I attended the funeral of my 106-year-old aunt this week. She was married to my mother’s brother and was my last living aunt. Though I know she was ready, it seemed for the three of us nieces and nephews at her funeral that it represented a passing of the last thread we had with our birth family. It also reminded me of the importance of my aunts and uncle’s presence in my life.
A few of my uncles and aunts on both sides of my mom and dad’s family didn’t have children, so they took the time to make sure their nieces and nephews knew they were important to them. The aunts and uncles that had kids also were present in my life, whether they lived miles away or close by.
My Uncle Frank was my mother’s brother. Until I was in sixth grade, we lived with my Polish grandmother and him. My folks ran a shoe store, and my mom also took care of my grandmother. Uncle Frank lived with us. He was a quiet man, not versed in the ways of the world. He had stayed home and took care of the animals, gardened, raised vegetables, and helped with my grandmother. Every winter, he turned our extensive garden into an ice-skating pond. And during the winter he took a hay rack and built tracks for a sled to glide down from the tall back to the ground. The sled with me on it would gain momentum on the steep tracks, and take me on my old-fashioned sled across the snow to almost the end of the pasture. Today, that type of contraption would be banned and considered too dangerous for a child. Uncle Frank built me my own Merry-Go-Round, taught me how to pick eggs, and let me drive the small tractor to pick up hay. He taught me to pick sweet corn and strawberries and took care of my pony along with his work horses. Everyone would say he wasn’t a smart man, slow at learning the book stuff because he didn’t go to school past sixth grade. They needed him at home to help support his mother. Uncle Frank didn’t dress well. Most of the time, his mode of dress was overalls and a flannel work shirt, sometimes torn and not always clean, because of the work in the yard and with the animals. He wasn’t schooled in the ways of the world, and many ignored him because he didn’t match up to what society valued back in the 1950s. To me, he was like a dad. I certainly spent more time with him than I did with my parents at that age. Most of all, I remember his kindness. He died when I was a teenager.
My mom usually bought Christmas gifts for the family for him, but the year before he died, he chose my Christmas gift himself. It wasn’t expensive, and it wasn’t fancy, it was a necklace with a big red glass stone. I still have it today. It is one thing I couldn’t part with because it reminds me of the love he showed me.
My dad had two bachelor brothers, too. They were prominent in my life. They always made me feel special when we visited. One of my best memories is spending time on the farm with them, and my Uncle Chester cooking the best baked beans and stuffing I have tasted in my life. He would put me on his knee and recite a poem that went like this: I had a little horse, his name was Tommy Day, his feet were made of cornstalks, his head was made of hay. I saddled him and bridled him and rode him to the ground. There came a little puff wind that blew him up and down. While he would recite the poem, he bounced me on his knee, and then make sure he had my hands when he collapsed his knees at the last line so I wouldn’t get hurt falling to the ground.
My dad’s sister, Mary, though very quiet and older, influenced my life too. I would spend some afternoons with her. Every day after her meal she would sit with her Bible and quietly pray. Her faith was a quiet faith, but it impressed me in the way she lived it.
Distance doesn’t always mean family can’t be present in a child’s life. My two California aunts and uncles never seemed far away. They made a point of keeping in touch and taking time for me even when having a family of their own. I was blessed to be able to travel and spend time with both families as a teenager. Of course, there were visits for them back to Minnesota.
My Uncle Dan was a gruff person with a heart of gold underneath the bark, and my Aunt Clara would counter his bite and crab back and laugh off his antics. It was fun to watch them because you never took their bickering seriously. It was their love speak. My memories of Uncle Dan’s Hawaiian shirts could fill a book, and I still have one of his wood carvings on my dresser. My aunt worked for the Culver City Motor Vehicle Department. Somehow, she must have pilfered Ray Milland’s driver’s license application because she gave it to me. I still have it. Youngster’s if you don’t know who he is, look him up. My aunt met many celebrities of that time at her job.
