Uncle

by Jeff Oaks

“Who if I cried out…?”
Rilke

Why does someone say uncle rather than enough? It’s unclear. It might be that to call out for help from an uncle might be a sign you need help, that you’re weak. Where your father is while you’re in such trouble, is not known. If, as a couple sources suggest, the saying comes from the Roman times, your father might be either dead in a war or away fighting barbarians. I wonder if saying uncle isn’t a way of admitting that your father, a boy’s great protector is in fact dead or useless. The only one who can save you is your uncle. You poor bastard, in other words. And, it might be a sign that you can only claim your mother’s brother for legitimacy. To cry uncle might be a way of saying your mother’s a whore.

Which of course leads me to thinking about my uncles. My mother had a sister. My father had only sisters: Aunt Ruth, Aunt Betty, Aunt Dora, and Aunt Berta. (A fifth, Aunt Ginny, was already dead when I was born.) All my uncles, therefore, married into the family, in other words, or, more accurately, all the aunts married into other families. Because my parents were either the youngest (my mother) or second-to-youngest (my father), all my uncles were much older than I was and had already fathered and uncled my cousins. Most of them were retired or close. My only uncle on my mother’s side, my Uncle Johnny, was the only uncle I really talked to. Since I tended to go to my grandparents’ house when my mother needed someone to watch me, and since my Aunt Jean and Uncle Johnny lived next to them, I was often over at their house as well. Uncle Johnny had retired by then from the navy. He was loud and, to me, a fearful presence who never seemed to like me, although he certainly never was mean. He just felt raw to me. Like their Samese cat Smoky, who attacked my hand whenever I put it down on the couch, I couldn’t seem to predict Uncle Johnny’s next move, and he sometimes seemed to like roaring orders at my aunt and cousins, as if they were all in the same boat together and he was the stern captain. Not being part of the regular crew, I think I missed the inside joke of his roaring.

I had no reason to fear any of my uncles. I just never understood their lives. They were good-natured men, happy, good providers for all I know. Uncle Shorty and Aunt Ruth lived next to (or on?) land that included a golf course, so the Oaks family reunion usually happened there. All the adult men would go out and knock the balls around for a while. I was usually too young and certainly too timid a child, so I stayed with the women, where I was given treats, hugged, kissed, and tickled inside their enormous cloud of cigarette smoke. When the men came back, they usually settled around the TV to watch football. A series of loud yells would shatter the house at random, further confirming my fears about the trustworthiness of men and about my own position in the family: I had come too late to be included in it.

In fact most of the avuncular energy came from my cousins on both sides: Paul, Michael, and David on my mother’s side; Johnny Upchurch on my father’s. They were the ones I looked to, along with my brother, who was eleven years older than me, for the secrets of how to be a man. They were the ones I would’ve called out if someone had me in a headlock. But by the time came for headlocks, which I estimate was somewhere near seventh grade, they were all grown up, off to the navy, jobs, marriages, away among the barbarians out in the wider world I was only then beginning to read about.

Advertisements