Auntie Suzy

The Auntie Who Lets You Imagine A Different Way To Be

How will they move through the world when their parents aren’t there to tell them how to be? I am an adult in their lives who offers them low-stakes practice in figuring that out.

by Suzanne Maria Menghraj
The Aunties Issue

I was walking past the building where my friends J and B and their toddler, E, lived. E was playing in front of the building under the watchful gaze of his afternoon caregiver. There he was with his big, dark eyes and serious face, intent on getting the wheeled truck on which he sat to move forward. His feet just barely touched the ground.

“Oh, my gosh, E! Hello!” I called to him. “It’s so nice to see you! What are you up to there? Hello! Hello!”

I’m not one for overly effusive expressions of enthusiasm. I try to approximate as genuine a version of myself as I can summon, and I never want to bowl little ones over with manic attention or speak to them in loud, patronizing, cloyingly cooing tones. I remember finding such approaches to engagement an enormous turnoff when I was a child. If only you would calm down. Even with small children, I typically take a more restrained approach, expressing enough curiosity for them to know that I see them and might like to engage when they’re ready but generally giving them ample room to set the tenor of our interactions.

So I was surprised to hear myself squealing this saccharine greeting to a child I not only knew well but also knew not to go in for exuberance. I certainly didn’t need to charm him with cheer. After so much time in his and his parents’ company, E and I were cool. Maybe I was the laid-back person he and his parents knew only in the company of his parents. In their absence, perhaps I felt it necessary to be someone new, a more sugary adult-who-is-not-your-parent. I suppose I could have said “Hey, E. What’s up?” and moved along. But I was genuinely happy to see him.

E looked at me, acknowledged my presence with a blink, and then set his sights on a patch of concrete a few feet ahead of him.

“E! Whatcha doin’? You ridin’ a truck? You movin’? Where you goin’? It’s so nice to see you!”

His caregiver smiled. I wondered whether she was Trinidadian — so many Trinidadians care for children in New York City. And Trinis, in my experience, are consummate cooers. Aunties in Trinidad are practically the queens of the culture, and I can’t help but think that beyond any number of other explanatory factors, Trinidadians’ prominence among New York City caregivers has something to do with the Trinidadian auntie archetype.

My family is Trini, and I experienced the attentions of the women among them as altogether different from those of other cooers when I was a child: I’d give anything to have my Trini grandmothers and aunties call me “Dar-lin’” and fawn over me as they did while they were alive. But I am an outlier among my clan of women who zealously fawn over children from the moment they’re born well into the children’s adulthood. And still, here I was, speaking in the spirited, singsong Trini tones I knew so well but so rarely used. I caught in the caregiver’s smile a trace of recognition.

E looked up at me again and, flapping his hand in my direction, proclaimed, “It’s OK, it’s OK.”

“What’s OK? E, it’s really —”

“It’s OK! It’s OK!” he said again with exasperation and more hand-flapping. Was he shooing me away? He held his hand up for a moment in the manner of a crossing guard: Stop. “It’s OK.”

Suzanne, stop your squealing. I see you. You don’t have to overdo it. No need to make a big show. Go on your way. We’re good. We’ve greeted. I’m busy right now. It’s OK.

I often marvel — with more curiosity than regret, which is in itself surprising to me — at having managed not to have children myself.

I’ve not borne and raised children, though I always imagined I would. With dozens of babysitting gigs in my teenage years, a small handful of younger cousins, a half-sister 14 years my junior, and a recently expanded roster of godsons, I’m well-practiced in seeing after children. The summer I was 15, I took near-full responsibility for caring for my 1-year-old half-sister. With so much early experience with them, I was sure I’d have children of my own one day. I wondered years in advance of the turn of the century whether I would find a sitter for them on New Year’s Eve 1999. I’d be 27, and I’d anticipated at least one if not two children by that time.

As friends began to give birth about 20 years ago, several called on me to help them get into the swing of childcare. I was an adviser to new mothers, a backup sitter, a playmate. I often marvel — with more curiosity than regret, which is in itself surprising to me — at having managed not to have children myself. It is, after all, what more than 80% of American women do, and something I knew I could do well. I considered myself a natural. I was, in any case, well prepared. Plus, I never really tire of the company of children: the silliness, the play, the fresh ways of seeing. Then again, not being a parent, I’m rarely with a child long enough to tire of their company.

