"You intimidate him," my teenage niece cheerfully informed me about her twin brother, a few years ago. We were in one of those restaurants that do brick-oven pizzas and $8 salads, waiting for him and his mother (my sister) to park the car. I see them all once a year, maybe twice. We live 1,800 miles apart, but I must also admit that I did not see them nearly enough when I lived only 30 miles from their house in the mid-1990s. "And you sort of intimidate me, too," she giggled. I was crushed. There was something in me that started to demand why, how—but I sort of already knew the answer. I was the misplaced uncle. I'd fallen off the charts, me and my unfriendly wit, inscrutable CD collection, and don't-ask-don't-tell personal life. We each ordered our separate, individual pizzas.
I've been an uncle almost longer than I've been anything else. There's a decade or more between my three older sisters and me, and they each had a baby or two or three between 1978 (when I was in fourth grade) and 1987 (when I was in college). The first three nephews arrived in what was perhaps the last golden, hazily happy time of our large family—an era of ski trips to Purgatory, Colorado, and a bulky Kissinger-ish telephone in my father's Lincoln, on which he seemed to get important calls. My parents (still married then) swooned at their bounty of grandsons. They had raised three daughters, and their only son had essentially come out of the womb so he could search for a complete set of Nancy Drew books. To my father's unending joy, his first three grandchildren—it's a boy, it's a boy, it's a boy—all immediately loved guns and golf clubs. There are stacks of photo albums featuring the new breed, all my nephews. I appear in them mostly incidentally, in the background, and I remember even then what a relief it was to be ignored.
As their uncle I got to tickle and wrassle with them, and swing them around and around on the front lawn, and teach them the ways of Atari. It is the easiest thing in the world to be worshipped by toddlers, and anyone who has been on the receiving end knows it can't last. Soon enough they're embarrassed by you. I took two of them, aged 13 and 10, to a Color Me Badd concert in 1991 (featuring the hit "I Wanna Sex You Up") and I'm fairly certain that's the last thing we ever did on our own, as uncle and nephews. Maybe we died of embarrassment that very night; maybe this is the afterlife.
* * *
Sometimes uncles loom large in family lore and whatever you spill in the therapist's office, but mostly we just drift off the narrative margin. We're not your dad. Sometimes we remember your birthday (bet you $10 you don't know ours), and you never know if we'll leave you anything when we die. Mystery is our best uncly asset, because it safeguards us from having you show up on our doorsteps broke and drunk at 3:00 a.m., but it also keeps us out of your lives. Something in our culture insists uncles be kooky or creepy; if we're neither, we're gone. And whatever you remember about your uncle, chances are he remembers it another way.
When he was about 3 years old, I took my oldest nephew with me on a walk to the 7-Eleven—the back way, through all the condo developments—and, attempting to mimic my every move, he lost his balance and fell off a five-foot-high cinderblock wall and landed on his head on the asphalt. I carried him home and he cried until he puked, and then he puked for the next two days, and I exiled myself to my room, certain he was going to die or suffer brain damage. (He was fine. He's married now, has three kids, sells insurance.)
Another nephew moved to the East Coast before he was a kindergartner. He is 25 now. I used to know which exit off the Jersey Turnpike would take me to the Applebee's where he tended bar; I never went to surprise him and order a drink, and he doesn't work there any more. The last time I saw him, in 2003, I was astonished: Born in Idaho to a couple of Oklahoman parents, he has gone almost completely guido, accent and all.
Nephew number three, born in 1981, was secretly my favorite; a tender and easily jangled little boy who barfed at the merest whiff of dog poop and grew up to wear size 15 sneakers; a shy giant in a big pickup truck, who threw shot put in college on scholarship, which I never got around to seeing him do. Given his sensitive nature, our family had no choice but to tease him. When he was in middle school we were having dinner in a Japanese steakhouse and I offered him a $5 bill to "eat this entire spoonful of guacamole," which of course was not guacamole but wasabi, and which he promptly ate and burst out crying. He wrote a very nice review of my book on the Barnes & Noble website last year—the book's only customer review. He gave it five stars.
There's a niece in here, born when I was 16. And even now, even just to try to type out the basics, puts a knot in my gut. She died four months later, on Valentine's Day 1985, in her crib, of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Our family already was fractured in a number of ways, enough so that it further complicated our one chance at the actual togetherness of grief. I don't have a single photograph of her. I'm not sure any of us do.
The same sister who lost the baby daughter had twins in 1987, a boy and a girl. (I call them Star Wars: A New Hope.) They came home from the hospital with a matched set of portable heartbeat-monitor machines, which went off constantly, like car alarms. Nobody slept for years. I remember cradling my infant niece in my arms and strolling around my sister's house. I want you to please live to be 100—would you do that for me?, I whispered to her.
* * *
Time folds in on itself, and the nephews and niece became teenagers, then grownups. Two of my nephews are married, and between them they have four young kids. I'm a great-uncle by definition, and a not-so-great one in practice. Some uncles come back from the bottom of the Christmas card list, get past the stories and legends we tell about them, and so I wait for the coming-around part with my own nephews, the grownup part, which may never occur. It would be as easy as picking up the phone. (It would be that hard, too.)
"That's Hank," my nephew told his son, Ezra, who had just turned 5.
"That's not Hank," Ezra said.
"Well, it's another Hank," his father explained. (It turns out there's a minister named Hank at their church. It struck me then that I didn't know about their church, what denomination it was, or where it was, and that seemed like a lot of things not to know about your nephew's family. I was the wrong Hank.)
We all ate at the Olive Garden that night. After we'd paid the check, I pulled my rental Pontiac around the parking lot, and Ezra darted in front. I threw on the brakes. His mother—my nephew's wife—grabbed his arm and scolded him and he began to bawl. I sat there and trembled at how close I'd come. I also thought about how far away I was.
Hank Stuever is a writer and editor at the Washington Post.