Le Monocle de Mon Oncle: Week #14 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On uncles, uncling, and avuncularity
Topic Idea: Bethany Schneider
In case my tens of faithful readers have not yet noticed, I long ago abandoned the fiction that I was going to write 52 essays in the exact order in which the solicited topics were received. (For one thing, it would have meant that anyone who proposed multiple topics would receive all their essays at once, in an unpleasant bolus.) First I re-arranged the topics alphabetically and figured that would decide the order, but later I abandoned that scheme too. Now I just cast my eye over the list each week and see what strikes my fancy. (This method does not necessarily preclude future unpleasant boluses. We will have to wait and see.) For several weeks one particular topic has been leaping out at me, jumping up and down in front of the others and thrusting its wet nose in my palm: “the avuncular relation.” Each week I have given it a gentle kick in the ribs and forcibly turned my attention to something more ... wholesome. But it will be denied no longer—at the very least, I’ve become curious about why I find this topic so unsettling.
Let’s get the obvious things out of the way immediately. First, I have one remaining living uncle, and while the chances of him reading this essay are vanishingly small, I still feel a little weird knowing there is a potential living and breathing referent of these scrivenings. Second—well, not to put to fine a point on it, but uncles are kind of creepy, amirite? I don’t necessarily mean actual uncles, of course, and certainly not any of my uncles, all of whom were (or are! hi, Uncle Lyn!) absolutely lovely. But the idea of the uncle, his figure in jokes, fables, ballads, sacred texts, cuneiform tablets—it’s always sort of vaguely lecherous and debauched. Part of the problem is that sometime in the past 200 years every man in France signed a contract agreeing to refer to his young mistress as his “niece” for the purpose of restaurant reservations, which worked just fine as a universal code but left actual uncles and nieces who wanted to grab lunch together in a very awkward position.
But those are just superficial, immediate responses to the topic at hand—now that we’ve dispensed with them and cleared the air, let’s dive deeper into the general concept of The Uncle. In his purest form, he is middle-aged to elderly, unmarried, benevolent, eccentric, a collector of something arcane and expensive, a wearer of dressing gowns and leather slippers, and probably gay (unless French1). Bonus if he also smokes a pipe and/or solves mysteries in his spare time. (I paused for a while here to consider whether this list of qualities implies that The Uncle is also white, but I don’t think so. Even though he’s a father/grandfather and not technically an uncle, the Laurence Fishburne character on “Black-ish,” for example, ticks many of these boxes. Not to mention Philip Banks, the rich uncle of Fresh Prince.2)
His most important attribute, though, is that he is an add-on, an excrescence, a supplement to the rigid structure of the heteronormative family model that is the unspoken ideal—if not the actual majority—of American households. He is thus atavistic, a holdover from feudal or caveman days when everyone who was vaguely connected huddled together for protection against marauders and slept in a pile in front of the fire. His very presence reminds us that there are ways to structure family relations other than the strictly nuclear, other ways to think about who matters to us and to whom we matter.3 If he is performing his avuncular duties properly, he is bopping into and out of the lives of his nephews and nieces (whether honorary or related by blood) on a fairly regular—but unpredictable!—basis, showering them with impractical gifts, dubious advice, and flakes of snuff. He is needed but not necessary.
The Uncle also teaches you what your mom or dad used to be like. He knew your parent way back when, and on some level probably still thinks of his sibling as a kid. If they are at all close, the two of them will start reminiscing over their after-dinner drinks and forget that you (the son/nephew or daughter/niece) are still sitting there, and you will get to hear all about the stolen tractor incident, the broken engagement with the organized crime figure, the Great Snowshoeing Drama of 1967. If The Uncle is a blood relation and particularly rich in uncleness, he will physically resemble your parent as well. Shortly after my dad died, my tiny remaining immediate family (Scott and I, my sister and nephew) went to visit my dad’s youngest brother, the last of the three still alive. At one point after dinner my Uncle Lyn leaned across the table to grab a bottle of wine, and I felt a kick in my gut when I noticed that he was reaching across me with my father’s hand. It was exactly the same size, shape, fingernails—a perfect replica, like it was rendered in wax by Madame Tussaud’s. I suppose I must have noticed this extraordinary manual resemblance before (they don’t look much alike in any other way), but it’s one thing to see two brothers’ identical hands side by side, and quite another to see just the ghost of your father’s left behind on the material plane.4
Uncles humanize your parents, but they also decenter them by presenting alternative models of adulthood. The Uncle is the road not taken. Maybe he’s more responsible, maybe he’s more spontaneous, maybe he’s more generous, maybe he’s a better singer—whatever he is, chances are it’s different from your mom or dad, and his very existence furnishes you with options about how to be in the world. I’m kind of jealous of friends who have a lot of extended relatives for this reason: Scott has at least seven (I think?)5 blood uncles and who knows how many uncles by marriage, and therefore a tasty smorgasbord of avuncular role models.6 My own father felt this similarity-with-a-difference with his own brothers, and it haunted him his entire life. My paternal grandfather had attended Cornell’s agriculture school, which is free for New York state residents, and then returned to the family farm. He later sent two of his three sons to his alma mater for expensive engineering degrees, but Dad fell right in a crack in his family’s tenuous prosperity and had to go to the free ag school like his father. He escaped from the farm as soon as he could, but always struggled to make a career while my uncles worked on the moon launch, raced cars in Germany, and became head of Morton Salt.7 I know as a niece I felt the pull of these glamorous avuncular lives; even though I did something utterly different with my own career, it was the difference that mattered.
