Friends Old, New, and Soon to Be,
I sat with my uncle this past weekend. He’s in a phase of life in which honesty and directness are what we most have to offer one another. Frankly, for my fifty years on this earth, they have been his stock in trade. Uncles are good for that. They don’t have to shade the truth or concern themselves with the same rules of propriety a father must when talking to his child. Now a grown man, I feel I owe him the same.
Uncles come in many forms. They may actually be cousins by the rules of lineage. Sometimes they marry into a family. Maybe they’re just ever-present friends. My college roommate, best friend, and best man, for whom I fulfilled the same roles, shares not a drop of blood with my family. But he is Uncle Geoff to my child as I am Uncle Worth to his. He’s taught my daughter some words I avoid around her, but he also treated her ten-year-old's comprehensive explanation of the Harry Potter series as seriously as he treats investment banking for billionaires. Somewhere in that dichotomy is the secret formula that makes a good uncle.
A good uncle works surreptitiously, simultaneously close enough and at sufficient remove to lead you toward what your parents want for you, without smacking of parental absolutism. An uncle’s version of the righteous path might wind a bit, shaded by life experiences your father almost certainly had but which propriety dictates he keeps to himself. Still, he helps you get you where you need to be. That’s the uncle’s gift.
I think back to one such lesson. I was twelve years old and explaining to my uncle that the county had installed a high-intensity street light in my mother’s yard, something she neither asked for nor wanted. It was something the men in the neighborhood decided on and elected for our home, without consulting her, the property owner. My uncle had thoughts.
“You need to do something about that light. Your mama hates it.”
“It’s twenty feet tall.”
“That’s why they made .22’s!”
“I don’t think I can shoot out a light in my own yard and get away with it.”
“Hell boy, that’s why they made pick-up trucks!”
Perhaps recommending I commit vandalism with a firearm before absconding in a vehicle I would not be licensed to drive for another four years was questionable judgment. But it was the 1980s, an era in which bad decisions were a way of life. And the truth is my uncle made me begin to think about more important lessons; taking responsibility for solving problems, the duties owed as a son and family member, and refusing to accept without comment conditions thrust upon me by others.
My uncle taught me that pick-up trucks, guns, and money are just tools to be used, not idols to be worshipped. He drove home the point when he bought a new truck, immediately took a piece of re-bar to the front driver’s side quarter panel, and said of the dent, “Now we don’t have to worry about that.”
My uncle put me in a deer stand for the first time, rising at 3 AM to make sure I had a perfectly greasy bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich to fuel the coming still hours in the damp North Georgia cold. He taught me how to drive his tractor and run his chainsaw. He shook his head at the horror movie my teenage friends and I made in a ramshackle cabin on the family farm. But somehow, everything we asked for appeared, pulled from storage sheds and garages and the old barn without comment from our production assistant save a shake of the head and a roll of twinkling eyes over the wryest of grins.
As I’ve become a man, we’ve had conversations in which he asked questions about my own views and experiences in the world, far from the pastures, poplars, and pines at the center of so much of our collective lives. In those conversations, he explained to me the reasoning behind the quiet ways in which he cares for the entirety of a family descended from nine children. He offered me a master's class on how to carry your own weight. At times he called me to offer the adult-to-adult version of, “You need to do something about that light. Your mama hates it.”
Watching my uncle, a man known for toughness and resolve, drive a tractor with my daughter he calls “Princess” perched in his lap feels like the closing of a circle; an acknowledgment that I’ve met his expectations to serve the family by putting something better than myself into the world.
My uncle and I have always shaken hands in greeting and farewell. But when I got up to leave him this time, he rose and we hugged one another because, at this point, honesty and directness are what we most have to offer one another. And the honest fact is, I love my uncle and I am so deeply thankful for everything he’s given me.
Perhaps you can let yours know the same.
Russell Worth Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Tom Beckbe