The Virtual Aunt

The Virtual Aunt


I’m putting my daughter to bed, but her twin brother is still in the next room, waiting. I hear him chattering away, as he dances a toy elephant across the floor. He’s not talking to himself, though, my sister is with him. Well, technically, she’s some four thousand miles away in Vancouver, Canada, while we are in Glasgow, Scotland, but, virtually, she’s right there. My phone is propped against the bookshelf, the perfect angle for surveying the scene. My son is interacting with her as if she is sitting, flesh and bones, in the very same room.

We are regular partakers, my sister and I, in the phenomenon of the FaceTime babysitter. For me this kind of video messaging hasn’t just been a luxury, a vehicle for allowing an aunt to bond with her nephews and niece across an otherwise vast ocean. There have been moments, periods of time, where my sister’s virtual presence has been nothing short of a lifeline. Such is the way when you have two babies and only one pair of hands, only one set of eyes.

Back when their afternoon nap was the fulcrum of our day, we used to speak to her several times a week. I would put the twins in their high chairs at around noon; my sister would be getting ready for work, dawn breaking in Washington, D.C. They would choose the jewelry that best suited her outfit, oohing and ahhing over the various bracelets on display, as I cut crusts off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, my laptop offering a comprehensive view of the kitchen. And then I would haul one toddler up to bed, while she would occupy the other, bound safely in his seat, and nap time would proceed smoothly, a staggered affair, instead of the manic free-for-all it became when I was on my own.

My sister has been heavily involved in my children’s lives from the beginning. She is a devoted aunt, to say the least, but she is also a woman with a job that takes her all over the world. The two of us have not lived in the same town, in the same country even, since 1999. Our relationship has been conducted through the channels of whatever technological means have been in the ascendency. Hours-long phone calls via special long-distance plans, Skype, when it was a novelty, and now the holy grail of instant visual access: FaceTime.

For my kids, my sister is both a real-live entity and a digitized floating head, sometimes she is a tinny voice in the ether, talking or singing to them as I drag her around with us from pillar to post. When they were very young, fledglings in the concept of object permanence, we were curious to see the consequences of this arrangement: a face on a screen, familiar and representative as it might be, is not itself a person. But then she would walk through the door of our house, after months of being a two-dimensional image only, and the babies would know exactly who she was in all of her dimensions. The transition was almost seamless.

Our children, of course, are growing up with a blurred line between the real and the virtual. Their relationships are bound to be fluid things, the online and the IRL swirling together to form, ultimately, an unadulterated whole. This is how my own life works right now, after all, a melange of interactions, some of which take place across social media, some of which take place across a dinner table, but each just as “real” as the next. Unlike me, however, my kids will have no period of adjustment, they won’t be asking tortured questions, like our generation does, about what constitutes authenticity in this regard. They will simply accept the ubiquity of the technology they were raised with—and how it has, in turn, changed the essential nature of human connection.

The FaceTime babysitter is an outgrowth of our children’s native comfort level with technology, but so too it is a reflection of the modern reality of the scattered family. In typical fashion, the first has evolved to bridge the potentially devastating gaps of the second. It never ceases to amaze me that my sister, despite the miles between us, is a daily fixture in our house. My kids reference her with a frequency that, in another age, could only signal an intimacy born of geographic proximity. It’s because I talk about her a lot, I make the effort. But I’m convinced it is also because they know that she—her face, her existence—is a mere button away.

Eventually it’s my son’s turn for bed. I carry him upstairs with my sister tucked in my back pocket: he wants Auntie G to do his stories tonight. We are a strange trio lying there—mother, son and aunt beamed in from abroad—but we are a trio just the same. She and I read alternating months of Chicken Soup with Rice, while my son listens intently, as if this scenario is normal as normal can be. Before the lights go out, he takes the phone and says goodnight, smattering the screen with kisses. My sister kisses him back. Their lips are touching, but not really. They are so far and yet so close.

Author’s Note: Since I wrote this piece, I have had the great fortune of becoming an aunt myself. I am travelling a vast distance to see my new nephew soon, but of course we have already FaceTimed several times since his birth.