What We Carry in Common
Words by Won McIntosh Photographs by Alice Gao
Two sisters, bonded by blood and friendship, introduce their sons to a childhood tradition of sharing fresh pastries.
In the autumn that I was five, my sister was born. There were so many years between us that from the start we never really shared the same season of development. Those milestones of life that move us step by step from infancy to adulthood arrived at different times for each of us. I was off to school when she was learning to walk, and I was feeling the first flutters of a crush when she was just learning to make her own friends. I remember trying to teach her how to read. I remember leaving home for college and the way she buried her head under the covers the morning I left, too sad to speak to me. She wouldn’t leave for another five years. Always I went ahead of her, and always she was catching up. But somehow, perhaps as a testament to her maturity (or my immaturity), we were—and still are—great friends.
Our mother helped us. She never made much of our difference in age. Instead, she would call us to the car and take us out for pastries. It was something we did about once a week. And though we went year round, I most clearly recall our jaunts in the cold months—sitting together at a small table in a simple Japanese bakery, a pretty custard bun on a paper doily for each of us, a piping hot cup of coffee for our mother. My sister and I learned to love the smell of coffee early on, that smell at once of stepping into bracing air and of coming home again. We learned to love the comfort of sitting in a warm bakery, licking custard from our fingers, watching the fuzzy shapes of people passing outside the misted windows. We learned to love being together, no matter our ages, no matter our season.
We entered adulthood, and our experiences began to equalize. But it was the birth of my first child that suddenly propelled my sister forward, even as I was propelled newly into motherhood. She stepped ahead of me in a sense, becoming something I had never been: an aunt. Her nephew came in the autumn of the year she was married. She held him for the first time in the hospital, close to her heart. I loved her for loving him, especially in those early days when my own postpartum emotions felt tenuous. Three years later, I had another boy, and she held him too, as closely as she had held his brother. Aunt and nephews adored each other easily, absolutely. They shared the same chin, the same love of cookies still soft in the middle, the same gleam of joy upon seeing each other again after a spell. I always wondered about that, about her ability to treat each time she saw them as though it were the very first.
Then, in the autumn that my oldest turned five, my nephew was born. My turn had come, and I finally understood what it meant to love your sister’s child. Outside the hospital window, the East River flowed quickly, eager and churning, the glints of sunlight that fell on its surface floating away without pause. Inside the room, it was as if everything—my sister laughing, my brother-in-law holding up a camera, my boys dancing around my husband—paused for a moment while I met him. “Hi. I’m your auntie,” I said. He looked at me, one eye shut, one eye tentatively open, taking his time while taking me in. It was like I had known him a long time. Where love for your own child looks constantly forward, the love that you feel as an aunt is steeped in memories, the happy ones from childhood, of warmth, of togetherness. I nuzzled his forehead, and he smelled faintly—of all things—of custard.
It feels like the coldest day in February when we enter a cheery glass-front bakery in the West Village. My boys climb onto chairs and swing their legs back and forth. My sister removes my nephew from his carrier, and he smiles at me. Though I get to see him at least once a month, each time is indeed like the very first. My boys try to tickle their cousin. He blinks, surprised, then considers them curiously, unaffected by clumsy appendages ruffling his tummy. We order—to share—a chocolate croissant, a cherry cream scone, two sticky buns that glisten like jewels. We get cups of coffee for ourselves. We are mothers now, and aunts. Our ages don’t matter. All that does is being together, small fingers stealing swipes of powdered sugar off the croissant, crumbs dropping on the tabletop like some tender, familiar trail, the comfort of memory and of carrying it on.