As far as partnering goes, well: I’m afraid I like myself better alone. And as much as I saw them as part of my future, I never did feel the strong drive to bear children that others feel, and thus never pursued single parenthood. Time passed, I devoted myself to my work, to my interests, to athletic and outdoor pursuits, to my extended family, to my friends. All in all, I’ve built a life that is both independent and connected. And here I find myself: an auntie.

I’m an auntie but to most of the children in my life — even to my godsons and to the children of cousins who are like sisters to me — I am not Aunt or Auntie Suzanne. I am Suzanne — or Suzy, the name my family and close friends call me. I don’t think they drop the honorific for lack of respect or because they see me as a fellow child. I think, instead, they see that I meet them where they are on terms we collaborate to set.

Whatever value I have as an auntie might be in introducing the children I care about to ways of being and interacting they might not encounter in their households. How will they move through the world when their parents aren’t right beside them to guide them, to tell them how to be? I am an adult in their lives who offers them low-stakes practice in figuring that out.

In a way, I see myself as I see each adult in a child’s life — as a meme, in the original sense of the term coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976. He writes in The Selfish Gene, “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” It isn’t anything specific to me that I would hope the children in my life imitate. I would be happy just to know that it is at least in small part through me that they learn to value being themselves.

This child’s father’s rules were not my own, and I felt no obligation to enforce them. In my company, she is free to be as silly as she wants to be.

K — a close cousin’s 7-year-old, named after a dearly departed auntie of mine — and I were in the small pool her parents had built for their year-round home on the southern shores of Barbados. K had in hand several objects: little toys, parts of bigger toys. She devised a simple game for us to play with them. Her mother, who sat at the edge of the pool holding her toddler, my newest godson, in one arm, was to throw the toys into the pool with her free hand while K and I averted our eyes. We’d compete to earn points for each thrown object retrieved from the bottom of the pool.

K was in the lead, partly because she is so very agile and partly because I wasn’t putting much energy into the competition. After a while, I’d begun to think I was humoring K, which felt not quite right and decided it might be good to give her at least a little bit of a run for her money. As I plunged into the water to grab a yellow torpedo-shaped object I’d spotted nearby, my limbs grazed K’s. I laughed — exaggeratedly — upon emerging: I’d finally snagged a point. K was above water now too, but she wasn’t laughing.

“You hit my leg!” she whimpered as she caught her breath. “I was going to get it, but you bumped me!”

I sensed there was no joking K into being a good sport. We’d only grazed each other— she was upset, but not hurt. I pulled her toward me, lifted her partly out of the water, and held her close.

“Tell me what happened,” I said softly and she did tell me again, holding on tight, arms wrapped around my shoulders as she solemnly recounted her underwater experience.

“I’m sorry for startling you. I didn’t mean to bump you or get in your way. I think with this kind of game, that is going to happen sometimes. I will try to be more careful, though. I don’t want to hurt you. Would you like to adjust the rules so we don’t bump into each other?”

“No,” she said a little uncertainly as she shook her head.

“All right. Are we OK then? You’re OK?”

“Yes!” she shouted as she happily wriggled out of my arms and splashed back into the water, ready for another round.

“Good! I’m really glad we talked. Aren’t you?”

“Yes! Let’s play again!”

Earlier during my annual visit, K and I had been sprawled out on the couch, talking nonsense. She kept repeating a phrase — something she’d gathered from the animated YouTube clips she’d been watching — and after a while, to her delight, I joined her in repeating it. Her father, who was in another room, sternly shouted at her (really, as I’d joined her in this carefree incantation, I understood him to be shouting at both of us): “K, stop it. Stop repeating herself. Say something else. Use your imagination!”

I made an “oops” face. K patted my leg and whispered in my ear, “We were just being silly, right, Suzy?”

“That is absolutely right,” I whispered back as I gave her a reassuring squeeze.

Her father’s rules were not my own, and I felt no obligation to enforce them. In my company, K is free to be as silly as she wants to be. It is important to me that she knows: It’s OK.

Suzanne Maria Menghraj is a Brooklyn-based writer and professor.