“Where Everyone is your Uncle or Aunt”
I grew up in a rural community where it seemed every adult was my uncle or aunt. I knew they couldn’t all be kin, although they seemed to be.
They’re two of the sweetest words in the English language:
In Dry Creek, these terms of respect were given to our elders. I knew them as Aunt Mary Jane, Uncle Jesse, and dozens more. They’re all gone except in my memory.
These folks reached their big arms and hearts around us with love. That’s how they became everyone’s uncle and aunt.
About twenty years ago, I made a trip to China. The language was difficult and my phrasebook was of little use. One of my new Chinese friends taught me a word: Aie. It was Chinese for aunt. He explained, “China is in the second generation of its one-child policy and an unintended side effect has been the disappearance of uncles and aunts. We’ve lost the word Aie.”
Two thoughts saddened me: Children never knowing an Aunt or Uncle,
and Uncles and Aunts who never had the chance to love on their nephews or nieces.
For the rest of my trip, I addressed older women with a respectful nod and “Aie.” I still feel emotion when I recall their joyful faces. My Yankee dialect was poor, but their smiles testified I’d gotten through.
Aie. I hope I never forget that word.
I’ve buried most of my biological aunts and uncles. How I thank God for each one and how they guided me in love.
Every culture and language has a tender term for aunts. I have a granddaughter of German heritage who calls every female family member Tante. I easily fall in love with the strong Aunties of our American Black culture.
My Ugandan friend, Joseph, lives in the middle of a circle of thatched huts. Several dozen family members pour in and out of the compound. I’ve yet to sort out who really is a brother, sister, child, uncle, nephew, father, or aunt.
In the compound, it’s easy to spot the wizened old Mzees. These uncles or grandfathers are treated with the utmost respect. Joseph tried to explain the term Mzee to me. It seems to be a stronger version of Uncle. Mzee.
It’s how we addressed the male elders of my childhood. They were our Uncles. They were our Mzees.
That’s the mid-century culture I grew up in a small community called Dry Creek, Louisiana.
A place where everyone was your uncle or aunt.
Enjoy your elders.
They honored me by calling me Mzee.