thing or three about the ingredients of beauty, about the essence of honest, human aesthetics. One time, I asked her about her tooth gaps (I have a few myself) and whether she'd ever want to fix them. She smiled and said, "1) I'm too old. All that head gear, my teeth would probably fall out! and 2) this is my look, my gap is a part of me." I lived through high school with braces and thought about what she said in that moment; about what it meant to own yourself and the features others might call flaws. I’m still learning how to do that.

She was the linchpin that kept our summers ice-tea-sweet and smooth. Sometimes that meant holding back what she knew. She never spoke with me about my father’s drug abuse; she kept to herself about what it might mean for me and my brother. Instead, she was dedicated to giving us a haven of lessons and humor. I know my Auntie Lou isn’t always fearless, though. I know she isn’t always happy. She gets tired, and doesn’t always let us see it. But she holds us down, sometimes without even knowing.

Lessons from Liz

I have a lot of aunts. Eleven on my dad’s side and six on my mom’s. I also have a lot of cousins and, now that my cousins are all having babies, a lot of second-cousins — a hundred, or four hundred, or four million, something like that. I attended a cousin’s bridal shower recently where she stood up during speech time and told a funny story about how when she was young she didn’t understand that in other families moms had friends who weren’t their sisters, and kids had friends who weren’t their cousins.

Growing up, the aunts on each side of my family functioned differently. On my dad’s side, where I have 50 first-cousins and where I am stationed in the middle (cousin number 23), my aunts were secondary moms. I have a cousin who tells a story about how one of our aunts — one of our nicer aunts — yelled at her in the street (Aunt Nancy! Yelling at her in the STREET!) after she disappeared while trying to buy a purse on Canal. When you had a sleepover with your cousins, their mom was your mom now. A pool party with your cousins, a bunch of moms yelling at you to stop running. On Christmas Eve, a bunch of moms asking you, “Did you get any soup?” On my mom’s side, where I have 10 first-cousins and where I am stationed at the top (cousin number one), my aunts functioned as surrogate older sisters, trading CDs, seeing concerts, and sleeping in the same bed when necessary.

I don’t have any sisters, so I valued the sister-like benefits of my mom-side aunts.

I don’t have any sisters, so I valued the sister-like benefits of my mom-side aunts. I mostly stole these moments with my Aunt Liz, who lives in Queens. She is tough and no-nonsense and I took the fact that she liked me as a compliment. I visited her in high school sometimes to see concerts — she’s played in bands throughout her life and would make me mix CDs of André Toussaint and Jonathan Richman. A lot of memories stand out, like when we visited her then-band-mate’s loft somewhere in Brooklyn one morning, watched The Tick, and ordered breakfast delivery, the possibility of which I had never even considered, but I think this one represents Aunt Liz the best:

When I was 18, I visited with an obnoxious boyfriend to see a concert, and we crashed at her apartment afterward. While this boyfriend and I recounted the concert, we had a disagreement over something trivial and he said, to Liz, in a condescending, sing-songy cadence, “she hates to admit she’s wrong!” She paused for a beat, giving him a terrifyingly withering stare before putting him in his place, finally breaking the silence — “We can be like that.”

It’s true, we can.

the chosen auntie

In Haitian culture, older women are addressed as “Tatie,” which is just Kreyòl for auntie. My whole life has been a parade of taties. Taties to keep an eye on me on every block up Nostrand and Flatbush Avenues and to snitch on me to my mom regularly. I might have feared the cops, but I was always even more terrified of a Tatizen’s Arrest. As I got older, I resented these aunties for all their tattling. I saw them as a resistance group fighting my personal growth. All except one: my aunt Flo.

Florence, ironically, might be my only aunt that I’ve never called tatie — it’s just Flo or Flor. She isn’t family by blood but by community. My mom’s “real” sister died 25 years ago in Haiti, and Florence is only person she’d call her best friend. My mother moved to America alone and my tatie’s family took her in as their own — she even married my father in Flo’s living room. I spent almost every weekend at her house until I went to college. At our peak, we were partners for every project and errand, from putting up Christmas lights to spending Saturdays in Long Island looking at bathroom tile to order for her many renovations. She gave me my first job, and helped foster an independence that probably saved my life. But above all else, she understood my nature. Flo has always known that I am equally sensitive as I am autonomous and she honors both sides fiercely. She encouraged me to be outspoken, and dragged me when I was losing myself. At family gatherings she’d grab my hand and whisper loud enough for the room to hear: “You know you’re my favorite?” I’d laugh and say the same. It seems so simple, but there have been times so dark when only those moments have kept me going.

