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Connections

My ‘cool aunt’ role model

I was only a toddler when Aunt Brenda died, but she’s never far away.

images from adobe stock; globe staff photo illustration

Ihave been close to my aunt my whole life, even though she died when I was 3. Brenda was a teenager leaving a roller rink when everything turned to sirens and crunched metal. The call came. Then the funeral. Lines of high school kids waited to file past. Recounting it now, it seems as far away as a cheesy after-school special, but she has always been a part of my life. Even in my middle age.

Brenda helped me deal with my body. I grew out of her teenage hand-me-downs in grade school. That I could not fit into her clothes was part of a confusing back-and-forth in which some well-meaning relatives had me on diets and others were indulging me. She had struggled with adolescent chubbiness, too, and was familiar with Grandma’s weight-loss regimens. But she seemed to whisper, through the white halter top in my top dresser drawer, “You can worry about wearing this, or you can live your life.”

She inspired giggling. Most especially when I was sliding end-to-end across the vinyl back seat of my grandmother’s sunshine-yellow Cadillac. The car, purchased after the accident, served as Grandma’s talisman against the dark. She drove it full speed into curves, facing her demons, as I squealed in delight. Brenda was the architect of those wild, free rides.

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She encouraged a different way of thinking. My grandpa was enraged at the insurance payment for Brenda’s loss of life. An algorithm determined that her worth in dollars was small because she had not married or had children, and a woman’s value was so often weighed in those terms. He was no feminist, and he didn’t care about the money, but he felt a sense of injustice, knowing she left a hole in the world as large as any wife or mother. I often think of this when friends remind me that I am not getting any younger. Brenda lived a whole life, however short, as exactly who she was. That was enough.

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She modeled being a committed auntie. The picture in her wallet was of toddler me, and it told me that wherever she went, I mattered to her. I try to send the same message to my nieces and nephews by taking them on road trips. At least once a year, we pick a place no more than a day’s drive away. We always find that magic moment, the unexpected thing that becomes the focal point of reminiscence.

In Toronto it was the day we walked for miles, ending in Chinatown, and couldn’t find the right bus stop. A group of older women must have heard us complaining about our throbbing feet, because they swooped in around us and hustled us up a set of stairs. Braelynn thought we were being kidnapped. Emily giggled as the ladies commented about how none of my kids looked like me. Casey couldn’t believe I was letting strangers touch his feet. Robby declared it the best thing that ever happened. We had found ourselves in a massage shop being treated to the soothing art of foot care.

“Our parents would never do this,” Ashleigh said as they all marveled. It was a moment that belonged to just us. We have dozens and dozens of them.

A friend recently declared that the only way to have a relationship with the world beyond the reality of it ending is to have children — to create, through the passing down of DNA, a link to immortality. I know that is not true. A childless aunt can stay present with a childless niece. Brenda has been with me all these years, long after that night at the roller rink. She has supported me, grown with me. I hope I, too, have been the sort of aunt who will linger in the lives of the nieces and nephews I love, inspiring the next generation of aunts and uncles down the line.

Stacey Hall Burge is a writer in Cincinnati. Send comments to connections@globe.com.