He was always rumored to be the rebellious relative. His first misstep happened early in life when he left England to study in the U.S. His second occurred when he broke off his arranged engagement to instead marry a vibrant American girl. His third—the acceptance of a life estranged from most of his extended family.
Perhaps my other relatives would tell me about my uncle as a sort of cautionary tale, but instead I always had a sense that I wanted to know him.
I knew his mother first—my sweet great aunt. In just a short visit, I grew to love her perspective on the world, something I could never share but tried to absorb. On walks around London, she would ask me about my life and, in pieces, share her own. A young bride to a domineering man, she remained optimistic despite tragedies that marked her timeline. In her later years, she found strength in her community, and reciprocated by working as a volunteer well into her eighties. When she spoke, she was illuminated in the soft glow of a light that never burned brightly, but constantly. She passed away peacefully two and half years ago. A stroke caught her, suddenly, on a flight between her two worlds.
I finally met my uncle at a time when the meaning of family was being redefined for me. After years of constant pushing, I decided that my heart could no longer handle my brother’s ups and downs and I had grown silent. Knowing the weight my parents felt from him, I kept a vaguely positive affect around them, which grew into an ever-present stoicism.
What I remember most from our first dinner together was laughter. The amazing, all-consuming laughter that leaves your abdomen aching and head adrift. My uncle and aunt welcomed me warmly into their family, and I was surprised at how easily I felt comfortable in their home. To their kids, four strong brothers, I came from a parallel world that their dad only occasionally described. But distance and the past dissolved quickly over a Thanksgiving dinner. Between courses of food and wine, we exchanged stories and said we would meet again soon.
We’ve celebrated weddings together, holidays when possible, and random weekends when I’m missing a semblance of home. Our connections have been joyful and honest, sensitive but not masked, supportive and light. When I graduated, my uncle planned a visit to see me before I could even extend an invitation. When I moved across the country, my aunt sent a house-warming gift—a sort of inside joke that she and I share.
This is what family can be; my uncle has shown me that. He has never lectured me, he has never aimed to impart wisdom on my life until a recent email, which simply ended in “Continue to enjoy your life—it passes quickly. Love.”