These fish," I say slowly, "are from Sweden." I am unloading a packet of those sugary pastel gummy fish in front of a very small girl with a very big sweet tooth.
"Sweden is part of Scandinavia," I add ominously, "where it is freezing cold."
The very small girl has very big eyes, and they get bigger.
"So the split second after you swallow each fish, you must drink a big glass of lukewarm water with one-eighth of a teaspoonful of salt in it," I instruct solemnly. "This will re-create the conditions of the Swedish ocean. So the fish will unfreeze, and within eight minutes you will feel it, swimming around in your tummy."
Hours from now, of course, this legend of salt water and sugar will have the small girl with the big eyes bouncing off the walls and running to the bathroom. I will be back in New York City, constructing stories that are a great deal more conventionally true. But right now we are having a moment—the kind of moment that can, perhaps, be had only by those who have exactly our relationship with each other. For the small girl is my niece, and I am her aunt. Her childless, maiden aunt.
In 19th-century literature, maiden aunts were often portrayed as gray, dank, sensibly shod figures. They were creatures to be pitied—greatly or slightly, depending on the poignancy of their long-dead chances for happiness and the plainness of their looks, but pitied in any event.
Thank God that's over. Today's old maid has salary and style to burn. And she is an increasingly rare commodity: We live in an age when all sorts of people previously denied parenthood—single women, older couples, gay men, and lesbians—have become increasingly able and eager to conceive or adopt their own children. The result is a heightened demand for and declining supply of devoted babysitters and pinch hitters. That is to say, people who really love kids—not in the gauzy children-are-our-future way, but in the real down-on-all-fours, oh-what's-a-little-Smucker's-on-my-cashmere way—yet, for one reason or another, don't have them.
As a maiden aunt to eight nieces and seven nephews, ranging in age from 2 to 22, I am not to be pitied. I am to be worshiped.
Who knows? God could give in to my mother. I could still turn out to be a just-under-the-deadline mom, and if so, I'll see you at Gymboree. In the meantime, though, I shall aunt. I mean that as a verb, because it's active. I shall aunt not by default, but with aplomb. "Aunting broadens my social life...none of my friends has a healthy relationship with anyone imaginary."