In Appreciation of The Pleasures of Unclehood

'UNCA John! Unca John! You go to college - help us get the kite up!"

The bright-eyed nephew who rushed up with this challenge as I pulled into my sister's driveway was perhaps 6 or 7 at the time. Too young to understand that a college education has its limits.

But that whimsical moment is one of my favorite remembrances of unclehood. And unclehood is one of my favorite roles in life.

Thanks to a brother and a sister who had five children between them - and thanks to nephews and nieces who now have seven children among them - I've been an uncle most of my life. I was barely a teenager when the first nephew came along.

Being "Unca John" was (and is) always a treat. But now, as a great-uncle, I've had a name change: I'm "Uncle Ra-Ra" to this second generation. When one of my great-nieces was just old enough to begin imitating nonsense syllables, I mouthed a string of them as I held her on my lap. "Ra-Ra" she picked up on immediately. And when she repeated the syllables some time later as I walked past her, a name was born.

I've been "Uncle Ra-Ra" for several years now - which is helpful, since my nephew John is an uncle in his own right these days. It saves confusion to let him be "Uncle John" and for me to be known as "Uncle Ra-Ra."

Being an uncle - or an aunt - is even better than being a grandparent. I know, from watching my sister and her husband, that grandparenting has a kind of daffy wonderfulness about it. But with that role comes a kind of extended responsibility, as well as endless pleasure.

In the grandchildren, parents see the results - good and bad - of their own parenting. Uncles and aunts never feel the same sense of responsibility for the way nieces and nephews turn out, nor for the way great-nieces and great-nephews turn out, in turn.

But like grandparents, uncles and aunts get all the vicarious pleasure of parenting - without any of the grief. We uncles and aunts can be indulgent, given to spoiling, or at least entertaining the youngsters, without worrying too much about whether we're a bad influence.

Having aunts and uncles was a fine thing, but being an uncle is even better. A couple of summers ago we were all together on a Sunday afternoon at my sister's house, with all seven of the great-nieces and great-nephews in attendance. Without advance planning, I just happened to have seven $1 bills in my wallet that afternoon.

When I rounded up the assorted youngsters on the deck off the family room and handed them each one of those bills, it was a grand moment. A dollar now buys a lot less than it did when I was a child, but a dollar is still a dollar. And an unexpected windfall - however small the amount - is still a windfall.

An aunt of mine, for instance, ran a beauty salon in the one and only downtown hotel of my childhood. I would stop to visit her from time to time, and she invariably handed me a quarter and a penny. In those days, the price of admission to a movie was 16 cents - and the other 10 cents would buy me a bus ride to and from home - or I could walk, and have the dime for popcorn and a soda.

How could I not remember that aunt with profound affection every time I go to the movies, even to this day? (Would that I could still get in for 16 cents!) She had a role in fostering my lifelong love of the movies.

Time has taken away all but one aunt and one uncle now, and has even taken away one of my nephews. But I can still hear him ever so clearly, rushing up to my car on a weekend visit home: "Unca John! Unca John! You go to college - help us get the kite up!"

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