"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."
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."
But I am also an aunt, and that means there are many other things I have never experienced: I have never had that hollow, workaholic feeling that I have nothing to come home to but a Lean Cuisine and a plant. At my house, there is likely to be at least one urgent personal message on the answering machine. "Hello, Tish? It's me, Kerry." (She is 6, going on 42.) "You have to come to my birthday party." I've also never stuck with a dead relationship for fear that if I didn't, my old age would be a matter of splitting tuna dinners with the cat. (Clearly, my twilight years will involve being treated to sumptuous, lively repasts, once all my little darlings have become wage earners.) I have never covered a political campaign or traveled to an exotic land that didn't later come in handy for somebody's show-and-tell. I have never encountered a stay-at-home mom at a cocktail party and felt that we had absolutely nothing to say to each other. And in all of my 33 years, I have never had a Christmas without Santa, an Easter without an egg hunt, a Halloween without an invitation to at least one haunted house. I have often lost my mind, but never my imagination.
You would think that all this aunting would sharpen my eagerness to have my own children. If anything, though, it has only deepened my sense of relaxation about that whole issue.
This is in part because even the least active form of aunting cannot help but serve as a flashing neon sign spotlighting the difficulty of actual parenting. There are nonparents who have not spent any time with children since they last babysat in 1980, and then there are nonparents like me, who have fresh memories of reading the same story 12 times in one night and watching the same video over and over again. I have seen my nieces reenact the long forgotten winter-bitter fights between me and my sister, over who took what from whose closet. I have heard their small, cold voices say, "I hate you." (Not to me, of course. They love me.)
I am also relatively unworried about my own chances of becoming a parent, because although aunting will never give me anything like the full course of motherhood, it does give me a wonderful, powerful—and possibly sufficient—taste of it. While I will never be the children's mother, I will always be their family, with all the history, complexity, and fidelity that entails. I couldn't drop them like a yoga class, a book club, or a waning friendship, even if I wanted to. I have known them forever, and they have known me.
That's it, really: We just know each other and know, as one so rarely can these days, that we will always know each other.
Plus, they are among the most interesting people I know.
The other day I came across my 11-year-old niece, Fiona, as she emerged, looking zippily reptilian in her pink bathing suit and purple goggles, from a swimming pool.
"Hey, Fiona Bologna, what's big and exciting?" I called out to her.
For some reason, that's how I always greet people. And the answers are usually what you would expect:
"Same old, same old."
My gal, however, replied without a thought, or any particular drama: "My oriental fire-belly frogs."
Now, that's an answer.
Tish Durkin is an opinion columnist for the National Journal and the Washington, D.C., correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.
More O: How one woman discovered the family she never knew she had