When my niece, Michaela, was three-years-old and still learning her place in the world, on occasion she would inform me, solemnly, that I was her aunt.
This I already knew. Although, she was just emerging from her baby-talk stage and had a tendency to pronounce “aunt” as if she were saying “aren't”—which always took me a moment to figure out.
“Kay-Kay, you're my aren't,” she would say, adding the extra “r.”
I would heartily agree.
As she got a bit older, I sometimes corrected her, gently. “Honey, we're Bostonians, so we don't use the r-sound too often.” Then, I would teach her how to say “aunt” with the broad New England vowels I had learned when I was a child.
“Ahhhhhhhh-nt,” she said, as she practiced.
Today, Michaela is seven-years-old. Or, as she would say, she's seven-almost-eight. And, the best part of my week is the Friday afternoons I spend with her and Mary Kate, her two-year-old sister.
It takes resolution to be a good aunt, especially when facing a mountain of deadlines. But, I have a sneaking suspicion that no matter how much I tell my nieces I love them, they are not going to understand what that means unless I give them my time. Words are cheap.
A generation ago, everyone in my family lived within blocks of each other in the working-class Irish neighborhoods of Boston. Aunts and uncles were an integral part of daily life.
After I was born, we moved to the suburbs. I didn't see my extended family every day. But, still, my 10 aunts and uncles were important figures in my childhood world.
I pity the offspring of America's modern-style families who have only one sibling, if any. And I have limitless sympathy for the children of China's one-baby-per-couple policy. They may never know what it's like to have an aunt, and never have the joy of being one.
So, if it's Friday afternoon, you probably won't find me staring at a computer screen, or talking to editors, or reporting on stories.
Instead, I'm usually standing with a baby in my arms at Holy Name School, in the West Roxbury section of Boston, waiting for class to let out.
On a recent Friday, Michaela said she wanted to have a party for her miniature collie, Chase, who was two-years-old. After school we baked a cake, lit the candles, and sang “Happy Birthday” as he pranced around the kitchen barking gleefully.
Later, we walked to the playground with the dog in tow. Michaela played on the slide and I pushed Mary Kate in the toddler swing until dusk fell.
As I gathered the kids and the dog for the five-block walk home, I mentally listed the tasks I had waiting for me in my office.
Michaela interrupted my thoughts.
“Kay-Kay, do you think Chase had fun on his birthday?” she asked me.
Something about the sincerity of her question made me realize that I would rather have spent the afternoon singing “Happy Birthday” to a dog than working on the most important news story.
Michaela informed me last May, as I met her in front of school, that the Sunday after Mother's Day was “Aunt's Day.” She had a gift in her hand that she had made for her mother's celebration, and I think she didn't want me to feel left out.
“Is it really?” I said.
“Yes,” she replied, seriously. “Because mothers are very important, but aunts are important too.”
While my nieces and I walked toward the nearby church to “visit God,” as we call our after-school prayers in front of the Blessed Sacrament, we discussed the best way to observe my special day. I suggested getting ice cream cones and going to the playground. Michaela and Mary Kate agreed.
And, we decided that while the official day would be on Sunday, we would celebrate on the Friday before—an idea I picked up from the moveable Monday holidays.
Certainly, an aunt can't take the place of a mother, but an aunt—or an uncle—can help to shape young minds and create memories that last a lifetime.
When I'm long gone, my then-grown-up nieces might think back to those sunny afternoons at the playground. Or, they might recall the day we visited the Arnold Arboretum and ran from one end of an open field to the other, laughing all the way. Or, they might remember visits to the century-old neighborhood library near their house.
Or, they might think back to the dog's birthday party, and smile.
Kathleen Howley is a Catholic journalist based in Boston, Mass