“Uncle” is an honorable title, originally defining one’s position in a family, as new generations are born. But, eventually, the title is really one that is earned, becoming a position of trust, a special niche in the life of a child, growing up, coming of age, moving into adulthood, and beyond. Not every man earns the title of “uncle”.
The special men who were uncles in my life were always larger than life, holding a place near to my heart. They were there at special times, sometimes being the giver of presents. Yet, the real value was in their presence, their strong place in my life. Sometimes, they would offer advice. But, more often, they were simply there, being interested in me, and I felt their love.
They would tell stories, laugh, joke around with me, and with others in the family. They often would speak, often quietly, about values and morals, and the important things in life, such as friendship, and trust, and dependability. It was not only in their words, but in their actions, their kindnesses, how they went about their lives, raising their own kids, and taking time to raise me, once in a while.
My uncles offered me a haven, a refuge from the world. We would often sit in near silence with each other, as I took in their quiet strength, their strength of character, their availability to me.
No question was stupid, no remark considered inane, or immature. Where I was at in life was just that, where I was at. And, if I needed advice, I could ask. There was no laughter in the asking, and no sassy remarks about my questions, or my worries.
The advice was often wrapped up into a story, an anecdote about their experiences, their struggles. Often, they laughed at what they did, and how they got through something that was bothering them. And, in that telling, and that laughter, there was deep wisdom, and compassion for where I was at, and what I needed. Many lessons were taught that way, in story and in experience, and I listened hard.
And, when they hugged me, it often wasn’t about their strong arms wrapped around me, or the pat on the back, or the strong handshakes. It was, instead, support, empathy, and brotherhood. I was accepted for who I was, and where I was going. And, in knowing I wasn’t the first one to walk along that path, and climb over those obstacles. They’d faced all that too, and more. And, they’d lived to tell the tale, and to move on with their lives.
If they could do all that, and joke and smile about how tough that journey was, and all that they had learned, then I could walk that walk, too.
It wasn’t like they were being my dad, and playing the fatherly role. I needed that, too, and I’d learned how important parenting was in one’s life.
But, the art of being an uncle is not in the fathering. It often goes deeper than that, still family, still mentoring, and rearing up, but in a different light, a different slant. The art of being an uncle is often practiced with some distance, some space and time. There’s more objectivity, more “over the long run” perspective to the conversation. And, a lot less drama, a lot less demand to get it right, right now.
Fathers are more impatient, more demanding of the instant change, the instant behavior modification in the child. They live in the same house, and want to get things done right now. Dads can often be expected to be on call 24 hours a day, so patience is not always a virtue for the parental figure.
Uncles are more forgiving, more patient with the process of growing up, of coming of age. They’re more willing to wait, and to be more hesitant, more cautious with their words, their counsel. Time is a big tool in the tool chest of the uncle. He’s willing to wait around, to wait until you ask, or until the time is right so that he knows you are really listening.
The older I get, the more I cherish my uncles. Their numbers dwindle over time, and the times of deep conversation and quiet advice become more rare, and more appreciated. They weren’t all that numerous in my life to begin with, and now that the gray hair in the family has moved to my head, I miss them more dearly.
In the last few weeks, one of the great uncles in my life slipped away from all of us, and moved on to another world. He came into my life when I became part of my wife’s family, about a third of a century ago.
It was a perfect fit. He’d never met a niece or nephew he didn’t love unconditionally, and open his heart and his ears to anything they needed in life. He’d pour out his love to any one of them, as needed and as wanted. His heart had an endless supply of all that was needed. And, so, marriage to one of his nieces was all that he needed to offer me the same, no strings attached.
And, soon, I was welcomed, with open arms, jokes flying, and his contagious laugh and endless string of stories lighting up all the times I had with him.
We didn’t need to talk much about how we liked each other. With him, all that was just something to be understood, to be taken for granted, just like his love. I sensed he didn’t want to have me try to define what was between us, or what he was to his family. With him, what was really important didn’t come out in words, anyway. He was deeper than whatever you tried to say.
Words and definitions and any kind of analysis would have just left him cold. That wasn’t his style. He was a man of action, of living life deeply and vibrantly. Life wasn’t to be defined or discussed, it was to be lived.
He lived a deep and rich life, loving without hesitation, and working hard. He gave freely, of his time and his passions, spreading joy and friendship throughout his ever growing circle of friends and family.
He slipped away from us last week, leaving us to retell some of his stories, some of our adventures with him. We remembered his laughter, his passions, and his deep, abiding love for us.
And, as I listened to those stories and those memories this week, as we gathered to mourn and to celebrate a well lived and rich life, I saw that he had taught all of us well in that art of being an uncle, of living a life of service and love. His craft of being the uncle was all around us, and his work in all that was learned well.
He was the master of all that, a master of the art of being an uncle. And, I am most thankful for all that he was and all that he taught to the world.