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Me and my uncle, 1974

This Thanksgiving I am so grateful for my loving family. They have been a constant source of comfort to me. My cousins in Jersey have been looking out for me non-stop since September, and they know how hard it is, having lost their mother, my dear aunt, 7 years ago. My husband has been amazing to me throughout my father’s illness and death and in the weeks since, for he also knows what losing a parent feels like. He never diminishes my feelings or compares them to his. He knows that saying a grieving person should be “grateful” to have had the loved one X amount of years or that the loved one “lived a long life” is disrespectful to the grieving person. It does nothing to help the griever get past the grief. It would be easy and even logical for him to say this since he lost his father when he was 19.  But my husband is a sensitive, wise man who knows that everyone’s grief is different and all grief should be respected. He is a prince among men; a quiet gentleman much like his father.  (Read this to learn what NOT to say to someone who is grieving. Click: What not to say) I have had to help my children deal with the loss of their grandfather which has kept me focused on the happy memories they enjoyed with him, and that keeps me from dwelling on my own pain. So for my family I am most grateful this year.

But this post is specifically about my Uncle Bill (Boog), my father’s brother.  This year, while I count my blessings for my mom’s side of the family for letting me lean on them and reminding me how important my family is to me, and for my husband and children, I am also grateful for my uncle. With more on his plate than the average human, he has stepped up to be my sister’s and my surrogate father, just as he promised his brother before he died.

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My dad and his brother, Bill, at ages 6 and 20.

Boog and Gussie were 14 years apart.  My grandmother re-married when my father was around 10. She and her second husband, with whom my father lived, had my uncle together. At 14 years apart you can imagine the annoyance a teenage boy must have felt with a toddler running around the house, getting into his things.  And that was true for my father and my uncle. (My father frequently recounted the story of Boog breaking his record albums when he was a kid.) But when my uncle was a few years older, my father was more like a father than a brother to him, taking him under his wing and teaching him what to do and what not to do- often just by example. He showed him how to be resilient in the face of adversity, and eventually because he was a present, loving father to me and my sister, how to be a great father to the children my uncle would have one day.  I guess you could say my father had some experience being a parent before I was even born.

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Gussie was an avid outdoorsman and spent the week after Thanksgiving every year until 2001 in his cabin in Potter County for deer season. Here he is behind the cabin at target practice.

My father looked out for my uncle and he taught my uncle some special talents: how to shoot a gun, for example.  My father was a sharp shooter in the army and the police force and had a hunting cabin in Potter County, Pennsylvania.  He would take my uncle there and teach him how to handle a gun and how to shoot behind the cabin along the creek. Something else my uncle learned there from my father was how to drive a car (his age is not important at this juncture, but let’s just say it was not quite sixteen). Learning how to shoot with my dad is a special memory for my uncle, who as a result grew up with a respect for weapons and who has since taught his own sons to respect and use firearms responsibly as well.  Before my uncle became a lawyer he worked with my father in real estate.  Even that was a lesson- he decided that career was not for him and he went on to eventually become a successful litigator and formed his own law firm.

My father was the prototype in the family- as many oldest children are.  My grandmother made some mistakes in rearing him; he made plenty of his own mistakes in his personal and professional life, and my uncle was able to choose to either learn from the outcomes of these mistakes or ignore them and figure it out on his own. He did a little of both. The mistakes they both made contributed to the people they became.  And each of them became kind, generous and  loving fathers to their children, loyal friends to those around them, and honest professionals- sometimes to their detriment- but always affording them a clear conscience so that they could sleep at night.

 

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Boog and Dad, 2005

My uncle’s silliness is always a source of entertainment to adults and children alike; it’s a gift that not everyone appreciates. He was 21 and in college when I was born, just a kid himself.  He is also my godfather. (And he’ll do a little Brando when you remind him of his title.)  In very early photos it’s clear he was a little “deer in the headlights” with me as the first baby in the family.

But being young, he seemed to adjust quickly to my existence and took to me like a new toy. From the origin of how I started calling him “Boog,”(a sound he used to make from a tv show to get me to laugh), to memories of him throwing me like a football to a group of boys at a park when I was 4 years old (“Hey kids!  You need a ball?”) and cutting into birthday cakes with his bare hands, he was the yin to my father’s yang. My father was often stern and serious, although he did have an outrageously funny side (which some call corny but I loved). My uncle, a loquacious, life of the party type of guy and a masterful debater, balanced out my father’s usually quiet, no-nonsense approach to raising me and my sister. My father was quietly wise but could discuss many of topics- and had an opinion on all of them. His brother is also opinionated and very intelligent, but will offer his thoughts whether solicited or not.  My father’s silliness was carefully tempered with his more reserved personality.  My uncle lets his silly out whenever he wants, something that didn’t always sit well with his older brother who believed there was a time and a place for everything.  Their relationship had a lot of father-son elements to it.

