Uncle Joe

Uncle Joe.cropped.jpg

"My Lord, my Lord, my Lord, my Lord, take me to the place I need to go." ~ Michael Franti & Spearhead

My memories of my Uncle Joe are mostly centered around his joining us for holiday meals. These memories start when I was very young. I’d hear the doorbell ring and race with my sister to greet him before he could even step inside.  

“Uncle Joe! Uncle Joe!” we’d cry. “When are you getting married?! When are you getting married?!”

He never had an answer for us, but, then again, I don’t know that we ever really wanted one. As little girls, I think we just liked asking the question! It was our standard way of greeting him, and he was always patient with us. He’d lean down to say hello.

“Pick us up! Pick us up!” we’d cry.  

My sister and I would hang from his forearms, and he’d lift us up and down like little weights. He was strong, always working out and playing football. When we’d visit my grandmother, he’d always be in the basement, lifting weights. I could hear them clanking, but I was afraid of that basement, and so I’d always wait until he came upstairs to say hello.

At holiday meals, he’d pile his plate high. He loved black olives like my mom and now my son. He was left-handed, just like me. When I was little, I told him that meant that we were related. I’d share my egg with him every Passover. He did me the favor of always eating the yolk. He’d take naps in my brother’s room after our Thanksgiving meals, and when he woke up he’d watch the football game through the rest of the afternoon.  

I remember my Uncle Joe working for W. Bell & Company. On my birthday, he picked out a jewelry box for me from there. It was one of my most prized possessions. It was white with painted greenery, and it had two doors that opened in the front, behind which there were three drawers lined in velvet. All through my growing up years, I kept it on a shelf in my bedroom, placing inside of it anything and everything that was ever special to me.

When I grew up, so did my Uncle Joe! He moved out of his mother’s house and into his own apartment! I remember visiting him to say hello and check out his new digs. My memories of that visit are of him going through the clothes in his closet and asking me which ones were still in style.

Not long after that, my Uncle Joe finally answered our question from so long ago. He was getting married! We were excited to attend his wedding to Mary Ellen at their home near the Bay Bridge. I remember two things from that day. The first was how he looked standing next to Mary Ellen. He looked so proud. And the second was my discovery that my Uncle Joe would be sleeping in a pink bed! I must have passed by their bedroom and caught a glimpse of their spread!

Over the years, I continued to see my Uncle Joe on holidays, mostly at my folks’ and sometimes at the meals I’d host. Otherwise, I didn’t see too much of him, but that didn’t make me feel any less attached. I have a beautiful picture of him with my daughter from when she was a baby that I’ve kept on my desk all these years. He’s holding her tight in both arms, and she’s contentedly ensconced. Her head is against his cheek, and he’s looking down at her and sort of smiling to himself. 

I think that picture is special to me, because in it I can see my Uncle Joe’s big heart. He was always playing football and working out and very much a man’s man, and yet I think he was just as much a soft touch. And that’s what I see in this picture.

And that’s also what I’ve seen over the years towards me. He wrote me touching cards after my children’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, telling me that I was a good mother and that he was proud of how I’d raised my children. He continued to join us for meals on the Jewish holidays and always kept up with what my children were up to. He was a huge supporter of my writing and asked me to send him what I’d written. Thanks to my Uncle Joe, I figured out that I’d written a book without even realizing it. He was very aware that I was a single mother and would always call to check on me, if ever my folks were away. And let’s just say that I also got the message that he would be available to go to bat for me, should I ever be in need of anything like that.   

In more recent years, my Uncle Joe had started to call me on a regular basis. He’d ask after my children and my sister and her family, too. And we’d talk at length about our daily workouts, his at the senior center, lifting weights and cycling on the reclining bike, and mine at the yoga studio. I’d started practicing downtown on the same block as where he had worked at W. Bell & Company! But he never liked that for me and oftentimes expressed concerns for my safety.

“Annie! I don’t like you going down there!” he’d say. And I’d assure him that I was safe, that the neighborhood had changed, and that I was being careful.

Other times, he’d express concern for me living alone.

“Annie! I worry about you in that big house!” he’d say. And I’d assure him that I was okay, that the house was not too big for me, and that I was comfortable there.

And sometimes he’d express concerns for what kind of uncle he had been.

“I may not have always been the best uncle,” he’d say to me, “but I want you to know that I love you.” And I’d assure him that I always knew that he loved me. And then I’d tell him that I loved him, too.

I don’t think he knew about the photo that I’d kept of him with his heart showing, the one where he’s holding my daughter as a baby. And I didn’t know that there were any others, either; but, apparently, there are lots of photos of my Uncle Joe with his heart showing. And when I visited him last week at his house, I got to see them all, hanging on a poster across the room from his bed. Pictured were all the people whom my Uncle Joe had been. There he was as a little boy, as a young man, as a big brother, as a serviceman in the army, as a devoted husband, and, in his highly cherished role, as the great Papa Joe.

Seeing these photos made me think of a Buddhist teaching about which I’d only learned days earlier. According to this teaching, inside of all of us is everyone! Throughout our many lifetimes, we’ve all been the many different people that others have been to us. And I thought about that as I looked at all those photos of my Uncle Joe, for inside of him there was everyone, too. In fact, from the looks of things, there were more people inside of him than I ever knew! And during my last visit to him, I got to see that for myself.

So many people were there! Friends and family and loved ones had been coming and going for days, showing him who he’d been to them in this lifetime. They were showing up to show him how much he was loved. And that made me so happy to see. I saw him surrounded in a way that I think all of us would want to be.

And when it came my turn to speak with him, I got to tell him what I hoped he already knew. I don’t know if he could hear me, but I got to tell him that his whole family was there, and that everyone loved him. And then I thanked him for all those calls, and told him that I loved him, too.