Brothers with children become uncles. And those uncles can show us the fathers we never had. Your mother’s brother might be your guide to places unknown: he might be a bridge to your mother’s past or a small hint of who you will become when you are old. And aunts can be our other mothers, sweet and unburdened without the weight of our lives upon them. But a father’s brother is a character unto himself – no one else in your life will ever be like him because he is your hidden father, the sides of your father you might never have gotten to see without him.
An uncle of mine died one week ago today. He was both my father’s brother and my godfather, and his passing has pressed me squarely up against a wall of hard, clear memories – forcing me to think about the role that these fatherly uncles play in our lives. It’s a role which starts as soon as your uncle recognizes your father as his brother.
I have seen many brothers. There is my brother, and there are the brothers of my friends, my wife’s brothers and the hundreds of other brothers I have met in my everyday strolls through life. And with each of these brothers I have noticed one striking thing. All of these men seem to be the reverse of each other. Where one brother is tough-talking and stern, the other is playful and smooth with his words. If one brother is the guy with the money, the other brother is the one without. One brother loves his wife and is devoted to his children and the other has abandoned them all to live as a perpetual child with a never ending series of girlfriends and playthings. It was the same with my father and his brother, my uncle who was my godfather and who was, in many ways, my bad father.
You may question whether the difference between brothers is always this striking. Well perhaps it’s not as pronounced in all cases, but look closely around your own life and see if it isn’t just a little true. Sisters may be different from each other and even opposites in their own ways. But sisters don’t really compete in the same way as their male counterparts who seem to be determined to find a way to end up on the other side of the mirror from that one they call their brother. It may be survival – each boy to have his own unique place in the family, to offer something completely different from the other and so to be loved for himself and himself alone. It may be a man’s ego which seems to be bigger than a woman’s and which instinctually moves him toward that which will get him the most recognition: if my brother has brains, I will have brawn; if my brother is cautious with his money, I will make an art out of giving it all away. No matter how it comes about, it does seem to come about, and when these brothers become our uncles we often see the negatives from which our fathers were printed.
And so it was with my father and his brother, the one who just left us, the one who opened a crater when he died that took the rest of my father with him. This man was the closest brother my father had in age and his exact opposite in temperament and in the choices by which he lived his life. This uncle was a passionate, large, thick-headed man who could steal from others as much as he could give to them, and that’s what I loved about him. He was my father with the rough edges left on and he helped me see my father more smoothly because of it. I miss my father more today than I did on the day he died over 25 years ago. And I owe it all to my uncle.
My uncle’s ability to put a knife in his teeth and dive off a cliff to save a friend got me to see the bravery that I know must have been buried inside of my overly cautious, risk adverse father. The crimes my uncle committed in the name of family and foe showed me the larcenous jailbird my father might have become if only a couple of the cards on the table had fallen differently. The loquacious, black sense of humor that my uncle used to narrate his every fortune and misfortune (self-inflicted or not) told me that somehow, somewhere my much quieter father had what it took to be both wise and foolish about life. These two men came from two sides the same family, my father could have been my uncle and my uncle could have been my father, and I’m damn sure that I would never have been able to love one of them without embracing both of them.
In Roman times, your father's brother was given nearly the same power and status as your father. There are even different words in Latin for the brother of your father and the brother of your mother. Your father’s brother was “patrue". You’re mother’s brother was "avunculus". It’s easy to think that the Roman’s did this because a father’s brother might need to stand in for that father at a moment’s notice. In an era of easy death and conquering armies, this was only practical. But we also know that the Romans, to the very root of their name, were romantics. So I like to think that the Roman’s awarded this power to a father’s brother not just to protect a child, but to help that child to see the poetry and the irony in the relationship between these men. The Romans were saying that your father’s brother is just the other side of your father. They were saying that this brother of your father is your father too.