Graceful doesn’t even begin to describe Florence. She doesn’t walk so much as glide.

Graceful doesn’t even begin to describe Florence. She doesn’t walk so much as glide. She usually wears a uniform of brightly colored, custom-made boubou. Her voice is sharp and the perfect mix of raspy and gravelly, usually switching between English, Kreyòl and Spanish as she speaks over everyone in the room. Her laughs sound like hand claps that drift into a whistle and a dramatic “wooooy” as if she has to put an end to the laugh before it consumes her. My favorite thing is her bright wide smile — her pride and joy as a dentist — and her candor. She now spends her days traveling the world and after a recent trip described Argentina like this: “I mean it’s absolutely beautiful, but of course it is. They spent all that Nazi money making it the most 'developed' nation in South America so those racist white people could stand out. Too bad they’re broke now!” She’s the bougiest and the realest; never afraid to make her opinion known as loud as possible, and in the funniest way she can.

As a child I thought it was unfair that people who shared my genetics were allowed to feel entitled to my existence. That obligation seemed like a prison sentence. When it came to my auntie, I feared that kind of unconditional love. While I was a junior at St. John’s, I came over for the holidays and told her I felt like a burden to her because she wasn’t my “real” aunt, but here I was eating at her house for every celebration and getting gifts for Christmas. If you’ve never had an auntie, know that they have a way of letting you know you’ve offended them — it’s called yelling. Their sentences start to feel like slaps on the ears and the bruises are deep. They won’t just read you; they finna flex. She dragged me for filth about how long I had been under her care and supervision (“My nanny was responsible for you AND my children!), how long she had loved me as her own (“These baby pictures of you here were taken in MY old house!”) and finally a wig snatch: (“If we aren’t your family then tell me who the hell is!”) She saw right through me and my insecure, headass rejection. I never again doubted who really had my back.

Aunties are sensitive too. They are often one of the first people to see you as your own human, to feel a love for you that is not entitled nor parental. They are the first family that you get to “choose” in a sense; the first add-ons to your creators. And in this, aunties can be co-conspirators and informants. They can play both sides and it is their duty to. Because aunties don’t just help you see who you are, they work to make sure you live long enough to figure it out.

A poem

Afife, Maria Victoria,
Laura and Magaly

I left Colombia when I was four years old. My mother told me we were going to Disney World, which we did, and then we moved into a townhouse an hour and a half away in a suburb of Tampa. I don’t remember much, aside from feeling isolated. In Colombia, I lived in a massive apartment with my parents, my grandmother, and two of my mother’s four older sisters. Another sister lived just a few blocks away, and she and her two sons would come over for lunch every day. Colombian lunches are an ordeal: people take at least an hour off from work or school to come home and eat the biggest and most important meal of the day with their family. Then you take a nap.

In my mind, my mom’s siblings were like actors in a sitcom: Familiar characters with a set of easily definable personality traits. Her oldest sister, Afife, owned a video store and would regularly lend me princess movies. Her third-oldest sister, Maria Victoria, was an executive at a bank. She was a high-powered career lady who wore lipstick and high heels every day. Her fourth-oldest sister, Laura, was a rebel — the kind of person my mom refers to as “bohemian” both lovingly and derisively. Her second-oldest sister, Magaly, my godmother, was mostly absent. She lived five hours away in a small town close to where my mom and her sisters grew up. Sometimes I would visit Magaly and ride around on the back of her husband’s motorcycle.

They were little glimpses of home, even as my memory faded.

