My Uncle, the unlikely role model

I have been thinking a lot about my Uncle Neil lately. When he died, a little over 15 years ago, everyone was a little confused about how to feel. It wasn’t that we didn’t feel sad about it, not that we wouldn’t miss him but… there sat before us that anticipated awkward moment when we would arrive to a memorial service and be expected to go on and on and about what a neat guy he was when really, he was kind of an asshole.

Uncle Neil was a gambler and not a very good one which in effect made him a borrower much of the time. He didn’t show up on time for anything and didn’t really care. He was loud. He bragged a lot. He hogged up all the space on the couch. He smoked cigars indoors even when he knew people didn’t like the smell. He always carried the who’s got your nose game on for far longer than ever is appropriate. He made my sisters and I cry. Sometimes he would babysit us, which basically just meant he ignored us for a couple of hours while my parents were away and eventually fell asleep in front of the TV. We used to pile objects onto his big belly while he snored, to see how many things we could balance before it woke him up. He always had a new get rich quick scheme he would try to rope our various family members in to. He told wildly, apparently fabricated stories that always elicited clandestine eyerolls from his audience. He was that guy.

So, when we got news from our dad that he died, we made plans to attend a service. We all dressed in our best; preparing to say an awkward goodbye to a guy we didn’t really know that well and truthfully, never really wanted to. I remember thinking to myself, how sad it was going to be because first, the guy died. That’s always sad. And second, that there probably wouldn’t be that many people there, seeing as he wasn’t exactly a likable person.

We arrived to the empty reception hall after a long drive over the hill to Simi Valley and we sat there together at a big round table, picking at these flat, cold roast beef sandwiches, cut up into quarters. I remember it being very quiet. All of us apprehensive and still. Each of us wondering how this was all going to go. After a little while people started showing up, taking seats at the other round tables, hovering around the deli trays. I couldn’t hear them but from far away, you could tell they were talking to each other about my uncle, these strangers, putting a hand on a shoulder, nodding with their eyes closed. Yes, yes, such a loss. It was so strange to me. So many people here that I didn’t know. Some of them even cried. And all I could think was really?

After a little while, this guy with a thick black mustache stood up, arranging a stack of notes, adjusting the mic on the podium and began to speak. What followed was a half hour long speech about my Uncle, how selfless he was, how he devoted nearly all of his resources to his community, how he was always there to solve problems. And everyone in the audience smiled and tipped their heads forward in approval. Everyone looked at each other in agreement. Everyone made these affectionate faces. Everyone, except us. We just looked at each other, across that big round table, hoping our eye contact would tell some other truth about what was going on. Were they talking about our Uncle Neil? After the mustache guy was finished, he invited others to step up to the podium, if they would like to share any stories or thoughts about the deceased. And sure enough, folks stood in line to get up there. One right after another they testified to all he great things he had done: raising money for the special olympics, organizing a golf tournament to benefit the local little league, setting up resources for low income elderly. Over and over, stories about how he contributed.

Of course, my family and I, we were all shocked. Could this be the same guy that burped loudly, unexcused, at the Passover table? The same guy that took the last drumstick from a little kid? The same guy that asked you to pull his finger? The same guy that smelled like cigars and whiskey? The same guy that couldn’t win a bet with other peoples money? And yes. Yes it was.

This was the same guy that in his own strange way, managed to participate in his community, to give to people without his giving having to be attached to his likability. And so, I have been thinking about my Uncle Neil a lot right now as the language of charity and giving, of community and engagement seem to be more and more prevalent in our culture. That these ideas or the ways the ideas are discussed publicly appear to represent a seemingly progressive conscience. And further, how these activities seem to be directly connected to the personas we put forward in social media spaces, the way our giving is broadcast via facebook, our support for certain causes added to the many lists of interests on our profiles, the way these alignments with the so called right thing to do help others to construct an idea about what a swell human being we are. And then… I cant help but wonder what this means for the contemporary ego.

Clearly, my Uncle Neil never cared if anyone thought he was a nice person. So much so that his whole family didn’t even know he was contributing to anything except dysfunctional family holidays. And most of the people he gave time and money to were meeting each other for the first time at his funeral. He didn’t do all of that so people would like him. He didn’t need to be seen doing it. He just did it.

And maybe, in his own fucked up, unpleasant way, Uncle Neil offers a pretty radical model for selflessness, the anti ego that sits a bit rough around the edges. And perhaps just being a flawed, contradictory son of a bitch that does really good things is a most admirable thing to aspire to.

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