I got luckier than that. Growing up, I had three uncle-and-aunt sets, two of whom lived reasonably nearby: my father’s brothers and their wives. I experienced them as thrilling vacations from my parents, whose love was necessarily mingled with judgment.
My Uncle Jim didn’t judge. He took me to “Cats” (and, over time, I came to forgive him for that). My Uncle Mario didn’t judge. He took me out on his boat. My Aunt Vicki and my Aunt Carolyn didn’t caution me about eating too much. They chided me for eating too little. When I visited them, seconds were a given, “calorie” was a four-letter word, and the doggie bag contained enough leftovers for a week.
Needless to say, I loved visiting them. I also learned, for those occasions, to wear loose pants.
And because my uncles and aunts weren’t compelled by any firmly established norms to spend X amount of time with me or pay Y degree of interest, their attention made me feel special in a singular way. It still does.
I’m certain that I haven’t succeeded to the same degree with my nieces and nephews. But I’ve given it my best flawed shot, and when all goes well, there’s a kind of ease between uncles or aunts and their nieces and nephews that’s noticeably different from the relationship between a child and a parent or grandparent. Becoming friends with my mother and father lagged years behind becoming friends with my uncles and aunts. I admitted things to my uncles and aunts that I would never, at that time, have admitted to my parents, and a few of my own nieces and nephews have shared with me sides of themselves — sloppy sides, self-doubting sides — that I believe they were more reluctant to let their parents see.
My uncle experience is no doubt colored by the fact that I have no children of my own. That’s not uncommon for gay men and women of my generation: When I graduated from college, into adulthood, in the mid-1980s, gay parenting was much rarer and less accepted, so many of us never factored progeny into our plans. We’re some of the world’s most devoted uncles and aunts, and while I’m not aware of any research into this, I’d bet that diminished bigotry toward gay and lesbian people among Americans in their 20s and 30s owes a bit to how many of those Americans had us in their lives.
Lately, there have been articles and fresh hand-wringing about declining fertility rates in many countries — about fewer people becoming parents and parents having fewer kids. We could be on the cusp of a generation of Super Uncles and Aunts.
But my sister, Adelle, manages to be both a devoted mother and an indulgent aunt. I’m a fascinated student of her interactions with her nieces and nephews, of the precise measures of authority figure (just a dash), role model (a teaspoon), confidante (two heaping tablespoons) and cruise director (a full cup) that go into the recipe. She’s gentle with her counsel, generous with her tequila. I take the same approach, but I swap out the tequila for white wine.