I'm close with my aunt, even though she and my mom are estranged. Our relationship has taught me about all 3 of us.

I'm close with my aunt, even though she and my mom are estranged. Our relationship has taught me about all 3 of us.
  • My mom and my aunt are estranged, but I've been close with my aunt since I was young.

  • We started by writing letters to each other and then eventually began talking on the phone.

  • I've learned a lot about myself through our differences as well as our similarities.

"You have mail," my mom called from the kitchen.

I bounded over to fetch a purple envelope. One glance at the familiar return address label confirmed my hopes. Joyfully, I slid out my aunt's handmade notecard and devoured the cursive detailing her latest luncheon at Lake Michigan. I then grabbed a gel pen and floral stationery to craft a reply, cataloging the Girl Scouts meeting from the day before and the most recent book I read ("Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls").

I was nine. That year my aunt and I decided to start writing letters since I didn't have my own phone. Although we communicated often, I only met her a few times due to her limited relationship with my mom, who's 15 years younger than she is. The distance between them puzzled me — to my knowledge, they didn't talk save for texting to confirm that the cards my aunt sent for me had arrived.

I've never known exactly why my mom and aunt don't talk

When I asked my mom why we didn't see her, she'd vaguely reply, "She was always kind of mean to me," or, "We just don't." I knew from having my own sister that siblings can be cruel sometimes, but I couldn't imagine not speaking at all. I also struggled to reconcile my mom's claim with my aunt's occasional comments about how long it had been since we were all together. They teetered on the edge of longing.

Despite this mystery, our letter writing continued for a decade before we transitioned to phone calls. Our generational differences became clearer over time. Now, at 74 years old, my aunt listens to the radio nightly, vacations in Florida, and sends me newspaper clippings of funny comics. By contrast, I'm a Gen Zer who grew up with Instagram and have never held a physical newspaper. Discussing our varied experiences makes our relationship fulfilling.

As my aunt and I began to speak more, I gathered breadcrumbs of what happened between her and my mom. Fundamentally, they are different people. Though my aunt remains to this day in the Wisconsin town where they were born, my mom has lived abroad, in the mountains, and in major cities. After graduating from Catholic school, my mom abandoned religion, yet my aunt consistently attends church. My aunt declutters her house every spring, while my mom's home is filled to the brim with unused belongings.

Beyond these differences, I suspect that my mom never truly healed from leaving grad school to care for their terminally ill mother alone. I wonder if my aunt's absence contributed to their current impasse. All I know for certain is that they've stopped communicating.

I've learned a lot from our relationship

Though this dynamic confuses me, recognizing they also have similarities helps me understand them as sisters. They both love their children and old things. The cadence of their voices is alike, and even their handwriting bears a resemblance, with their loopy y's and f's. Most importantly, they both miss their mother deeply.

Their disconnect drives me to maintain contact with my aunt despite challenges, such as when she casually revealed she voted for Trump in 2016. I wanted to yell; instead, I let the feeling of disappointment rest heavily in my stomach until I could hang up the phone and contemplate how to move forward.

Thankfully, I don't anticipate having to navigate the same conflict this election based on our recent conversations. But I'd put forth the effort if necessary, because preserving open dialogue with loved ones is worthwhile to me. It's what I wish my mom and aunt could do for themselves and for me, too, because someday I want all three of us to sit together in the state where they grew up, watching June bugs and listening to the radio.

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