It’s rare for me to call him “Uncle Bill” because he was more like a cousin to me when I was growing up.  I’ve called him Boog since I could talk. (And he calls me “Gagoo.” It’s been so long I forget why.) There was no getting in trouble with him (not that I ever got in trouble). Boog never minded when my sister and I would climb on him like monkeys. I still remember him being relegated to bath duty when I was 3 and he came over to our South Philadelphia home to help my father re-do my bedroom. Instead of wall-papering, he got sent in to wash my hair, which even thought it was 40+ years ago, I recall as a big splash-fest. When I graduated from 8th grade he came down the shore to visit and he took me out to buy me graduation presents on the Wildwood boardwalk.  There we found an arcade. He spotted the centipede game said “Sorry, sweetheart, I gotta play this.” He then positioned himself at the game and for close to a half an hour he maneuvered that joystick, stopping every few minutes to fling the sweat from his brow onto the floor- yeah, he was that into it.

 

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Centipede- photo courtesy of museumofplay.org

My uncle doesn’t stand on formality and never has. I love this about him. He’s a down to earth guy from South Philly who has no airs about him. He is a voracious reader and has musical talents- both traits he shared with his brother. And yet, though he went to college and law school, he never acts like anyone but himself – no one could ever call him phony or pretentious.

thebusyfinchhorseI might be going out on a limb a little when I say this but my uncle saved my life when I was four years old. I had gotten a rocking horse for Christmas. It was the kind that was elevated and hung on springs and bounced up and down and back and forth. On Christmas day he had come over early before dinner and was in the kitchen with my parents who were getting everything ready for dinner. While I was rocking away in the living room in front of the big, fat Christmas tree;  I was so enthralled by the horse that I didn’t notice the big, fat tree come loose from the stand and start to fall on me. My uncle, seemingly from nowhere, appeared and caught the tree before it crushed me and messed up (more importantly!) my horse.

My uncle, like my father, was close to 40 when his children were born. I remember him lamenting this fact but his age didn’t stop him from playing video games on the floor with his boys when they were little. He became a devoted hockey dad to both of his sons as well as a dedicated step-parent to his wife’s children whom he accepted and loved as if they were his own children. His personality hasn’t changed – he has not mellowed over time.  He can still entertain the family, even when he’s not trying.  And as a testament to his influence, his oldest son has followed in his footsteps and become a lawyer.

When my father’s health declined drastically last spring, my uncle told him he would step in for him with me and my sister. I know that put my father at ease and helped him let go. Following my father’s initial hospital stays, I had my knee replaced and had a horrible recovery lasting almost 3 months; it prevented me from visiting my father for 2 weeks, which made me feel terrible.  My uncle called me several times a week to check on me, to ask what he could do, to give me names of doctors in case mine wasn’t doing enough for me, and most importantly, to lift my spirits. This is exactly what my father would have done for me if he had been able to talk and process information sufficiently.  Each time he called me I cried, both because he was being so kind, and because he was being a guiding force for me when my father was unable to do so.

Not only do I probably owe Boog my life but my father unquestionably owed him his. My father was a pretty hard-headed man, whose stubbornness genes live on in me. About ten years ago he had been feeling lightheaded and out of breath particularly when climbing the stairs.  After a few weeks of this, my mom started to urge him to go to the doctor.  He refused, saying it was nothing. She called me to tell me about it and asked me to convince him to go see a doctor. During my nightly calls to him I repeatedly asked him to go see a doctor and he blew it off.  I told my mom that he wouldn’t listen to me. He had already ignored my sister’s requests.  My mom said the situation was getting really bad and didn’t know what to do.  My father had had a heart episode when I was three, causing me to learn how to dial a phone to call for help.  I kept replaying that early memory, which to this day is as vivid as if it had been yesterday, and I panicked.  There was only one thing I could think of that would persuade my father to get help. I needed to call in the big guns. I needed to call Boog.

 

Boog had a good friend who was a doctor, Barry Koch, God rest his soul. I remembered this and called my uncle and begged him to get my father to see Barry  before something tragic happened. Boog had not known this was going on and his voice thundered through the phone “IS HE CRAZY?” He said he would take care of it.  He drove to my parents’ house and laid into my father, telling him if he didn’t go to the doctor, he could die in front of his wife and children. My father, realizing he was fighting a losing battle, reluctantly agreed to go see Barry.  A few days later Boog picked up my father and took him to get checked.  A week after that he was in the hospital having stents placed in three clogged arteries.

My father was given a extra ten years of life thanks to his brother.  He got to see his fourth granddaughter as a result.

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Gussie with 3 of his 4 princesses.  if not for my uncle, he’d gave only been around for  the three of them.

He got to meet my husband as a result. And while I grapple with this because it also means he eventually got Parkinson’s and suffered for three years instead of possibly dying as he always wanted to – quickly from a heart attack – I am grateful that we had another ten years to love him and be loved by him. It might be a bit of a stretch to say my uncle saved my little four-year old life when he stopped that tree from falling on me, but it couldn’t be truer that him getting my father to the doctor was what kept him around to give us his wisdom and love until this year.  If only he had stuck around long enough to see the Eagles win a Super Bowl, he might have considered his life complete, but we can’t expect to live forever, now can we?

 

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