The Auntie Effect

Siya had decided it was time to break the news to the aunties. They arrived every day promptly at 3pm, expecting her coffee and company. There was one in every size. Large, medium and small. The shortest aunt was the oldest, and the tallest aunt the youngest. Siya found this counter-intuitive. Technically they weren’t even her aunts. They were Minna’s. Minna who had recently up and packed her bags and moved to India to volunteer in a desert village where she didn’t speak the language, but was somehow helping women artisans adapt their product designs for a contemporary marketplace. 

Siya glanced over at the fridge where Minna’s latest postcard was displayed. A red quilt embroidered with intricate white snowflakes and studded with tiny silver mirrors. “We’re in Bloomingdale’s just in time for Christmas sales!” she’d scrawled on the back, “Can’t wait for you to meet the wonder women I work with. I don’t know when they sleep (or when their husband’s work). They are TOO sweet (and so is their chai). Come. SOOOOOON!”

Minna was like a heroine out a storybook. An orphan raised by a pack of aunts. A willful, quick-tongued child who’d grown into a spirited, bewitching young woman. The first time they’d met, Minna had pulled Siya’s braid. Hard. Siya’s eyes had filled with tears, but she did not cry out. Instead she bit her lip and looked at the ground. Minna dropped the braid and offered Siya a half eaten chocolate and her lifelong protection. For some reason they’d been inseparable ever since. Or had been until Minna left for India. Now it was just Siya and the aunts 

Minna had known how to handle them. Like a clever sheepdog she herded them away from treacherous subjects, (Marriage. Babies.) kept them busy in the green pastures of benign conversation. She knew how to get them arguing over the secret ingredient in their great-grandmother’s famed pumpkin curry, or recalling the day their school flooded and the teacher simply stood on his desk and continued class, or remembering the 104-year-old tailor in their village who could size a person perfectly with one glance, who declared measuring tapes, were for amateurs, and who exacted revenge on snide customers by stitching their blouses just a tad too tight. Not so tight that it warranted complaint, just tight enough for them to be in a perpetual state of vague discomfort. 

But Siya has no talent for shepherding, so now with Minna gone, the aunties are out of control. They’d broken out of the corral days ago and there was no turning them around. 

“Siya what do you think of this fellow? We think he’s perfect.” said Auntie #1 waving a photograph under Siya’s nose. The sixth photograph in the last week. Each one of a different fellow who was believed to be “perfect”. “Siya don’t you think Minna would make a wonderful mother?” said Auntie # 2, “She has so much extra energy, mothering would be perfect for her! See how well it suits you?” “Siya when you talk to Minna tell her it’s high time she gave a serious thought to her future,” said Auntie #3, “She can save the world after she’s settled down. First things first no?”

“It’s not that I don’t like being married to you,” Siya said to her husband as he dried the dinner dishes, “But somehow spending time with the aunties makes me feel like going off and doing something terribly scandalous.” “The Auntie Effect,” said her husband gravely, “I should ban them from the house.” “As if you ever would,” she scoffed, “You egg them on.” And he did. Terribly. He adored the aunties and the home cooked delicacies they brought with them. “It’s not fair,” she once told him, “The more you eat the more they love you. The rest of us with normal person appetites just can’t compete.” It was not uncommon for the aunties to come for tea and stay past dinner time. Siya would come back from putting the baby to bed and find one of the aunties hovering over the stove, another chopping onions like her life depended on it, and the third rummaging through the fridge looking for green chilis.They were far better acquainted with Siya’s kitchen than she was. Last week the three of them had rearranged all her shelves and drawers. Siya still wasn’t sure where the can opener was in this new configuration, or any of the dessert bowls. “Have you told them yet?” her husband asked as they were turning back the covers that night. “Tomorrow,” said Siya. “You said that yesterday,” her husband reminded her. “Don’t nag,” she responded, “I’ll tell them tomorrow.”

