My father was the oldest — and only boy — of five children born in rapid succession in the 1950s. By the time his youngest sibling was due, he begged his mother not to deliver at Peck Memorial Hospital in Brooklyn: “Don’t go to Peck’s — they only give out girls!” I first heard this story at my father’s funeral, when my aunt Joan gave the eulogy. I was just 14. It was a preview of how my aunts would tether me back to what I had lost.
My father’s sisters didn’t start coming into focus for me until a couple of years before, when my mother died of lung cancer. By then, my father was sick, too. His prostate cancer was progressing, and his sisters sprang into action, spending weekends at our house on Long Island to help with all that Dad’s cancer was making more difficult. Each was able to claim a role naturally suited, more or less, to her abilities and inclinations. Aunt Mary Ellen was the “smart” sister and homework helper — she practically wrote my eighth-grade math-fair project and is still sore that I only got an A–. Aunt Joan, though she remains a questionable driver, was always willing to give me a lift to friends’ houses so we could gossip in the car. Aunt Alice thrived on fighting back entropy, cleaning everything she could with her Black & Decker Scumbuster. Aunt Nancy, my godmother, could always be counted on to do girlie things like spending hours at the Roosevelt Field mall.
When my father died, my brother, John, and I moved in with Aunt Alice — a tough transition for us, and a remarkable sacrifice on her part, but there was no question that she would upend her life to preserve some normalcy for the two of us. Later, my other aunts shepherded me through college applications, breakups and that time when my cat had diarrhea all over my bathroom. Now, at 31, I still have an unusually close relationship with them. I spend about an hour on the phone with at least one of my aunts weekly, and our calls and texts have only ratcheted up over the last 10 months. But while my aunts have acted in loco parentis, I don’t really think of them as parental.
Aunts occupy an oft-overlooked role. Uncles are so easily understood that we have the commonly used word avuncular — meaning kindly and genial, but literally “like an uncle” — while the parallel term for aunts, materteral, has fallen out of use to the degree that it doesn’t even appear in Merriam-Webster. Pop-culture representations of aunts bear out how hard it is to nail down their nature. When they act as surrogate mothers, they’re sticklers with a nurturing bent, from Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly to Andy Taylor’s Aunt Bee to Will Smith’s Aunt Viv. Or they’re zany and permissive, like Auntie Mame and Aunts Hilda and Zelda in “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” Or they’re cruel, evil-stepmother-esque figures, like Spiker and Sponge in “James and the Giant Peach,” or Patty and Selma from “The Simpsons.”
Perhaps our fictional aunts vary so much because of their changeful allegiances in the family. Aunts straddle a line between authority figure and anarchist: As our elders, they inspire deference, but they’re partners in transgression too, slipping us wine at Thanksgiving. They sit between mother and friend, eager to advise us on life’s crucibles big and small. But they are friends who once changed our diapers. They will always see us as the children we were, not the adults we have become, and remind us that the distance between those selves is not as vast as we might hope.
After my parents died, my aunts shifted further toward the maternal-authority end of the spectrum. But even as my dependence on them grew, they found ways to keep up their eccentricity and permissiveness, partly through telling me things my father might not have told me himself. Under normal circumstances, this would have been the standard-issue undermining of parental gravitas that aunts always engage in, but with no parents to undermine, they’ve instead provided a lens through which to understand who my father was outside his parental role — what shaped him, the way he moved through the world.
My aunts’ stories tend toward humor, like Dad’s believing that Peck only delivered girls, or the time he plastered a sign on a backyard shed christening it “the Fot Club” — fot being how he spelled fart. Often, they are object lessons: Mary Ellen says she always gives money to anyone who asks because once, Dad lost his wallet and was stranded for hours after school in Manhattan before someone helped him buy an M.T.A. token to get home.
But when coaxed, my aunts will talk about the things I yearn to make sense of: his stoicism in the face of cancer, and how he wished that if he or our mother had to die, it would be he, so that we could still have her. One of the hardest parts of my grief has been never getting to have an adult relationship with my parents, that the memories I have of them are finite. But by teaching me new things about him — even silly things like his obsession, toward the end, with fried ham sandwiches — my father’s sisters can open doors to rooms I didn’t know existed. They keep him alive for me.