In 2001, my family spent Christmas in Dublin with my sister-in-law’s family. I was excited to go but nervous, too. I’d only met two of her family — her mom and her oldest brother — and was suddenly going to be thrown into a crowd of family for two and a half weeks.
Let me say now, my sister-in-law’s family is lovely. My mother, sister and I had a wonderful trip, and that is entirely owed to the fact that this is a warm, funny family, peopled with kind, good-natured, welcoming cousins, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters. They’re great, and they embraced us immediately and entirely.
The moment that made the trip for me was tiny-tiny and came early in the trip. I was in the kitchen at Mary’s house with my sister-in-law’s brother, Donal, and his two-year-old son. Donal and I were at opposite ends of the room and the baby was near me, on the floor. He found something down there, I can’t recall what, but it was something he shouldn’t be playing with or putting in his mouth. He held it up for us to see, and Donal said, “That’s nice. Give that to your auntie, just give it to your auntie.”
I looked around. Had my sister-in-law or one of the other women stepped into the kitchen without my noticing? But no, we were still just three in the room.
Which was when I realized he meant me, that I was the “auntie.” I reached over, took from the baby’s hand the forgotten nasty bit and Donal and I went back to our conversation.
It was such a small thing, but so huge in my heart. It erased all my worry about how my family would or wouldn’t fit in, the nervous contemplation of how to name our relationships. (What was my sister-in-law’s brother to me? Calling him my sister-in-law’s brother took so long and created a distance I didn’t want to create.) All of it was dissolved, disappeared. Donal certainly had no question about our relationship, about who I was to him, to his son. And that easiness, the simplicity of “Give that to your auntie,” flooded my heart. We were family, and it was as simple as that.
And yes, I felt that from all my brothers- and sisters-in-law, from all my new nieces and nephews, from Mary (my mother-in-law), but that tiny interchange with Donal was like Dorothy landing in Oz and stepping from black and white to technicolor.
* * *
Last Sunday, Donal died. This kind, funny, big-hearted man died. It’s a week now, but I still can’t believe it. My heart goes out to his wife, his four children, his brothers and sisters, his mother … his family and my family — our family — and to everyone who was lucky enough to know him.