Mary came into our lives like she was always meant to be there. She befriended my mom while they both worked at United Cerebral Palsy in Los Angeles before I was born. I don’t remember how, but somewhere along the line, she became my Aunt Mary, earning a blood-relation moniker. I always knew she wasn’t one of my parents’ sisters, but we didn’t care. Our Aunt Mary was younger than my folks, had more energy to focus on us when she was around, and she was cool. Like, so cool.
Aunt Mary was a disability advocate in the ’70s, graduated from Harvard Business School in the ’90s (she is still the only person I know well who went to Harvard), waited to marry until she was in her 30s, and unapologetically kept her last name. I recognize that those life choices were not super cutting-edge in America in the ’80s and ’90s, but they were in my household. My family unit was held together with a glue of rigidity. Looking back on it as an adult, I realize the glue was the type that would fail without watchful, angry attention.
Somehow, Aunt Mary thrived outside of the narrow definition of what I was taught a woman should be like. She married Pat, a former ski bum and wildland firefighter. At age eight, I thought Pat was the coolest guy I had ever met. I was a groomsman at their wedding. They gave me the mic and let me sing “Ice, Ice, Baby” on the dance floor. My brother and I don’t remember Aunt Mary advocating for her lifestyle, she was just always there for us to speak to — a listening ear we could trust. In those early years, she offered a solid place to land that looked different from home.
Regardless of what a child’s home life looks like — even kids like me who come from a traditional, middle-class American family — there are benefits to having the care and perspective of a supportive nonparental adult, or SNPA, in academic research. A study published in the American Journal of Community Psychology suggests that the existence of SNPAs in adolescents’ lives as they grow up leads to positive outcomes in academic functioning, self-esteem, and behavioral and emotional health. The research brings together a broad range of examinations that prove points that anyone with an Aunt Mary knows: like how profound it can be to talk to an adult about all of the things you are scared to talk to your parents about or how having a person who offers you compliments outside of a parental structure can boost your self-esteem.
I don’t have a clear memory of Aunt Mary giving me a pep talk that changed the trajectory of my life or a low point she lifted me up from; I just remember someone who I looked up to always making me feel like the most important kid in the room.
This isn’t to suggest that there is anything simple about how impactful an adult who has no biological interest in treating you as one of the most important people in their lives can be. I don’t have a clear memory of Aunt Mary giving me a pep talk that changed the trajectory of my life or a low point she lifted me up from; I just remember someone who I looked up to always making me feel like the most important kid in the room.
Now, decades later, with a career, a marriage, a child of my own — and a serendipitous friendship my wife, Sarah, and I have with a young woman named Mary — and my daughter Josie also has her own chosen Aunt Mary.
Josie’s Aunt Mary was our only friend who came to the hospital when Josie was born. Josie came nearly a month early and we didn’t know the protocol for inviting visitors. We were too blissed out on oxytocin to care. Mary (Josie calls her Meemee) figured out how to get in on her own and walked in, smiling. “Oh my god, you have a baby!” she said to me and Sarah. She stayed for under an hour and left. We had no idea she was going to play an outsized role in Josie’s life.
Meemee lived on a farm in southern Oregon during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sarah, Josie and I podded up with her and her partner, Dominic. When schools, day cares and camps were closed, Meemee and Dominic became our child care. Through all of the stress, chaos and unknowns, I knew Josie was safe and happy on the farm with her Aunt Meemee. I’d drop off my child in the morning and in the afternoon, I’d pick up a ruddy-cheeked, wildly dirty cherub who was uncomfortably full of cherry tomatoes. In a world filled with misinformation and fear, I knew I could drop Josie off at a simple place where she could watch things grow and also grow with the love of her Aunt Meemee.
Josie isn’t the only member of our family to benefit from Aunt Meemee’s solid love. Mary was the first friend I told when I was coming unraveled after Sarah and I experienced our second pregnancy loss when Josie was three. One Father’s Day weekend, Meemee joined us to go camping and asked how I was doing. I opened up in a way that’s not typical for me, and yet it came out organically — the surprising way these emotional dumps untether when you feel safe and at peace in someone else’s presence.
Meemee’s love and care for Josie had not only made her more like a parental figure for my daughter, but also like a sister for me. A bigger support group offers, well, more support for everyone. To paraphrase the aforementioned study, throughout our lives, we are surrounded by social networks, which, in turn, directly affect our individual well-being, by both bringing good to us and helping create a buffer to keep the bad stuff away.
Now, decades later — and a serendipitous friendship my wife Sarah and I have with a young woman named Mary — my daughter also has her own Aunt Mary.
I haven’t seen my Aunt Mary in eight years, but last I checked, she’s still doing as amazing as ever. I still look up to her. She and Pat live in a house they bought in Silicon Valley years before the tech industry sent property values to the moon. The last time I stopped by, I gave her very little notice, but she casually made one of the best salmon dinners I’ve had in my life. I laughed until my stomach hurt with her, Pat and their daughter, who, at the time, was finishing up her senior year of high school. I don’t know if my family’s life will look like theirs, but I know I will be happy if Sarah and I can open our doors and host dinners like that one when my daughter is a young adult.
I want to be a good father to Josie more than anything else in my life. I also know that sometimes I don’t get things right as a father. Despite my best efforts, a rigidity creeps back into my actions; the residual patterns of the household I was raised in. I see myself passing those same patterns on to my impressionable and very sweet daughter. In a way, it feels like watching something bad happen to a beloved character in a movie multiple times. You watch it play out from your couch, hoping the character won’t make that same mistake again — that one that will undoubtedly cause calamity later in the film.
I don’t want Josie to feel trapped in the loop of creating a life that looks like mine. I don’t want her to feel like she has to follow the rules I created — despite my best efforts — that don’t make sense. I honestly have no idea how I am going to do that, but maybe the answer is that I don’t have to. Maybe the Aunt Marys can.
I hope that Meemee has children of her own, so I can be there for them in the same way she’s been here for Josie. I feel like I already love them and plan to embrace the changes that will come when her favorite kid in the world is no longer my daughter. And I hope they call me Uncle Joe.