On Thursday, Holmes announced that we have declared March 12 to be Aunts and Uncles Day to recognize those amazing, irreplaceable people who love us and guide us outside the parent/child relationship. Last week, he introduced us to Aunt Lily. This week, Holmes tells us about Uncle Tony and asks that you please tell us about the special uncles in your life.
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By Jay Holmes
Tony wasn’t an uncle, but he was the best uncle a boy ever dreamed of having. Tony and I were connected two ways. The first was that he married my biological father’s cousin, Maria. Since Tony was from a family of Italian descent, that made me his nephew. I was also connected to Tony in another, more complex way. He and my father had had similar experiences in combat in the Pacific in the Second World War. They were close in a quiet way.
Tony had a construction business and a sheet metal fabrication shop. I remember getting my first visit to his shop. I was in love. What a place! So many machines, cutting torches, welding equipment, metal, wood to saw, nails to hammer—I could make anything. I had found my place at last. Tony and my father knew the shop would have that effect on me. They must have been pleased that it did.
As a child, I often hopped a train to the northern outskirts of New York City, and Tony or someone from his family or shop would pick me up. I worked long hours helping with anything that I could, which wasn’t much the first few times. Tony treated me with tremendous patience. He always encouraged me, no matter how poor a product I turned out. He always tried to make me feel like the smartest guy in the world.
In the construction industry in his area, he was well liked and respected. He always introduced me to his friends, customers, and fellow construction workers as his nephew and Godson. I was, in fact, not his Godson. I can’t remember who my Godfather had been. But Tony wanted everyone to know that I was special, and that I was with him so he used the term “Godson.” I felt like I had been promoted to the top of the world. I was like the second coolest person in the universe. I was Tony’s Godson. Life could hardly get any better.
Tony always worried that I was a little bit overly reactive, and that I was prone to taking insults and threats too seriously. He constantly tried to figure out how to teach me to calm down a little and to not respond to insults. He wanted me to understand that “not all enemies needed to be taken seriously.” He wanted me to learn how to turn enemies into friends.
One Saturday when I was twelve, Tony and I were working on a job site without the rest of his crew. There were two electricians working on the other side of the room. The job had been delayed due to one of the other crews, and the owners “guy” was in a bad mood. He came in and started arguing with Tony.
The guy was huge and about ten years younger than Tony. Against that, Tony was a Marine, a qualified boxing instructor, and strong as a bull. The angry guy moved past me and was getting too loud and too close to my uncle. I picked up my roofing hammer.
Tony never knew why I insisted on buying and carrying a long-handled roofing hammer, and he had argued against the useless extra weight in my tool kit. This was why I had a roofing hammer.
I positioned myself well for an effective strike should said goon take a swing at Tony. Tony stayed calm, Goon didn’t swing, and I didn’t whack Goon with the roofing hammer. When Goon turned to leave, he realized that my hammer and I had been behind him the entire time, waiting to swing. Goon turned white and looked at my uncle and started to say something, failed to complete the sentence, and left.
Tony realized that I had been waiting quietly to whack the goon, and he was somewhat stunned. He paused a moment and then reasoned with me calmly.
Tony: “You can’t hit people in the head with a roofing hammer. You’ll accidentally kill them.”
Me: “No. I wasn’t going to kill him. I was going to hit him with the flat side. It would only knock him out, or if it didn’t, I’d beat the hell out of him while he was stunned.”
Tony: “You can’t hit people with roofing hammers…”
Me: “Sure I can. That fangul had no idea….”
Tony: “Okay, look. I appreciate you backing me up. There’s nobody I’d rather have with me in a fight than you, but you don’t always have to back me up. I settled it with words. Nobody got hurt. That wasn’t a life and death situation…”
Me: “For him it was. If I turn the hammer this way…”
Tony: “Okay, look we’ll talk about this later…”
He realized my adrenalin was still too high. Later after dinner, we talked about it. I wasn’t always the easiest student for “alternatives to violence” training, but he managed to get through to me. He treated me like an equal, and he trusted me completely. I loved him, and I never wanted to betray that trust so his words mattered to me. I didn’t believe most of what most adults said. I believed everything that he said, and I had to take him seriously. I did, and I learned.
My willingness to whack someone in the back of the head concerned Tony. That night, he called my father and begged him to just let me live with him and my aunt full time rather having to return to the violence in the city. My father would not agree to it, but he did agree that on weekends and all holidays, I would stay with Tony. To my delight, I got to spend more time with Tony and his large extended family.
That was one of the great things about being Tony’s Godson. I inherited his entire Italian family and all of their multi-ethnic appendages. Even remote cousins of his that had never met my father treated me like their nephew or cousin. I was Tony’s nephew so I was their nephew.
Their family was my family. Their home was my home. Nobody asked for an explanation of who was who on their family tree. None was needed. There were no second cousins in the family. No “once removed.” Nobody got removed. Everybody was safe and okay right where they were and didn’t need any “removing.”
We didn’t all always agree. There were arguments and debates, but we all went to bed understanding that when the argument was over, it didn’t matter much, and we were all still family.
Then there was the cancer. He had been diagnosed when I was a toddler. I found out when I was five or six, when someone explained the scars on his face to me. He had had tumors in his sinuses. The doctors had told him it would kill him in six months. He laughed at them. He had survived a bullet wound on Guadalcanal. He should never have made it off the island alive. He did. He got better and went back to the Pacific. He was one of the first people to land on Okinawa the night before the main invasion. He survived ugly battles on Okinawa, as well.
image from historylearningsite.co.uk
He wasn’t going to let the cancer win. Not just yet. Two years ago (over a half a century after his scheduled funeral that he refused to show up for) the cancer came back. We talked about it. He laughed it off. I told him how much I loved him, and how important he was to me. I told him how lucky I felt to have him as my uncle. I told him how proud of him I was for what he had done in the war and in his life. I told him that he was the best Godfather that ever walked the earth.
He told me that he was the lucky one, and told me that my father would have been proud of my career and my family. He said he almost never prayed, but that he prayed hard for me every day each time I left the country, and how grateful he was each time I got back to an airport in the States and called him.
In my mind, I can still hear the concern he tried to mask when he would say, “Call me when you get back.” I can still hear the happiness in his voice each time I returned. He told me he had always been proud of me, and always knew from the first time that he held me as a baby that I was “special.” To him, I was, and to me, he was and always will be.
Now it’s your turn. Who are the special uncles in your life?