But Doctor Waffle (the astute reader is now wondering to herself), everything you’ve said here also applies to aunts! What is special or particular or different about the avuncular relation? I am so glad you asked. First of all, have you noticed that there is not an equivalent term to “avuncular” for aunts?8 I mean—surprise surprise—there seems to be some misogyny built into the naming of extended relations. “Avuncular” literally means of or pertaining to uncles, but it also connotes, more figuratively, kindly and nurturing. In contrast, the pale, sad words “aunt-like” and “auntish” lack any kind of positive charge. If the cliché uncle is an eccentric, glamorous loner dancing to the beat of his own drum, then the stereotypical aunt is a spinster leading a narrow, cramped life, dependent on relatives for her support and spoiling every good caper and hijink. Think Uncle Buck versus Miss Bates in Emma. With the bright and shining exception of Auntie Mame, your literary and pop-culture aunts, from Sophocles to Jane Eyre, from James and the Giant Peach to J. K. Rowling, are party poopers at best and witchy homicidal maniacs at worst. (Or perhaps best, depending on your point of view.) Obviously there are exceptions galore to this rule and I am not interested in having any fights; my contention is merely that the core meaning of the aunt is different from the core meaning of the uncle in ways that seem pretty predictable once you’ve taken Women’s Studies 101.
But back to my assignment. Obviously I will never get to be an uncle (okay, not so obvious—I could transition and/or decide to reject the gendering of aunts and uncles altogether, but in the interest of keeping this essay relatively short let’s table those possibilities for the moment), but I can watch uncling from a ring-side seat now that I’m coupled with a cis-gender man and some of our siblings have procreated. Scott doesn’t get to do much hands-on uncling of his blood-relation nieces and nephews since they’re all living in a Covid-free paradise on the other side of the planet, but in recent years he has taken on a larger uncle role with my nephew, who lost his father at an early age. It’s actually a tricky territory to inhabit: you want to be fun but a good role model, supportive but honest, generous but fair. There needs to be roughhousing (which, as far as I can tell from the outside, instantly changes to verbal joshing at some predetermined but unpredictable age, like someone threw a switch), some light sentimentality (awkward hugs, punches on the shoulder, birthday-card scribbles), some advice disguised as random musings (best dispensed while staring thoughtfully at the ceiling). There should be gifts (probably purchased by others, but no less heartfelt for that fact). There should be some rituals,9 a private joke or two, maybe even a secret handshake.
The ways of masculinity are deeply mysterious to me, and this is really all I can say. There is a code of some kind, and your uncle helps you learn it somehow. The stakes are lower than with your dad. You can try out some new moves, and not have to die of embarrassment if they don’t quite fly. The uncle goes away and comes back, over and over. Because he doesn’t have to be there, you know you can trust him when he is. If you’re lucky you have one or two of them hanging around in the background of your life, ready to spring into action when they’re needed yet not get in your face when they’re not. And that is the avuncular relation.
And maybe both!
Of course, there’s also Uncle Remus and Uncle Ben, but let us pass them over in silence.
In this sense he is similar to the grandmother who lives with her children and grandchildren. But the grandmotherly relation—properly the subject of its own essay—is complicated by our species memory of matriarchy. The grandmother can never really be purely “extra” in the way that, say, Uncle Fester is extra.
As George Eliot, the Patron Saint of the 52 Mini-Essays Project, once wrote: “Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it. Nature, that great tragic dramatist, knits us together by bone and muscle, and divides us by the subtler web of our brains.... We hear a voice with the very cadence of our own uttering the thoughts we despise; we see eyes—ah, so like our mother's!—averted from us in cold alienation; and our last darling child startles us with the air and gestures of the sister we parted from in bitterness long years ago. The father to whom we owe our best heritage—the mechanical instinct, the keen sensibility to harmony, the unconscious skill of the modelling hand—galls us and puts us to shame by his daily errors; the long-lost mother, whose face we begin to see in the glass as our own wrinkles come, once fretted our young souls with her anxious humours and irrational persistence” (Adam Bede, 1859).
He is now annoyed with me. We have this stupid disagreement all the time, about how many siblings his mother has. I mean, what a thing to argue about—obviously, it’s a fact that can be easily and independently verified, and even more importantly he has much better reason to be correct on this score than I do. And yet that doesn’t stop me! “Are you sure? I’m pretty certain it’s five brothers and a sister, not four.” I will argue about anything.
That said—and this is not a diss, because I really like all of them—they’ve all led pretty much the exact same farming or farming-adjacent life in New Zealand. So you never know.
He also worked at Robert Mondavi Wines and one of the big pasta companies, so we used to joke that his career was pretty much an entire Italian meal.
If you want to do a really deep dive into this question, you can read the obsessive natterings of a bunch of word nerds on this website. According to them, the word “avuncular” properly denotes only your mother’s brother! Obviously I am not going to be that persnickety—for one thing, adopting such usage would render me instantly sans avuncular relations.
Scott was actually the Dungeon Master for a years-long family D&D game that included my nephew, but that is pretty advanced uncling.