Monday, 12 November 2007

On uncles, blood and otherwise

One of the tricky things in writing this blog is trying to figure out just how honest I can be regarding persons featured in it. In one of the first posts, I mentioned a pair of uncles in Nova Scotia I am hoping to avoid. I didn't go into much detail about why I don't wish to stay with them. While not writing about them, it got me thinking about how I see my uncles. Of my blood uncles (i.e. the brothers of my parents), none are people I would like to spend much time with. A couple, I would prefer to avoid. Of my Mother's and Margo's sole brother less said the better.

Of my father's four brothers, one (the eldest) kept himself almost entirely aloof from the rest of the family for most of my life and I had very little connection with him. I won't have the opportunity to form any sort of relationship as he died a few years ago. I think I learned more about him at his funeral than while he was alive. Of the rest, their competitive Roman Catholicism gets quite obnoxious. The second oldest is what I think of as an American republican conservative Catholic. Very different from the very relaxed, 'normal' Catholicism I grew up with in Quebec.

Two examples: over ten years ago, I was in the second uncle's car going to a family wedding with the uncle and my father. It was early June. As we were driving through Montreal with the Tour de l'Île in progress beside the highway, my father and my uncle became embroiled in an argument about the Shroud of Turin. At some point, they decided that they shouldn't be arguing on their way to a wedding and that they should say the rosary together in order to make peace. My uncle reached down from the steering wheel and pulled out a rosary from a dashboard storage compartment. I don't even know how to say the rosary let alone own one. I wouldn't even dream of having one in the car, "just in case."

A second example was the time I was staying with said uncle in Boston. The night before my first day visiting the sights of Boston, he gave me a laminated card of some saint connected with the Knights of Malta and told me it would protect me in the big city of Boston. I responded with a chuckle and a good natured "Yeah, right," until I noticed that my uncle was deadly serious and he wasn't having a joke. To me, such things are (and were) superstitious nonsense. Not to him, it seems.

The third uncle is the one who set up shop as a peasant farmer after retiring as a university history professor. While his Roman Catholicism isn't as superstitious as his older brother's (I don't think an historian can maintain much faith in the mumbo-jumbo of Catholicism), he nonetheless can be rather obnoxious about it. He also is somewhat obnoxious in treating any guests as potential labourers on his farm. "Here, why don't you get up at 6AM and do [something agricultural] to my strawberry plants. You could probably do two rows before you have to leave for your ferry."

The fourth and youngest uncle is the Roman Catholic priest. Nearly ten years ago, my mother and I spent the night with him at his parish in Kingston, Ont. While we had breakfast with him, I don't think we exchanged more than a few sentences in a row with him as he was always getting up to deal with something, usually quite trivial.

All in all, my blood uncles are not people I would travel great distances for. On the other hand, of my uncles-in-law (i.e. the husbands of my parents' sisters) are mostly good eggs. My uncle Chris is your quintessential absent-minded scientist type: a brilliant, warm if somewhat introverted and slightly distracted human being. According to my aunt Margo, I thought he was a good guy even before she married him. That was in 1981 and they are still married. My criteria back then was he was fun to play Lego with. He is largely the same person I saw all those years ago, though my expression of my regard for him has changed. A good human being, but not one you should ask to speak a language other than English. ;-)

An interesting contrast with Chris is my uncle John (my father's side) who I like to think of as a fussy little English gentleman. (Chris is also English but from a very different background.) What makes this odd is he is married to a large, boisterous (and possibly mad, but in a good way) Canadian woman (i.e. my aunt Izzy). I don't quite understand how their marriage works, but the fact is that the two of them are still very obviously in love after 40 odd years.

The other two uncles-in-law, I have less to say about. One is a rather remarkable South African (of East Indian descent) academic, currently teaching somewhere in the U.S., possibly Syracuse, N.Y.. The other is rather unremarkable Québécois academic. (I have a friend who had him as a professor. He said my uncle was a rather boring teacher.)

Anyway, the tricky thing is how does one dance around the character flaws of one's relatives when writing such things? I don't have much of an answer and this whole post doesn't say much about biking to Newfoundland. Except for the mention of the Tour de Île, which played a role in getting me biking in a serious way.

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