The “Favorite Uncle” is an iconic figure in history, in fiction, too. Some boy who is not very close to his father and whose life is staid and lonely, is enlivened when his favorite uncle arrives. It seems his quiet mother or father have a black sheep brother, an adventurer, a clown, a brigand or, at least, a man full of life.
I was blessed with two of them; and only now, in my later years, am I appreciating how lucky I was, along with my older brother, Paul.
Our father was quiet, mostly serious, and didn’t know how to play. Maybe he had never played. There is an old photo from Italy where he stands with the family, the oldest of twelve, all of them looking either nervous or scared, with a blank, staring mother, and a father whom I’ve heard was severe.
Dad was, though, a very good man, and we knew he loved us. He was also scary as our sometime volatile boss in the family grocery store. But to balance our dad’s temper and awkwardness with play, we had Motts and Tony.
They came to visit at least twice a year, part of my mother’s family, coming out of Chicago on the train, her brother Mario (Motts) and brother-in-law Tony.
Motts was short and plump and Italian-American, like all the family, a talented jokester with a snappy energy. Think of a rounder Mickey Rooney (for those of you who remember Rooney).
Tony was taller, Greek-American with bushy eyebrows and a face and even a voice like Humphrey Bogart (for those of you who . . . etc.)
They could keep up a quick patter of improv funniness that would keep my brother and I laughing for half an hour, until our faces were stretched into that wonderful smile-pain that comes only unbidden and can never be forced.
The uncles always came together in a group, my mother’s side of the family. Tony drove a cab, and his wife, my aunt Inez, was a bartender. Motts, who was sometimes married, sometimes not, worked in a photo lab.
This decade of visits that I remember like best-loved films started seven years after World War II. Like my father, Motts had been in the navy, and I have photos of him in his round sailor hat that he wore far back and jaunty on his balding head. Fortunately neither Motts nor my dad were in combat, but Tony served as a machine gunner in an engineer battalion, and he saw Anzio, all five months of Anzio – and he would never talk about it, waving it off, just the way he waved off what he did in the thirties, driving a mobster named Golf Bag Sam. Because of the name we kidded him about it.
Just a few years ago, I was telling this story to my sons, and they looked him up. Golf Bag Sam was Al Capone’s most efficient hit man. That wave that Tony had, brushed aside a lot of darkness, but it never showed in his face, in his eyes.
These two uncles must have gone to Favorite Uncle School and graduated with honors. They were just coming through the door and Paul and I were already swept up in their playful razzing. Even my dad was laughing, and my mother became the girl she had been and actually giggled.
THE NIGHT GAME: We played our invented game, bouncing a golf ball off the cement outside so that it would hit the house wall and come back at us, and we’d have to catch itand throw it back for someone else to catch – fast and hard, it was, and try playing that when you’re laughing your ass off.
THE BVDs: Motts knew that in a few days, my mother was hosting a canasta party (look it up, you kids ya) for her women friends, and he swore to Paul and I that he was going to come running through the party in his BVDs. Of course we didn’t believe him – but then I’d look at Paul and ask…do you think he will!? Well, he kept us hoping and smiling, seeing it in our minds, so we enjoyed it almost as much as if it really had happened.
THE FISHING TRIPS: This was the best of it, renting a cabin on Pistakee Bay (northern Ill.) and a small boat with outboard motor and buzzing out into the wide water to stop and drift and fish for Bluegill and Perch and maybe a Bass, and MAYBE a sharp-toothed Gar! It wasn’t the fishing, it was the time, long silent time, or long talks, and you can talk to favorite uncles often more than you can to parents. It wasn’t all laughter and jokes. It was about life and worries Paul and I might have, and dreams and fears and girls, and I’ll always remember THE MIRACLE.
We were drifting, talking, even catching a few fish we would cook in the cabin that night, and we saw a storm coming toward the lake. We stared into it and wondered. Shall we go in? Go in where? It’s coming from the direction we’d have to take. Do we try to go through it? Nahh, let’s just sit it out. And we did. We stared across the lake and saw the rain begin to zap the lake water like a million bullets. We could study the edge of the oncoming storm by watching the line of the rain on the lake, moving closer, closer. Before it hit us we all looked at each other, Paul and I a little worried, but Motts and Tony softly grinning – here it comes, kids, the storm. Here it comes, kids, life.