I have an aunt I haven’t seen in years. She and my uncle divorced when my girls were small, before my grandmother died (she died when Bethany was four). So my girls don’t really know her. But me, I do. I love her and I miss her.

She was always the quiet, bookish sort. Sort of like me — or I like to think so.

When things got too crazy with our clan, she’d stir up a cup of tea and head to a back bedroom to read. She was steady and calm as a ship moving through the tumultuous seas of our family gatherings.

Now when I say “tumultuous” I mean in a good way. With kids spinning like water spouts in every direction, high-kicking at doorframes to see who could tap the top with their toes, or swirling in a whirlwind of tufted midcentury armchair mechanics as a pump organ clanged thunderously in a corner.

Where physicists gathered like the male version of Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters, heads touching like storm clouds above a coffee table, posturing this and theorizing that, formulas drawn quick as lightning across fragments of paper, igniting frenzied animation on bearded or bespectacled faces.

As high-tinkling laughter drifted in on warm currents of baked pie crusts from the kitchen where my other three aunts gathered, two at the red formica table, one sipping Tab, the other waxing poetic over Mozart or their 20-pound Maine Coon. The third, apron ties flapping in concert with the sticky percussion of her heels on linoleum both tacky in aesthetic and feel, issuing orders to pour this, wash that, to the older of us cousins. Well, to me. Because the second oldest was the one clanging away on the pump organ while the third and fourth were out there spinning like water spouts with the youngest among us.

Meanwhile, my unflappable aunt sailed in and out of the tribal typhoon, warm as a beam of God-light, regal, composed on her way to a back berth with her tea cup and book.

She’s who I longed to be, but have never quite been able to become. I don’t have her genetics. I don’t have that certain je ne sais quoi. I’ll never know what it is, nor know how to posses it, her well-coiffed confidence; her cool, sweet nature. She’s the crem de la crem.

But I do have her love of reading and her desire to disconnect from the chaos. Well, I do and I don’t. Because I secretly harbor a distinct love of the chaos too. I wish to always be in the center of it all, while also maintaining my distance.

Things have changed drastically in the passing years. We cousins are grown and our children are grown (or mostly). So our kids’ kids (along with my mid-life medical miracle additions) are now spinning like water spouts and kicking at doorframes, but not at family gatherings. We haven’t had an extended one in a while. Not since Covid hit. And when we do finally get back together, two of us won’t be here to gather… my father-physicist and one Tab-sipping aunt.

In spirit, though, they hover about me daily, feeding me love and the language to tell their stories. To tell our stories.

Because life is short and limited. That’s the ugly part – but also what makes life so beautiful and precious.

And the older we get, the faster life spins — kind of like that mid-century armchair from my childhood. Only now it’s a mid-century merry-go-round of time’s making and I’m at the center of it all — and at a distance, thanks to Covid.

Which just goes to show you’ve got to always be careful what you wish for.