Image: author's own.
My uncle's untimely death last week from cancer got me thinking about the important role of aunts and uncles in our lives, about how I am shaping up so far as an aunt, and how quickly the months and years can fly by, so that despite your best intentions to see your nieces and nephews regularly. Suddenly they can be doing their A-levels and you're left wondering where the time has gone.
A highly intelligent man who only retired a few years ago as a Professor of Computer Science, my uncle was happily married to my aunt (one of London's most in-demand seamstresses for film and TV) for over 35 years. Together they embodied the rare synchronicity that can only come from living with your best friend for decades, yet they were also a shining example of how to preserve and develop one's individual identity within a lifelong partnership.
They implemented respectful and gentle parenting methods long before they became buzzwords, and built a warm family home that was creative, nurturing and accepting. Their house organically evolved to become the hub of my maternal family for parties of all kinds - and there were many parties, because they recognised the life-affirming power of celebration, friendship and home-cooked food. They were the quintessential power-couple, and over the years my husband and I have admired so many things about them: their public displays of affection, the loving and attentive way they interact with their children and grandchildren, their longstanding habit of giving thoughtful handmade cards and gifts, and their appreciation and respect for good design, local businesses and the environment.
Uncles and aunts, whether appointed through blood, marriage or friendship, can have a unique and lasting influence on children's future memories and lifestyles. My husband still remembers with fondness one Christmas over 30 years ago, when his late aunt was on Santa duty and stumbled clumsily into the dark bedroom where he and all his cousins were (pretending to be) asleep, to hang their stockings. Growing up I would usually only see my aunt and late uncle a handful of times a year (they lived all the way over the river in North London!), but I remember clearly that they were the first vegetarian, non-car owning, proudly atheist family that I encountered first-hand. Fast forward a decade or two, and despite being raised in an omnivorous, two car, religious household, today I am a happy, vegan atheist who recently gave up my car (but often misses it, I must admit). Perhaps this is exactly how I would have turned out, but having someone close to you who is outside your immediate family and has already blazed a trail sure makes it easier when you're faced with life's big decisions.
Everything that made my uncle so dear to me can be distilled into a single essence: he was present. He and my aunt made a visible effort to be deliberately present when most people are accidentally absent. They took time out of busy schedules to come and see both of my children when they were just a few weeks old, bringing food, gifts, a listening ear and good conversation. My memories of time spent with them on those occasions are still crystal clear, standing out sharply from the postnatal fog that still envelops most other events from that period. They came to my brother's first gig as a solo singer in a pub in Camden. They gushed with enthusiasm about how much they had enjoyed my unorthodox wedding as soon as they saw me after the ceremony. They came to my book launch when I published a chapter on female genital mutilation in the UK, and thanked me for the chance to learn about something that hadn't really crossed their radar before. My uncle and aunt actively looked for opportunities to share breathing space with their nieces and nephews, at the times when it mattered most. They didn't have to come to any of these occasions, but their presence paid huge deposits into our shared emotional bank account, and boy do I feel so much richer for it.
What I've come to realise is, intention alone is not enough. We need to be deliberately present in our interactions and conversations with the young people in our extended family and friendship groups. When my time comes, I hope my nieces and nephews are left with as good a grasp of my personality, purpose and passions as I was of my uncle's. But until then I will honour him by investing my time and energy into their lives regularly and on purpose, hoping that we will all live long enough to reap the precious rewards.