November is Nathan's Month
Grateful for Poems

Grateful for my Uncle

OK, seriously: that is not a title I ever thought I'd write. My dad's extended family isn't particularly close. Growing up, we saw my them roughly once a year, at Christmas; twice a year if someone died. Usually we'd see my dad's mom, Grandma Elsie, on our birthdays, too. I have a clear memory of the time she had us over for dinner at her house on a day that wasn't Christmas; it's clear because it happened once. Everyone just got older each year, both the cousins and Grandma Elsie, and here and there got married and started families (usually not in that order), and slowly we stopped seeing each other, even at Christmas. Becky and I took turns babysitting for our cousin Susan (who I remember as the best-paying mom I babysat for); my first job, the summer I was 15, was working for my cousin Rochelle's husband at his pizza shop (the only time in my life I could make my pizza the way I really like it---light sauce, extra cheese, pineapple, and Canadian bacon---without someone telling me how gross that is) and sometimes we'd have family reunions. But even though we all lived within five miles of each other, there just weren't a lot of family experiences.

So I've not seen my Uncle Monte since...well, I know I only had three kids, so it's been more than three years. But on Wednesday, I spoke to him on the phone for nearly two hours. Haley has been working on a project for her personal progress award, a family history of sorts. She found pictures of herself with her various grandparents, and we got them developed in black and white. Then she interviewed each grandparent, asking them a set of questions. She typed everything up and made a scrapbook.

Of course, the only problem was my dad, who can't answer questions about the past anymore. My mom suggested I call Uncle Monte, and we finally managed to connect on Wednesday night. I wasn't sure how he'd feel about answering our questions. Well, honestly: I wasn't sure about talking to him at all. But it was a great phone call. He told me stories about my dad that I had never heard. He told me about his dad, my grandpa Curtis, who I didn't know because he died when my dad was sixteen. He told me the details of his death. He told me my dad's much-hated high-school nickname: Monk, short for Monkey, given because he could walk both up and down the steps to the basement on his hands. I didn't know Dad was a star running back on the high school football team. I didn't know he once carried home 500 cockleburrs by sticking them all to his shirt (he and Monte wanted to make a cockleburr rug for their mother, which seems like an odd sort of gift for your mom, but whatever). I didn't know he once accidentally shot a girl.

In fact, as Monte spoke and I typed as quickly as I could, I found myself battling the furious tears trying to push their way out. On the one hand, talking with Monte was nearly like having Dad back on the other line---they have the same way of stringing words together, the same syntax, the same way of telling a story that makes it impossible for the listener to get a word in edgewise. Even their voices sound similar, and I realized all over again how much I miss him, miss my dad. How much I would give to have him call me like he used to, to tell me a story about something that happened "down at the coffee shop." (95% of his stories started down at the coffee shop.) Or to sit outside with him in his backyard, listening to the kids play and laughing at off-color jokes.

On the other hand, I found that my tears really were furious. At myself, mostly. Because why did I go through thirty years of my life, thinking that my experiences were the important ones? Why didn't I ask Dad ever about his childhood? Really---aside from a few vague impressions, I knew absolutely nothing about his life before I existed. Why didn't I ask him about his baptism, or about why he chose to marry my mom? How did he feel about becoming a parent? (Three of the questions Haley had on her list that Monte couldn't answer.) Why don't I know what books he liked to read as a kid, or what he remembers about his dad's death? I know stuff about my mom's side of the family. Why don't I know about my dad's?

It was almost midnight by the time I got off the phone with Uncle Monte. I said goodbye, checked on the kids one last time, and then curled up on my couch for a good, long cry. Because not only do I miss my dad, and not only am I mad at myself for not ever really listening to him, I feel something wholly unexpected. I felt reunited with a piece of myself I didn't know was missing. Listening to Monte's stories about my dad, my uncles, my grandparents and even a few about my great-grandparents, I discovered little bits of my personality scattered here and there. My penchant for the dramatic? Totally comes from my dad's side of the family. Love of mountains? Got that from my grandpa. In my swirly rush of emotion, it wasn't the sadness or the anger that predominated. It was the ah-ha feeling, the sense of understanding myself better. Of feeling more whole.

And that's why I am writing that thought, the one I never imagined having: I'm grateful for my uncle. Grateful he knows how important stories are and was willing to take the time to share them with me. Grateful for the thing he taught me, probably without meaning to: both sides matter. Just because I wasn't as close to my grandma Elsie as I was to my mom's side doesn't mean I don't have a fairly wide swipe of Allman in my genetic makeup. I feel steadied, somehow. Like I have two hands to hold instead of just one.

Comments

Helena

I'm glad you got to talk to him!

Kathryn

Great post - I love that you share these sorts of realizations with us through your blog. It's so good that your uncle shared all of those stories with you - and great that you had someone to ask. What a gift for both of you!

Susan Keane

Gosh, I must admit reading your blog made me feel a little guilty. I talk to my mom . . .but really don't know a lot about her life before she was a mom . . .and so, thanks to you - I will be calling her to ask her about her childhood . ..so I can learn more about her & me . . .Thank you, for your honesty . .sometimes we all hate to admit how totally dysfunctional our families can be! (I tell my kids I just want to be the FUN part of dysfunctional). let's face it all families since Adam and Eve have been dysfunctional to some degree! So, enjoy the things you learned about your dad!

Lisa

Wow, what an neat experience for you (and me). It makes me realize I should ask my in-laws more about themselves and my mom as well. Sadly, she is the only one left on my side for grandparents.
Would you mind posting the list of questions that you used? I would like to connect with family over the next few weeks and find out more about them. I think I'll type them up and send a copy to my brothers and sisters-in-law.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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