At home with my Uncle Tony in 1976

Going Home And Discovering You May Have The Best Uncle In The World

I came home yesterday. The place where I spent peace-filled days throughout my childhood. I am here to check on my uncle, who turned 87 last fall. Since my dad died last summer, he’s been living by himself.

I was anxious for days before the trip and thoroughly worked up the day of because my uncle can be très difficile. I headed to the airport with my mental silencer on, thoroughly tuned out for the trip. On the train to the plane, I kept my face in my phone, ignoring everyone around me. At the airport a grim-faced reservation agent got testy about checking my bag for free. I smiled, gave him my American Express I-should-get-a-free-bag-check credit card, and let it go. 

I moved through the airport with the distracted calm you get when you’re on autopilot. All was well until I stepped on the commuter plane, which is designed to test people like me. I saw nothing but rows of humans wedged tightly in their seats and an aisle so narrow that it was all but impossible to get to seat 17C without smacking someone in the head with my tote bag. I was very conscious of my leaden tote, keeping it centered in front of me, but it acted like a bean bag, putting the people in aisle seats in peril. By the time I spilled myself into seat 17C, just shy of the bathroom, I was in code red, washed in anxiety and disbelief.

I brought my daughter’s bright red, kiddie patterned neck pillow and, before I left the house, sprinkled it with lavender oil, shaking the bottle like holy water. It was an offhand gesture that saved the plane ride. After takeoff I wrapped the pellet-filled pillow around my neck and stuck my face in the fabric, sniffing around for a sweet spot like my dog Lance when he detects you’ve been with another dog. I did this for a very long time, unaware that my seat mate might think I’m a freak. By the time we landed I was code yellow, living proof that breathing in lavender oil like a cocaine addict works.

Uncle Tony and My Daughter Emma

Uncle Tony and My Daughter Emma

With all the anxiety I packed, I never expected to open the door to my dad’s apartment and feel so completely happy at the sight of the living room. In an instant, the world became a tranquil and wonderful place. The feeling came from deep inside me and felt like love and comfort. If the good witch Glenda brushed her magic wand across my head, it would feel like this. I’m certain.

I always do a bit, or a lot, of snooping in cabinets and drawers when I’m home. My uncle keeps everything so you’re bound to come across a precious photo or interesting butter knife. This morning I discovered one from Tiffanys that is coming home with me, along with a Rheingold beer opener, and an old potato masher that has a beautiful wood handle.

I also found a dusty, old cookbook among the cleaning supplies that was the best discovery because it came with a good story. It’s titled Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Tried and True Recipes. Ruth turned her home, built in 1709 on the outskirts of Whitman, Massachusetts, into a successful toll house where passengers paid their toll and had a home cooked meal. I wondered if she was the source of the Nestle’s toll house cookie recipe. She was! I make those cookies all the time.

At dinner, I told my uncle about the cookbook. He knew exactly which book it was and where I found it. He told me the story of visiting Ruth Wakefield’s toll house with his dad and my father every summer on the trip home from Camp Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. My grandfather would pick them up, stop at the toll house for lunch, and head over to Boston for a bit of business. It was one of those happy moments where you make both an interesting discovery and another link to your family history.

I also raided a file cabinet and found dozens of letters I wrote to my uncle all the way back to fourth grade. They were filled with affection. There were also report cards and correspondence related to my care throughout childhood. The letters he sent to my camp and school during my mother’s illness brought tears to my eyes. He took care of everything behind the scenes.

I knew Uncle Tony did a lot for me, but I never knew how much. He made an extraordinary investment, chronicling and overseeing much of my childhood. I needed to read those files, both to remember how much he meant to me as I was growing up and to understand the depth of his commitment.

He may be très difficile at 87 and unable to hug or say, “I love you,” but if I take the long view, he is the best uncle in the world.