Words aren't always there when it's time to say goodbye

  • Follow Glynn Moore

My father and my mother both had plenty of brothers and sisters, but when Aunt Gracie died a week ago, she was the last in both of their clans.

Aunt Gracie was quite a personality. I remember cringing when, as a boy, I sat mesmerized, watching the professional wrestling matches televised from the nearest city. Actually, I was watching Gracie, who was in the first row. She would stand up, heckle the fighters and threaten them with her folding chair.

Fortunately for them, she never climbed into the ring. (I never heard of any wrestlers coming to harm, anyway.)

She was two years younger than my mother, and after my father died the two widowed sisters would drive around in Gracie's car, hitting the bingo joints. That would have been an interesting show to watch.

When I tried to tell people why I was going out of town last week, I found it difficult to explain in just a few words:

"I'm going to my aunt's funeral. She was my last aunt; the last of all my aunts and uncles, actually. But I already didn't have any uncles left. She was the last of all of them, on both sides."

The problem, I realized, is that there doesn't seem to be a word in the English language that takes in both aunts and uncles. There is a way to say brothers and sisters as a collection -- "siblings" -- and for your mother and father -- "parents." No such shortcut exists to refer to your mother's or father's brothers and sisters, however.

Moreover, "cousins" refers to both sexes, as do "children" and "grandchildren." But when it comes to uncles and aunts, they always remain miles apart.

I looked in the dictionary for help, but all I learned is that if you go back far enough, "aunt" comes from a diminutive form of "mother." "Uncle," on the other hand, descends from a word that once was "grandfather."

We've all had older men in our families who were warm, helpful and caring (grandfatherly, I suppose), and there's a way to describe such men: "avuncular." It means "like an uncle."

People who are famously avuncular include actor Wilford Brimley and -- most of all -- retired newsman Walter Cronkite.

"Avuncular" sent me searching for a similar word for "like an aunt." Most sources I checked insisted there is no such word, unless you use the cop-out "auntly."

(Along the way, I found Web sites offering DNA testing to see whether someone is your aunt or uncle; their term for it was "avuncular testing." They meant both aunts and uncles, though.)

Finally, I stumbled across a word that was both new to me and just about unpronounceable: "materteral." It means -- ta-dah! -- "like an aunt." I think you say it muh-TURR-tur-rull. Whether it has any good connotations, like "avuncular," or bad connotations, I have yet to discover.

So, though we have adjectives to describe both aunts and uncles, no one noun covers both of them as a unit. Now that my Aunt Gracie is gone, I probably won't give this subject much thought again.

Reach Glynn Moore at (706) 823-3419 or glynn.moore@augustachronicle.com.


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