The next afternoon as soon as she opened the door she said, all in one breath, “I need to tell you something.” The aunties exchanged silent, worried glances, and proceeded to sit down on the living room sofa one next to the other in descending height order. An arrangement which temporarily distracted Siya from the news she was about to share and made her wish she could take a picture of them on her phone to send to Minna. 

“Are you getting divorced?” asked Auntie #3, her eyebrows knitted together in a fierce scowl. “No of course not Auntie!” said Siya, shocked and a little offended at the very idea. “Everybody seems to be getting divorced these days,” said Auntie #2. “Like it’s some kind of new fashion,” tacked on Auntie #3, who was fond of calling everything she didn’t like about modern society, “some kind of new fashion.”. “Minna isn’t coming home for Christmas” said Siya quietly. There was a brief silence in the room, interrupted only by the baby’s quiet babbles from the corner of the floor where she lay on her blanket happily unaware of the unwelcome news that had just been shared.

Then the aunties began speaking all at once, “Why not? What happened? Does she need money? Is she hurt? Is she in love? ? Is someone blackmailing her? Should we go bring her home? Should we call the police?” “She loves living in India,” said Siya with a little shrug and a smile, “She’s thinking of staying permanently.” “In the middle of the desert? Where there’s no airport? Or family? How could she possibly want that?” Again a chorus of confused questions rose in the air, “Doesn’t she miss us? Is she mad at us? What did we do?” “Nothing — you did nothing wrong, and everything right! She loves you so much and she misses you. She wants you to come visit her in the second week of January, on the day of the big festival.” Auntie #3 narrowed her eyes in suspicion, “Why didn’t she tell us all this herself? Is she hiding something? She knows we always can tell when she’s hiding something.” “She wasn’t sure how you’d take the news. She knows how attached you all are to her, she was just nervous about it that’s all,” said Siya in her best soothing voice, “You know how she hates making anyone feel bad.” “Then she should have just come home for Christmas like she’d planned,” grumbled Auntie #1, “None of us have been to India in over three decades, not since — “ She trailed into silence. Not since the day that Minna’s parents had been killed in an accident. The three aunts — her mother’s older sisters, had bought their plane tickets and boarded their flight that very night. And they’d never looked back at the lives they’d left behind. Minna suspected at least two of them had left husbands behind. A fact they all vigorously denied.  We were meant to be spinsters they said. We were meant to be together to take care of you.

She was their golden child. A three-year-old spitfire when they first came into her life. She’d refused to love them for the first year they were with her, afraid that if she did they too might disappear on her one day. Then one day she’d crawled into Auntie #1’s lap and fallen asleep holding Auntie #2’s sleeve in one hand, and Auntie #3’s sleeve in the other. She never let a day go by without seeing all of them. Even in India she Skyped with them every day. 

Siya and her husband had been tasked with teaching the aunties how to Skype. That’s how the 3pm visits had originated. It was meant to be one tutorial on one afternoon. But the aunties had learned nothing that first day. Instead they’d fussed over the baby and folded all the laundry, and briskly hemmed the ends of the living room curtains (which Siya had meant to leave fashionably trailing). At the end of the first week they’d learned the basics of Skype, but they continued to show up at 3pm each afternoon with no indication of ever stopping.  And now Minna was calling them back to the country that was once but no longer their home. 

“You’ll have to come with us,” said Auntie #2 looking directly at Siya. “You and the baby. We can’t convince her on our own.” “Convince her of what?” “Of the utter foolishness of her plan.” Siya opened her mouth to say something and then stopped, the aunties were planning to make the trip. Minna had thought they would need a lot more persuading. But here they were negotiating the terms of travel. “I’ll come with you,” she said, surprising herself, and later that evening her husband, who had not seen this coming. “Why are you going with them again?” “Because I feel implicated,” she responded. “And the baby?” “She’ll help keep me sane while I’m away and in the midst of Minna and her family’s madness.” “Alright but don’t get it in your head to move there,” said her husband, “You have to come back and find our dessert bowls. Or I’ll be eating ice cream straight out of the carton the whole time you’re away.”

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