Asked to reflect on our early lives and the people who most influenced us, we tend to name our parents, a teacher who took a particular interest or a larger-than-life figure such as a sports hero.
But if we take a closer look, we may find that we also were shaped by someone perhaps not so obvious--a favorite aunt. Tamara Traeder and Julienne Bennett, writers from Berkeley, interviewed dozens of women who, like themselves, have enjoyed the rich experiences of having aunts and of being aunts. Now they've compiled those anecdotes and reflections into an unabashed ode to these unsung mentors, "Aunties: Our Older, Cooler, Wiser Friends" (Wildcat Canyon Press).
Our culture may not formally acknowledge these contributions--there is no national Auntie's Day--but as Traeder and Bennett point out, aunties help us know who we are. "These are the women," they write, "who love us--unconditionally and by choice. They are our friends, confidants, and role models and they offer us love, wisdom and a valuable perspective on life."
These nurturing qualities are particularly in demand today, the authors note. In an earlier time, when extended families gathered regularly for small-town Sunday dinners or worked together on the farm, there was so much togetherness that often therapists urged young couples to push back from over-involved relatives, to develop their own individuality.
But in today's urban society of overworked parents with limited time, children may feel they are falling through the cracks, and it is not uncommon for a parent to extend the family by reaching out to a friend--or a sister. "Aunties" is documentation of the cherished relationships that can result.
For aunts, particularly those without children of their own, these nieces and nephews can fill a gap. Vicky, a magazine editor, recalls being amazed by the family resemblance in her infant niece ("like a little miniature version of my grandfather!") and being comforted by the realization that even though she herself was childless, she was part of a family that would continue.
And for nieces and nephews, having an auntie means knowing a loving adult who treats them as individuals and who can provide not just another sympathetic ear, but different opinions to consider, another lifestyle to emulate.
One series of vignettes sums up the gifts of aunties under these headings: "She Taught Me About My Parents," "We Have Such Fun Together," "She's on My Side," "I Can Talk to Her About Anything," "Relief From Expectations."
The authors write that the most common thread they found when interviewing aunts "was that they all were willing to step in to care for a child when they were needed, and they all became part of that child's family." Of course, the authors note, there also are men who care and will step in when needed. But the traditional role of women as caretakers leads us to look to them to help raise our children.
"I don't think you have to have children in today's world at all," one aunt remarks. "But it is really important to have an extended family. If a woman doesn't have a niece, she should get one. Borrow one from somebody else."
And, she could have added, if a child doesn't have an aunt, he or she should adopt one immediately. It's a real boost for self-esteem. As the authors maintain: "Children who know that someone loves them and thinks about them when she isn't 'required' to do so, as parents are, will learn they are worthy of love."