Tonight we drive to San Jose for dinner with Becky’s mother’s family. Liam will be there, and Sophie, and I’ll get to be Uncle Chris for a few hours instead of merely Chris.
This will feel good. I have been Uncle Chris for 21 years and change. When Allison was five minutes old the nurses handed her to me. My sister Coral was pre-occupied as they sutured her episiotomy. I introduced myself to someone, for the first time, as “Uncle Chris.” It felt like destiny fulfilled, a hereditary title I had anticipated my whole life.
Here is the stuff of which an Unclehood, properly executed, consists.
Patience. The niece’s or nephew’s quirks are likely a source of deep annoyance to the parents, but you will be heading home at the end of the day, and the child will only tap your reserves a little. For the parents, each tantrum is one in an endless string. For you, it is merely punctuation of a long afternoon on the grass.
Indulgence. A parent’s rules must be respected. But respect comes from knowledge, and knowledge of a rule is best gained when you spend a little time looking at it from the wrong side. Coral made it easy for me: cookies were against the rules for Allison, and I think seventeen years later my sister may almost have forgiven me that Oreo. And then there’s the “beer at seventeen” thing, about which I had best shut up as Liam’s mother may well read this.
Fun. This one, oddly, is the hardest. Popular wisdom has it that two-year-olds are terrible due to their propensity for saying “no.” Fun uncles know the awful truth: the word you should fear from a two-year-old’s mouth is actually “again!” Just give up. Your back will stop hurting eventually.
Exemplary behavior. Some of your nephews — and, in this enlightened age, some of your nieces as well — may grow up to be uncles. They will need a role model. Tell them “no” yourself when you need to, but be fun. Be patient. Indulge them. Love them relentlessly. They will think of you when it comes their time to uncle.
I have fallen down in that task on occasion. I have owed my sweet Grace an email for some weeks, and James is still waiting for my answer to his question about dinosaurs and planets. James, and Carolyn as well, have made it all the way to starting school without meeting Uncle Chris for the first time.
I cannot blame my negligience on a lack of role models. I had the best one possible.
My father has three brothers, each one a fine uncle. When I see them, which happens infrequently, it is nice to catch up. I am smart enough now not to mistake for disinterest the taciturn nature they share with my dad. Also: playing favorites among family members is an odious and risky pursuit. With good men in abundance among my parents’ siblings and their spouses, who would be so crass as to confess having a favorite uncle?
Me, that’s who. But that’s neither criticism nor slight of anyone in my family. It’s simply that Carlyle Benedict is the best uncle anyone ever had. When I held Allison that morning in 1984 I had him in mind, and I wondered if I would measure up.
Carlyle — “Benny” — married my father’s sister Joyce some years before I was born. I have known him forever. At family gatherings in the 1960s and 70s, where Clarke men tended to gather in deep silence around the television, content to say nothing for hours, Uncle Benny was a spark of infectious liveliness. The party started when he got there. He was not particularly a card. No joke-teller, he. It was more the way he approached life. He could walk into a room full of Clarkes and get us telling jokes.
I am trying now to remember a time when I saw him not smiling for more than a few minutes. I am failing.
The guy was a kid magnet. If there was a child under the age of five in the room with him, that kid would inevitably wind up clambering on his shoulders, placing a hand on his beautiful bald head. I loved him furiously as a small child, and then my sister Carrie did even more ardently, and yet I yielded my rightful place in his lap without resentment. I suspect my brother Craig — Craig Carlyle Clarke — loved him most of all.
There were times when we kids essentially lived at Aunt Joyce and Uncle Benny’s house in Penn Yan, or at least those of us who were born at the time. Lazy weeks in the summer with Aunt Joyce carting us to Keuka Lake, troubled times when my father was called up for National Guard duty or my mother was in the hospital having her thyroid removed. Their kids, Laurie and Tim, were older than us and we looked up to them. Uncle Benny would come home from work — in the service department of a local Dodge dealership, at least at the time — with a smile on his face that rarely ebbed, even when Laurie would play the same The Doors 45 sixteen times in a row, even when Tim was practicing his drums. That house was a second home to us.
Uncle Benny was a homebody. He spent his entire adult life within a twenty-minute drive of the farm where he grew up. We spent summer weeks camping in his father’s fields, tromping through the sheep barn in our good shoes. Driving two hours to Buffalo was an excursion to him, travel in the original sense of the word, a cognate of “travail.” Tim went on tour one year and his band split up somewhere in the Midwest, and he called his father to come fetch him and his drums, and the whole family knew that while someone like me might drive a thousand miles for a good plate of ravioli, Benny’s driving that far was an awesome sacrifice by which he proved his love for his son, again. Tim came to his senses and settled on his grandfather’s farm.
I took Becky to Penn Yan to meet them in 1996, and joked to Uncle Benny about his coming to visit us in California. “Yeah, right,” he smirked. When he saw me that day — the first time in some years — he grinned wide, held out his hand to shake. “That’s not gonna do it for me,” I said. I hugged him, kissing him on his ear just above the diamond stud. He looked a little surprised. “I live in California now,” I explained.
The phone rang this morning. It was my father. Tim called my Aunt Sylvia in Gorham, who called my dad. Uncle Benny had been in the hospital again, a common occurence what with the cancer he’s been fighting, and the doctors had planned to release him this morning.
Instead, my favorite uncle died last night.
I will see my little nephew tonight, pick him up and clasp him to me, hold him on my shoulders, smile at him indulgently through his inevitable snit. This is what good uncles do, though not usually with eyes this rimmed with red.