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The Power of Crying Uncle

…and things my uncles taught me.

To young boys, uncles tower over you like an old-growth doug fir. And if they were a farmer of which I had a couple, their huge calloused hands were big as melons and twice as rough. One uncle, while perched on a three-legged milking stool coaxing the last few streams of warm milk from a cow’s teat, turned to a five or six-year-old me and asked, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

Maybe he was tired of my questions. I was staring up at the backend of a big black and white cow named Bertha with tail swishing and an enormous pink bag swaying between two long bony back legs. Occasionally Bertha’s swinging tail would find my uncle’s face, possibly causing me to ask him the question, “why don’t you just cut the tail off?” I don’t remember, but he might have come back with, “Then how is Bertha going to keep the flies off her back?”

“What was I going to be when I grew up?” Little did he know the effect that one question would have on a young boy. Neither did he know that whatever answer I gave him that late afternoon staring up at Bertha’s backend, I never did figure out what I was going to be when I grew up.

From that day forward, I knew that someone thought I had a future- a concept that hadn’t completely dawned on me yet. And he seemed to be interested in what ‘I’ thought. His question, a question of some weight, suggested I was an individual- unique even. I was more than just a child of my parents and number three of six siblings. I had to think about that- it required me to project into the future- unknowable for sure but something to think about. Startling but incredibly exciting. The question kept popping up not because it needed an answer, at least not yet, but because it started to expand my world view. My world became full of possibilities.

Now sixty years later and still with us, my uncle’s love for family is as evident as when he showed interest in ‘still rising lump of dough’ me. In fun, he still asks me the same question yet today.

With cells still dividing but now a few years older, another uncle thought it time to teach me how to sail. He was a builder of homes with the physique of Chuck Atlas and me, a skinny snot-nosed city slicker. I pretended to help him slide the small catamaran into a warm West Michigan lake and watched intently as he hoisted the sails. Soon we were accelerating across the water until we were nearly on our side as he adjusted the sail. As I held on tight, I looked at him for any sign of concern, but he was smiling with such confidence, glee almost, I soon relaxed.

Back and forth we went and each time a little faster and a little closer to tipping over. It became clear to me that the faster we went, the broader his smile. We both hung over the edge, trying to keep the craft upright, but then he’d adjust the sail so we became even more precarious. His smile almost turned into devilish enjoyment as he kept looking for the edge of disaster. Finally, it happened. The catamaran tipped over and we both got wet.

Hanging on the capsized boat, I thought it possible we would have to wait for help. Maybe a tow back to the lakefront cabin with a warm welcome by family and a dry towel for having survived a boating disaster. But before my very eyes, my uncle grabbed a rope, rose out of the water with a Herculean heave, and tipped the vessel upright. We clambered back aboard, and off we went again, looking to repeat the upending. And we did over and over as he took great delight finding the thin line between speed and upending. I soon joined in his laughter with each dunking.

I came to admire my uncle for more than his brawn. He enjoyed the competition in nearly everything he did. And he did most things well. When he did lose, he’d quietly commit to getting better. He enjoyed winning, but he was never a sore loser. I loved that man and join with his family who miss him still.

Some uncles swing hammers and level out wet concrete slabs while others attempt to coax gray matter into a higher understanding of some of our world’s most profound complexities. Sharing dinner with uncles who teach others was much different than with uncles concerned about the cow in the barn about to give birth. The last calf born caused the uterus to prolapse, and the uncle had to stuff it back in the poor cow. Mother and daughter were just fine.

One of my uncles accumulated enough post-graduate credits and spent months writing something of great profundity, earning him a Ph.D. As an English professor, he must have felt it necessary not to speak as if he had just come in from the barn. I first thought him strange but came to admire his speaking style- always with superb diction with emphasis on just the right syllable and always ending with a period- even around the dinner table. He, too, enjoyed asking big questions, but they tended more toward the philosophical and sometimes the theological.

My uncle, the professor, was mostly a serious man. He could look down on a young nephew with an intimidating somber voice and ask, “So… have you read any Hemingway lately?” And if you were a bit of a smart-aleck and responded with “No, my dear uncle, I have little interest in old men and fishing,” he would arch his eyebrows in surprise and offer a hearty laugh pleased that you possessed a bit of literary knowledge. No one could lean back in his favorite dining room chair and let loose as he could. Then we would talk about Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’

Some uncles were more scarce. For a variety of reasons, not much time was spent together. But when the opportunity did arise, your genetic glue would combine in some mystic way, and soon you returned to where you left the last conversation. Such was the case with another dear uncle. However, our last reunion was a gathering to pay respects to his just passed sister and my mother. Together we stood in an embrace, too distraught to speak, attempting to offer both a hello and say our final goodbye. Not possible, we just stood together occasionally looking at one another through the blur of tears. No words were necessary. Each knew the pain and sorrow being felt by the other.

Either I have been profoundly fortunate, or you will be able to relate with my recollections. I have and had uncles in my life that have had a powerful and positive influence on me. Hopefully, the same is true for you.

It is often in retrospect that we tend to see things more clearly, if not too late. Only with some age does the landscape of our relationships reveal deeper textures. We come to see wrinkles and scars, and the color white as not mere indications of decay, but badges of survival. That the ancient fir trees that carpet river valleys were made beautiful not by their creation but by standing tall against the many storms, and earthquakes, and fires they’ve endured. So it is with uncles.

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