My brother recently visited with his middle child, and because we live far apart and have busy lives I only see my nephews in very widely spaced snapshots of their childhoods.
Thus I got to know nine-year-old Charlie for the first time since he was much younger, and after he left I kept thinking of one of my favorite films, Meet Me in St. Louis, because there’s a character in that movie who’s equally full of life and completely captivated with things scary, much like Charlie (if you’ve not seen the movie, it’s quite charming, particularly the Halloween sequence).
From his hammerhead shark pj’s to his love of horror films (shared with Will), Charlie was keen to keep up with his big cousins, thirteen and sixteen, and took much interest in boy things (particularly things macabre, scary or potentially “inappropriate”). It’s sweet to see a nine-year-old having manners while testing limits in contrast to mouthy teens who have been eroding the shores of decorum with random stormy onslaughts of curse words (that by now we mostly let wash right back out to the sea of been there done that vulgarity).
Because of a number of dear friends visiting, it was a busy weekend around our house and it wasn’t until some of the dust was settling that I got to sit down in the early morning before anyone was up and watch Charlie answer the hardest questions ever on an online quiz/game. Finally I got him to sit with me and tell me a little bit about his life (probably sheer torture for a nine-year-old), but I loved hearing about the big model of Chicago his class built… and then burnt in the Great Chicago Fire—especially about how the clay house he’d made “blew up” in the fire.
I also enjoyed hearing about the legendary “Tito” who is having a little trouble making friends with other dogs ever since a big dog in the neighborhood grabbed him by the neck and shook him up. Tito still has a lot of old friends Charlie reassured me (but he does have a “pound mentality,” which turned out to mean not much more than his dad’s explanation for why every dog they pass has to bark at Tito).
No matter how much you try to squeeze into it, time just flies by and I’m left feeling like I hardly began to get to know Charlie, even though we swam, played a round of mini-golf and I watched him fiercely confront the robot pitches in the batting cage (an activity I must admit I find intimidating).
I also think of jamming in the practice room at the music store where my boys, my brother, Charlie and I all slashed away on the guitars at the same time—even though I don’t know how to play at all. Charlie taught me “Smoke on the Water.” Classic.
One of the things I liked best about this recent uncle time was seeing how close my brother and his middle child are—they are the guitar buddies (with my brother now taking lessons), they both had “brims” to wear in the convertible they rented to drive around an LA that visitors find more available and vivid than do locals.
My brother and I are less than two years apart in age, and as years go by you realize how your siblings know things about your life, its texture and nuance, that no one who wasn’t really there can fully get. To sit with my brother and watch his high-energy kid whack baseballs and muse on how much like his kid he probably was as a kid—and how ill-equipped our parents were to deal with him—felt oddly mature and slightly honey-hued now that we were able to sit quietly and talk together (at least for a little while—my brother’s still a pretty high-energy guy).
Just like with parenting, building relationships with our nieces and nephews, not to mentions siblings, really takes quantity time and not just quality. In brief glimpses, sometimes all we can honestly do is realize that we yearn for more—for long and languid afternoons when you’re no longer catching up but just hanging out.
My uncles didn’t really play big roles in my life growing up, and I’m afraid that I don’t play a terribly big role in my nephews-in-Chicago’s lives, at least not growing up. With the time-lapse photography of long-distance family it leaves me wondering who exactly I’ll be meeting next time I see Charlie, even if it’s in a few months, but especially if a year or two sneak by.
Finally, I think about the friends of my kids who I feel great warmth toward—kids I see more often (and still I marvel at sudden shooting up heights and fast dropping voices). My mom’s three best friends and their husbands were also my “aunts” and “uncles.” They were in my lives in passing but relatively frequent measure, and their spirits, and the interest they took in me, however fleeting, left big impressions on me. Often we have little idea about whom we might be making a difference for, even when we’re aware of how far we fall short on some of the expected relationships.
In this way I’m left thinking that being an “uncle” or an “aunt” is also a way of thinking about the kids in our lives that we take interest in (often seemingly small)—kids toward whom we feel warmth, but who are not our kids that we must parent in a direct manner. If ultimately we are all brothers and sisters, perhaps all our collective children are akin to our nieces and nephews—kids for whom we are not to overstep our bounds vis-à-vis their parents, but who need and merit our love and attention nonetheless, not to mention that they are little teachers who have much to offer us—particularly regarding clues to an emerging consciousness to which we must adjust as much or more than we must acclimate them to our (mostly messed up) ways of doing things.