Theoretically, of course, aunting is all about giving. And I do try to give my brothers' children—especially the girls—any nuggets of wisdom I can, such as:

Never learn a skill you don't want to be stuck with.

When in doubt, go with the high heels, the tight skirt, and the bright red lipstick (you know you want to).

Lying and cheating are sins. A hot fudge sundae is not.

Shrinking violets die virgins. (Note to moms and dads: This is not a reference to sex, protosex, or even dating, but a snappy way of saying that those who are afraid to admit and pursue what they want condemn themselves to never, ever getting it.)

Most of the time, however, aunting is much more about taking.

When the children in question are very young, aunting broadens my social life as nothing else can. None of my friends has a healthy relationship with anyone imaginary. I, on the other hand, have shared all my apartments with a finicky, illusory British boa constrictor by the name of Cornelius. I named him after my nephew Neil, a connoisseur of all creatures scaly and crawly. He—the boa, not the boy—subsists entirely on peanut butter and marmalade sandwiches, bears a skin of fluorescent puce that makes him a very convenient night-light, and for sheer entertainment value, far outstrips the average real-life dog, cat, or hamster.

When the children in question get a bit older, aunting supplies great nourishment for the ego. You would be shocked, in fact, at the mileage I have gotten out of a few magazine bylines and occasional talking-head appearances on cable news channels.

"Are you rich?" asked my niece Mary Jane out of the blue when she was about 8.

Quick cost-benefit analysis: Did I want to enhance her delusions of my grandeur or avoid being begged to buy her a yacht?

"No," I said.

What came next was not a question.

"Well, you're really famous."

That's right: Madonna, the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, Tiger Woods, and me. Really famous.

When the children cease to be children, aunting, like parenting, offers something that is more like a jolt of reality, and that therefore can feel more good-for-you than simply good. Last year, when my nephew Edward picked me up from an airport in his recently purchased SUV, it struck me that I have never owned a vehicle or a home or...well, anything, really. You do not feel old until someone you used to push in a twin stroller has more equity than you do. Alas, it is usually long before they learn to drive that they become more likely to correct my French than to ask my opinion, or to wonder why I don't own my own place than to marvel at the fact that I get to rent my own place.

If this is the strangest sensation that aunting provides, it is also the sweetest. For it reminds me that I have been privileged to see all these children up close as they came into the world, and all through their growing up in it. And yet I have never felt obliged to grow up myself.

I have always been a single working woman, and I embody every cliché of domestic underdevelopment that status can possibly imply. I spend all my money on things like Spanish-language cassettes, Champagne by the glass, and pink mesh trenchcoats. On one last-minute impulse, I went to Australia for the weekend; on another I went to South Africa for nearly three months. I have never sewn a button, hung a curtain, or touched a glue gun. I use my kitchen cabinets as bookshelves.

I am, in short, a very old undergraduate, with less idealism and (slightly) more money.

"Even the least active form of aunting cannot help but serve as a flashing neon sign spotlighting the difficulty of actual parenting."


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