Nephews, Nieces and a Single Uncle

When he was around age 10, my great nephew Jeremy suddenly looked at me and asked, "Are you a daddy, Uncle Stanley?"

Umph! Quick reply needed. "No, I'm an uncle."

"And a good one," Marcia, my niece and Jeremy's mother, kindly chimed in.

Neither Jeremy nor his younger brother Miles nor his cousin Becki has ever after needed to question whether my place in the world is as a daddy. It's an uncle, certified in some quarters as good. A good single uncle.

Single uncles walk an undefined line in a family. Being accepted as a bachelor (in most cases without children) is the start, but then, if he cares, comes the role the uncle carves in the family geography. Distant, close, midway between the two? In the case of Jeremy and Miles, who grew up next door in Brooklyn, from the earliest times I pushed for a hug every time we met. "I'm your uncle!" I've declared, as if that were an unexpired ticket to belonging. Being well-bred, both nephews acquiesced, and years later they continue to come with the hug, me hoping that it's no embarrassment to them who are now young adults. (I see Becki less often, since she lives in a Boston suburb, but the expectation is the same.)

Those hugs make me happy and mean more than having "uncle" hung in front of my name. Oddly enough, great nephew Jeremy has decided to omit "uncle" in front of Stanley, even though Marcia, his mother and Elissa, his aunt, one generation older, keep it going. When Marcia and Elissa were in college, I wasn't surprised to find one or another of their pals spread out on my living room floor they'd used for a bed overnight. Their pals also began to call me "uncle" to the point that not a small coterie of kids knew me as Uncle Stanley. (And still do.)

Back then, one might have wanted to decorate the uncle title with "gay," a gay uncle, but that is by now a not-very-interesting item. Especially when two sets of their parents are close friends with two gay married couples.

When Elissa and Marcia graduated and graduated once more, then got married (mercifully only once), I was part of their ceremonies. When Jeremy and Miles and then Becki (soon to finish high school) were Bar and Bas Mitzvahs, I was there too.

Those relationships with younger generations for me are not unusually smoother than with adults. Helping is that as an uncle (and teacher) my duties with kids mostly terminate after dark when they retreat to their homes. Jeremy and Miles, in college or just beyond, manage New York subways and now come for lunch in my neighborhood in Manhattan. (They do go home afterward.) This makes me think, rightly or not, that my place in the family as uncle, or great uncle, becomes even more solid as I age.

What is certain is that I now treat them almost as peers, and I've let Jeremy and Miles know that I may look to them for support (no kidding) as I get older. They've nodded approval. I hope I won't have that need, but it's coming around the corner.

The headline uncle in my family was Uncle Morris, who died in 2012 at age 103. I've written about him so much that I feel I owed him royalties. I doubt any of the younger generation will write about me, but you can't be sure since I see them taking mental notes around my apartment. I wonder if they'd include the world "uncle."

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Stanley Ely writes at length about a single man's part in a family in his new book, "Life Up Close, a Memoir," in paperback and ebook.