Recently a group of friends and I were ruminating about our sons and nephews. The theme was that these young men, all single, were remarkable uncles – gentle, generous, patient, loving. We shared stories of the ways in which these young men are playing important and unique roles in the lives of our loved ones. That led to our reflections on our own lives in which uncles, single and married, related by blood or by marriage, have were or are key figures in our own lives – wise counselors, teachers, listeners, storytellers.
Though the conversation moved on, my interest was piqued. Uncles, I soon realized, tend to be caricatures or invisible. We have Uncle Sam, of course, though his role is vacillates from army recruiter to 4th of July character. And then there’s Uncle Tom, a much debated symbol of something, though no one seems to be clear on just where he stands. What can I say about Uncle Remus? We have – or had – Uncle Ben, a true caricature….
Other uncles of more recent vintage include Spiderman’s adoptive father, Luke Skywalker’s uncle, Aunt Em’s husband, Homer Simpson’s long lost half-brother, even Tony Soprano’s mentor and father replacement. And then there is the ill-tempered Dutch uncle who gives a bad name to the permissive, supportive, indulgent men that my friends and I remember and observe in our lives today.
I moved on to look up quotes about uncles. Don’t try. They are inevitably mean-spirited, sarcastic, downright cruel depictions of hapless butts of the comedians’ slams. (Try George Gobel: “My uncle was the town drunk – and we lived in Chicago.” or “My uncle’s dying wish – he wanted me on his lap. He was in the electric chair. (Rodney Dangerfield) You get the idea…
Moving beyond the caricature and the cruel cuts gets murky and condescending. The very term “uncle” comes from the Latin avunculus meaning “little grandfather”. Starting with that tenuous relationship, uncles are most often identified by family research types as father replacement figures. Grandfathers and step-fathers get far more attention.
One interesting development in children’s literature is the emergence of the gay uncle. The literature is rife with books that reflect the lives of children living with two dads, one of whom is identified as an uncle. Other books for children reflect the role of men, often gay men, who play the part of a relative who devotes a lot of time and energy to children within the family. There is also a good deal in the literature about uncles in other cultures in which uncle is an inclusive term applied to male relatives regardless of relationship – and to older men in general.
This is all to the good, of course. Still, “father replacement” absolutely fails to capture the tone of that discussion my friends and I were having. I find little about the fun that uncles can be, the way they lavish love, share memories, show up at every significant occasion in a kid’s life. I’m left to wonder how to give uncles the credit due them for the role they played in our growing up. More important, how do we support today’s uncles who are community it takes to raise a child? It may take a community to support an uncle.