I’m sitting at the playground watching Ruby do the rings. She has always been great at the rings – something I was never able to do as a kid. In typical Ruby fashion, she is encouraging other kids who think they can’t do it to try, saying, “I was scared at first too, but I kept trying, and then I could do it!” The woman sitting next to me sighs as she sees her child walk off with another kid’s toy, prying the bucket out of her two-year-old’s hands and returning it to its tearful owner.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “Ruby went through a toy-stealing phase too. I was constantly mortified and explaining to her that it’s wrong, and then one day something clicked and she quit doing it.” The woman smiles, and says, “How old?” nodding at Ruby. “She’s eight!” I say proudly, “Nine in August.” We make some more chit-chat about how the years fly by, then collect our respective charges and leave.
At some point in this conversation I probably should have told her that Ruby is not my kid. But it’s hard to explain. I’m not Ruby’s babysitter. I’m not her nanny or a relative. My title is a strange modern-day one, one that comes with its own ironic punctuation. I’m Ruby’s “aunt” or “auntie.” Don’t forget the quotes. While “aunt” confers the closeness of a blood tie, the quotes rein it in, making it clear that I’m part of a constructed family, not a biological one.
Ruby’s mother, Marcelle, is my best friend. Nine years ago she dragged me into the bathroom at a party and pulled seven or eight pregnancy tests out of her purse. “I think I’m pregnant,” she said, “and I think I’m keeping it.” Like a true friend, I didn’t point out just how insane it was to be carrying around a bunch of sticks she had peed on (they were in a plastic bag), and we discussed the situation. Ruby’s father was living in Australia and unable to be very involved in her life. Marcelle was thirty-five and had always wanted to have kids. Many of our other friends thought she was making a huge mistake. I knew there was no talking her out of it, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Instead I pledged to be a co-parent in any way she needed.
A month or so later, I was holding Marcelle’s hand as we saw Ruby for the first time on the sonogram screen at Columbia Presbyterian. We both cried. The nurse thought we were a lesbian couple (a misperception that happens to this day), and I went home thinking about how brave my friend was. Like a good partner, I picked up a copy of What to Expect When You Are Expecting, and we were off. On August 30, 2000, we welcomed Ruby Jarrah Aviva Karp into this world. I was “Auntie Mikki” for real. When Marcelle handed me the baby for the first time, I was overwhelmed with fear and excitement. Ruby just blinked up at me, as sure of herself as she always is.
I’m not Ruby’s only “relative.” She has many other “aunts” and “uncles.” As a single mother, Marcelle has been adept at crafting a family out of friends and neighbors. There is Kendrick, who coached Marcelle during the delivery; Josh, who used to live upstairs and provides necessary roughhousing; and our amazing, generous, loving friends Maren and Michael, whose three daughters provide Ruby with all the sibling energy she needs, and who have invited us into their home for every holiday. Maren is the kind of supermom who makes dried apple witches and homemade costumes for Halloween, exposing Ruby to some old school motherly crafting she certainly won’t get from Marcelle or myself.
Being an “auntie” lets me function on both sides of the mother-daughter line. The first time an infant Ruby threw up on me, on the beach at Fire Island, I felt it was a badge of honor. Now I irritate her every summer by pointing out the spot where she did it, after yelling at her to put her bike away. But I also get enlisted to play pranks on Marcelle at slumber parties, and I am not sure if it was me or Ruby who was more excited when we got tickets to sleep over at the American Museum of Natural History next month. Under the whale!
At the end of the day, I still go home to my life. Now that Ruby has her own phone, I’ve been able to cut out the middleman – or middlemom – and make plans with her all on my own. I like to text her during the day to see what she is up to. Her answers are often short and to the point. “Recess,” she will say. (Sometimes Ruby’s life is more exciting than mine.) She tells me about the other kids at school and what’s going on with her play. Other times we make up stories together on the phone and I play tricks on her, pretending I can see her and describing her outfits. One day she’ll figure out I am IMing her mother while I am texting her.
In truth, I could do more. Marcelle is extraordinarily self-sufficient, and remarkably stubborn about asking for help. Sometimes I’ve had to gently remind her that she doesn’t need to do it all alone, that I am around for the hard stuff as well as the fun stuff. But at the end of the day, I still go home to my life in Williamsburg – I am not truly a co-parent.
So, when people ask me if I have kids, I say no. On paper, I’m a textbook spinster – I’m forty-four, single, with two cats. I’m just an “aunt.” But for me Ruby is much more than my “niece.” She will always be my little girl.