One of my most vivid memories while staying with my Uncle Dan and Aunt Clara was our travel to a Los Angeles Angel’s game. First, my uncle was a Los Angeles Dodger fan, so he wasn’t pleased that we were going to an Angel’s game. Second, he wasn’t a fan of the construction workers building the freeway and having lanes closed which impeded our time to get to the game. His way of handling it? Did I mention he had no patience? He started yelling out his windows at the construction workers and weaving and running down the cones. My aunt was not pleased, but as a teenager it left me and my friend Mary, hiding our laughter in the back seat. To top it off he had earphones on his radio and listened to the Dodger game instead of watching the Angels and then…the Angels game went into overtime and didn’t end until two in the morning. Karma for the construction worker incident?
My other California uncle and aunt shaped my life too. My Aunt Elsie was kind and soft spoken. She was always welcoming and though she had some health issues, still took the time to make this niece feel special. She always knew exactly what I would love. My favorite Christmas gift was a frilly can- can. Again, youngsters, look it up. One of things I loved best about my Uncle Bernie was his hugs. We didn’t hug much at that time with my Minnesota family. My parents weren’t huggers, but I knew when Uncle Bernie and his family visited, there would be a big hug. He wasn’t one to back down if he felt something was wrong, especially when it came to getting speeding tickets dropped by the courts, at least if the stories he regaled me with were true. When I hear the words speeding ticket I think of him. I’ll have to ask his kids if his stories were true.
And then there was Uncle Dominic, my Aunt Marguerite’s husband. My aunt that just died. He was a locksmith and owned a key shop in Mankato, Minnesota. At Christmas he set up a Christmas tree lot next to his key shop. I loved spending the day with him at his business. He took me to my first fast food place. I think it was Hardee’s. It was different from a drive-in because you got to go inside and order and then sitnt and we didn’t have a fast-food chain in my small community, so it was a treat. Christmas was always a special time because spending time with him when he was selling Christmas trees was fun. Very cold, but fun. He made people happy by helping them find the perfect tree.
Why am I telling you about my relatives, especially aunts and uncles? Because they helped grow me up in the way I should go. They were important to me. They were special. Being an only child, I couldn’t give my kids aunts and uncles from my side of the family, but my aunts and uncles gave them that. My kids couldn’t meet all of them, but the ones that they did have in their lives left a lasting impression.
Uncle Bernie treated our kids to their first taste of lobster and there’s quite a story in that. My daughter remembers his nickname for her when she was little, “the little girl with the tight-fitting jeans.” There was always a place on his lap for our kids when we visited California, and when he visited us. He also taught our kids to play poker. Yes we let him teach our kids to gamble. No money was exchanged, just chips, but this is a memory they remember to this day. My dad died right before our first son was born. Uncle Bernie represented the grandpa they never had.
Uncle Dan took them to the La Brea Tar Pits while the rest of us were at the Price Is Right. He climbed the rocks with them at Joshua Tree National Park, and both Aunt Clara and Uncle Dan gave them their introduction to staying in the desert and educated them about their surroundings.
Uncle Dominic and Aunt Marguerite lived on a steep hill below Good Counsel Academy in Mankato. One winter he invited the kids over to sled. He hand shoveled and packed down a slippery steep snow path that went from the top of his yard and angled around the house to the front. He made sure it had sides so they couldn’t slide down the next steep hill in front of the house into the traffic. Aunt Marguerite made sure we had hot drinks and food. It was one of our kids’ last memories of him.
On my husband’s side of the family their Uncle Evan and Aunt Sue took them fishing, boating and even helped one of them shingle their house. They were there for all the special occasions in their life.
Aunt Audrey was a kind, gentle person, always being there for birthdays, recitals and being an awesome Godmother, making sure she shared her faith with them. And she was a perfect role model in the way she lived her life.
Aunts and uncles matter, and you may not know until many years later what your caring in a nieces and nephews life may mean. Our kids need all the support they can get in this stressful, fast-changing world. Because I didn’t have those brothers and sisters I wasn’t always the best aunt to my husband’s nieces and nephews. I didn’t get it. I should have understood because I had great role models, but it isn’t until now that I have had so much time to analyze and ponder what I would do differently if I went back, and one of the things would be to take more time with those kids. My aunts and uncles made a difference in my life. It wasn’t a celebrity or a social media influencer or a tv evangelist, it was family. So I guess you can call my aunts and uncles influencers of their day? Can you be the influencer for your family?