Ready to talk about a relationship that is pretty neat — if only you let it happen? Great. Here goes.
So first of all, in the olden days, before indoor plumbing and cars, when I was a little kid (just kidding! But it was a pretty long time ago when I was a kid!), aunts and uncles were really special. I was born about 20 years after the Holocaust ended and family was really important. Most of my friends came from small families that originated in Europe. Mostly Hungary. And many of them did not have grandparents because they died in the Holocaust.
And many of them did not have aunts or uncles either, because lots of them did not come back from the Holocaust. Or if they did, they could not have children, so there was a shortage of cousins too. My one friend who had eight kids in her family was a big celebrity. And when I got to high school and met girls who had American parents and American grandparents with tons of aunts and uncles and billions of cousins, it was unbelievable to me.
So you get the picture how important our families were. And how close we were to our aunts and uncles and the measly few cousins we had.
And in our days, it was very unusual to have an aunt or uncle the same age as we were. I don't think I knew even one girl in elementary school whose aunt or uncle was her age. But I will bet you have tons of friends who is an aunt to a kid her age or is a niece to an aunt her age. And neither of them thinks it's cute. But more of that later.
So although I loved all my aunts, my most absolute favorite one was the youngest one, Reitzu. I know, funny name. As far as I know, there are only two Reitzus that exist today on this earth and both of them are named after her because they are her granddaughters (actually, the second one is a great-granddaughter), so this is a shout-out to that granddaughter named Reitzu after my most favorite aunt (who, as you probably realized, is no longer alive. Unfortunately).
Let me tell you what made my aunt Reitzu so special.
For about three years, I went to her every single day after school while my mother worked. I was best friends with her daughter, my cousin Esti, and I had a super duper time every time I went there. I never wanted to leave. Reitzu cooked great suppers every night that tasted as good as my mother's. In Reitzu's house, I was able to not only jump on Esti's bed, but it was very, very cool to climb up on the headboard and make a double flip in the air before crashing down on the bed. It is true that when we did that, Reitzu would come running from wherever she was and yell at us, “Stop jumping on the bed!” and she would add something like, “And if you break your head doing those flips in the air again, I am going to smack you up!”
Now, I don't know if you know this, but an aunt needs to be really, really close to a niece to be allowed to smack her when she misbehaves. That is how close we were. So close that I think I almost got smacked quite a few times for doing stuff like double flips in the air on Esti's bed.
Reitzu knew how to shmooze with kids and make us feel there was nothing more she enjoyed doing than shmoozing with us. She was impressed with my homework and gave me interesting books to read. And when I came back to visit Esti on Shabbos even though I saw Esti every single day after school, Reitzu looked really happy to see me again.
In short, Reitzu was the aunt of my dreams.
Looking back, I was such a wild kid and got into so much trouble and drove the younger kids in the house nuts (especially my little cousin who today is the father of the famous granddaughter, Reitzu), that I don't really understand how Reitzu could have looked happy to see me. But I felt loved and welcomed every single day by her.
Everyone needs a Tante Reitzu in her life.
Everyone needs to be a Tante Reitzu to a kid in her life. You need to be so close to your nieces and nephews that you could smack them if they misbehave. I confess that I have quite a bit of those types of nieces and nephews. The kind I adore so much and am so close to that I have threatened on more than one occasion to smack them if they don't stop jumping on the bed. Or whatever.
Here is why it is important to have a Tante Reitzu.
Tante Reitzus are the ones you go to when your mother doesn't understand you. Tante Reitzus always understand you and even explain to you how to make your mother understand you. Sometimes, Tante Reitzus even can do some explaining to your mother for you. Tante Reitzus's homes are the homes you go to when you get sick of your own siblings and need new siblings to fight with — or tell stories to. Sometimes, the only place you want to help before Shabbos is a Tante Reitzu's house.
Tante Reitzus tell you stuff that your mother tries to tell you, but somehow, only with Tante Reitzus do you listen. She makes sense! Aunts — and the uncles they are married to — are excellent for food, days out on Chol Hamoed, presents, shmoozing, kvetching, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a place to hang out that feels like home when your home is a pain in the neck.
And for those of you who have aunts or uncles the same age as you, obviously, this scenario looks quite different. There's the competition between you, there's the weird dynamic that your mother is your niece's' grandmother — and that can get complicated because grandmothers sure act differently to their grandchildren than to their kids. Both in good ways and in not-such-good ways. And if you are the same age as your aunt, where do you belong when your aunt is counted as part of the adults and you are stuffed away with the kids?
Like I always say, talk it out. With your mother, with your Tante Reitzu. Somebody will listen eventually. Especially if you do double flips in the air on Esti's bed.
Now what about those of you who don't have a Tante Reitzu in your life — and not because you don't want one? Maybe because your parents don't have siblings. Or, your aunts live very far away and are not available to be Tante Reitzus? Here's the good news. You can find a little bit of Tante Reitzu in many people in your life: in your teacher, in your neighbor, in your friend's mother, in your sister-in-law, or even a counselor in camp. Life is about relationships with people who care about you. And all those people who you build a relationship with can be a Tante Reitzu — a shoulder to cry on, a place to hang out, a person with whom you exchange gifts of friendship and love, the kind person with whom you reciprocate random acts of kindness. Got it? Good.
The bottom line? Get yourself a Tante Reitzu. Or be one.
note: this was originally published in Twirl, a teen subsection of Binah Magazine in my quarterly column "Relationships Matter"
Check out my book THERAPY SHMERAPY, available in bookstores and through Amazon
Read current articles in my bi-weekly column THERAPY: A SNEAK PEEK INSIDE in Binah Magazine, available on newsstands every Monday.