Moving to Tampa meant moving away from my aunts, and the familiarity of the caricatures my young mind made of them. In our first few months there, I would stay home with my mom while my dad worked — as a cook in a pizzeria, as a truck driver, as a carpenter. We were alone, mostly, and our house felt empty and foreign, even after our furniture was shipped to us from Colombia. My mom urged me to befriend the other kids who lived on our block, but the only English words I knew were “yes” and “no” and, for some reason, “chair.” This is when I started inventing imaginary friends. My imaginary friends weren’t extraordinary. They were aunts and uncles and cousins, and we would have big lunches together.

I grew out of this eventually, after I learned English and made friends. Sometimes my aunts would visit Tampa, and they would bring Colombian candy, soda, and coffee. They were little glimpses of home, even as my memory faded.

I went back to Colombia when I was 11. Nothing met my expectations. The apartment was dingier than I remembered, my aunts weren’t their familiar caricatures. We had nothing in common. I was a gringa and they were Colombian. My early adolescence made me insufferable, moody and impossible to please, but they tried to make my trips fun and memorable anyway. I wasn’t sure if they had disappointed me or if I had disappointed them.

Laura took me to museums in Bogotá, where she lived in a colorful apartment with her friend Maria. Afife would drive me to the mall and watch while I spent my allowance on books. Maria Victoria took me on extravagant beach vacations where we would snorkel, sail, and eat fresh-caught fish. When we weren’t on vacation she would take me to her office so I could use the internet. It took me years away from home and several visits to realize they were just people, just like me, trying to make it work.

Janet’s cooking

Aunt Janet’s English is not great, and my Vietnamese and Cantonese are non-existent, so we don’t talk much, hardly beyond the “Good!” after “How are you?”

I’ve always been enamored by a tradition she’s maintained for years: making zongxi [joong, 粽子] during Chinese New Year. There are many variations, but the recipe typically consists of glutinous rice and other fillings wrapped in aromatic leaves — typically bamboo or wormwood — and steamed. Janet’s iteration — pork belly and mung bean wrapped in bamboo — is purposefully generic, a conscious decision to satisfy a variety of tastes.

Her home brims with knick-knacks, hand-me-downs, bulk purchases and imported rarities.

Every Chinese New Year, she makes about a hundred of these little gifts for family and friends. She sells the rest to co-workers to offset the expense. At home, enormous bowls of salted mung bean compete for counter space with pots of soaking rice in a house overflowing with family-related detritus. You see, Janet is a bit of a hoarder. Her home brims with knick-knacks, hand-me-downs, bulk purchases and imported rarities. She doesn’t find irrational security in possessions, but is rather pragmatic about what she accumulates, having raised four children and working her entire life to own property in the family-friendly suburb of Woodbridge, Ontario.

“Only lazy people can’t make this,” she admonishes, setting bamboo leaves into a square mold before adding a layer of rice, another of mung bean, and a thick slice of fatty pork. She presses down another layer of rice before folding the bamboo leaves over the rice, taking care to not have any moisture penetrate the contents, finally wrapping the package in twine. She adds another layer of aluminum foil to help it cook better, reminding me to not tell anyone, as it’s not traditional.

Aunt Janet might fulfill her auntie obligations by making zongxi, but the annual tradition more resembles a vanity project. Janet has always been proud of her craftiness and is eager to show it off. As a teenager, she spent her spare money on vintage clothing from Kensington Market (when it was still cheap) and film to photograph her siblings wearing it. As an adult, the same sensibility makes Aunt Janet the family’s preeminent authority on glamour. Give her any opportunity to dress up — holidays, weddings, a reunion between old friends, or a regular-schmegular dinner — and she’ll have feathers in her hair, or a mink stole thrown over a sparkly dress she just had lying around. If she’s at home but knows she’s about to be photographed, she’ll run upstairs and throw on a silk brocade dress over her pajamas. Christmas has never been about Jesus in my family, but about who has the sparkliest dress. With her magpie’s eye for delightfully frivolous embellishment, Aunt Janet always wins.

Aaron Edwards is The Outline's Special Projects Editor. Tirhakah Love is a music and culture critic. Kelly Conaboy is a writer. Judnick Mayard is a writer and events producer. Diamond Sharp is a writer, editor, and poet. Gaby Del Valle is a staff writer at The Outline. Vidal Wu is a writer. Art direction by Stephane Elbaz. Illustration by Luis Mazón. Developed by Anneka Goss.