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Unk Was a Friday Night

Anticipation bubbled all day long on a Friday, reaching its boiling point right about 5pm. Unk would soon be home! By this point in the late afternoon, I had made it through another day of school: perhaps third, fourth, or fifth grade, and I had walked up the street a very short way from the dark brown colonial house where my parents, siblings and I lived, to my aunt and uncle’s light gray house with blue shutters at the end of our small town street. It is significant to note that my dad’s sister married my mother’s brother. This means that this aunt and uncle were, in a way, doubly my aunt and uncle. And that coupled with their proximity to our house meant that we all shared a closeness rare in today’s spread apart families. In reality, proximity mattered, and the fact that brother and sister married brother and sister, but what most accounted for my closeness with my “T” and “Unk” was the way they treated me like a second daughter. They truly were my second set of parents growing up.

“T” is what I called (and still call) my Aunt Joan as a child when I couldn’t pronounce “auntie.” She became simply and affectionately, “T.” I actually do not know the etymology of Uncle David’s nickname, “Unk.” I don’t know if I coined it or if someone else in the family did, perhaps someone long before I came along. After all, he had been my sibling’s uncle for eleven and thirteen years, respectively, before I made my entrance into the world. I was very much the “baby” of the family. I called him “Unky” most often, sometimes getting shortened to “Unk.” Over the years, it developed other permutations and embellishments such as “Unkus” and even, “Unkus Rex,” for the king he was.

No matter what T and Unk’s plans were for me on a Friday night, I fizzed with expectation for the fun that lay ahead. T and Unk meant “fun,” pure and simple. Usually that fun was nothing extravagant. In the winter, a Friday night often meant working on a puzzle on the card table upstairs in what was once my Cousin Andrea’s bedroom, then repurposed as a workout room turned puzzle room turned painting studio. Most of the time it was Unk and me at the puzzle table, both sipping his favorite Mountain Dew. Although my mother disapproved of Mountain Dew for its high sugar and caffeine content and its lurid green, she mostly chuckled about her brother’s devotion to it and turned a blind eye to my weekly dose of Dew with Unk.

While always frugal and never rich, there were many things T and Unk abounded in: interests, enthusiasm, thankfulness, upbeat attitudes, and most of all, energy. Oh, did they have energy! They could “run me ragged,” as my mom might say, traipsing me through the streets of Boston until late into an evening or adding lots of extra little side adventures and stops to an already full day up in the White Mountains: a last minute stop for an ice cream, a swing in to walk the trail to see “The Flume,” an unplanned dip in the Saco River before heading back to our family’s camp for the evening, but not before a quick trip into a grocery store to pick up salsa and nachos to enjoy over the evening’s game of Scrabble. They kept me “on the go” and making memories. No experience was particularly expensive, but all emphasized simple enjoyment, gratitude, and togetherness.

Time with T and Unk also meant exposure to a love of nature and of the arts. Both of them had artistic talent in spades. Unk was a self-taught photographer and painter. He made his living as a photographer, but his most beloved hobby was painting the photo-worthy sites he visited with my aunt, with extended family or friends, or on a solo hiking trip. His was the keen eye of a painter: observant, appreciative. He would drive through the White Mountains, Willie Nelson or John Denver playing, and comment on every exquisite vista. Often a discovery of a view meant a stop for a photograph, a photograph that might later become a painting. All the hiking I did as a kid, I did with T and Unk. Most of the trails I walked, the rivers and lakes I swam in and often even the beaches where I rode the waves, I experienced with them. I could have been strictly an “indoor kind of girl,” due to my introversion and disinterest in sports, but T and Unk kept me returning to the outdoors, noticing the smell of wet autumn leaves under hiking boots, the quieting effect of pine needles across a mountain pathway and conscious of the air in my lungs forcefully expressed by a dip in the stunningly cold Lovell River. So many of these moments Unk preserved on camera. The three of us hang in black and white, smiling in our hiking gear, on the walls of the family camp. My hair is permed and poofy, and I’m wearing goofy earrings. I am in the seventh or eighth grade: what can I say? But we are happy. And the beautiful views discovered on Unk’s journeys hang in oil paint nearby, preserved forever by his skillful hand.

Unk also got me moving in nature. An avid long-distance runner, he ran both the Boston Marathon and the Mount Washington Road Race numerous times, along with many other races. He taught me to love running and passed down many long-distance runner’s tricks. I used to wonder why anyone would consider the Mount Washington Road Race their favorite when it is uphill all the way, but that’s just what Unk did. I guess it’s because it merged two of his very favorite things: mountains and running. It was the perfect blend for him. When asked where in the world he was happiest, he said without hesitation, “on top of a mountain.”

As much as my aunt and uncle relished being active in the outdoors, they were equally keen on indoor pursuits: art museums, bookstores, plays and musicals, and reading, especially reading. They shared their love of each of these with me and with others liberally and in such a way that my love for all these things is core to who I am as an adult. What would have happened if I had not been brought to so many museums and plays? What if they hadn’t shared so many classics with me and continually talked about books, books, and more books? Would I be the person I am today?

It is near to impossible to draw out just one or two most significant and meaningful moments with Unk, who passed away last August, but the following certainly are two core memories. I painted Mt. Chocorua with his help when I was in third grade. Unk wanted me to try my hand at painting and taught me to use oil paint. He explained and had me practice many of his techniques as I took a scene of Mount Chocorua in a photograph and rendered it on canvas, much like he often did. Chocorua was a favorite subject for him. I don’t remember how many painting sessions it took me. I still have the painting, and the final product is far from spectacular, but I profoundly cherish my remembrance of his steady presence beside me, sharing his knowledge as he so often did, gently guiding me in his favorite art form.

The other chief memory is actually a series of memories: of each time he told and retold the story of how he came to love reading. Uncle David grew up in a household where reading wasn’t a priority. His dad was a heavy drinker, a rather rough-living former Naval Seabee who loved to hunt. He had a soft side (he liked to knit), and he did actually pen a poem about his self-built hunting lodge (now our family “camp”) in the White Mountains, but from my understanding, neither he nor my grandmother were big readers. What’s more, Unk tended to be a young boy of action and mischief. Always in motion. He just couldn’t get into reading. But then there was that teacher. I don’t remember her name. I believe she entered his life around the sixth grade. She saw him as a reader and handed him a Hardy Boys book, urging him, “I think you’ll like this.” And from then on, he read all the Hardy Boys books he could get his hands on and realized, “I actually love reading. I just need to find the right books!” He spent his remaining seventy-six years finding just the right books over and over again and sharing his love for them with anyone who would listen. As a school librarian who works with middle school students, I can’t think of a more inspirational testimony to the power a loving adult can have in a child’s life when it comes to developing a love of reading. I tell all of my students every year that I firmly believe that “everyone is a reader. Some just haven’t found the right books yet.” I didn’t make this up. I’ve read this sentiment many places, but I think my very first encounter with this notion came from Unk’s relaying of his middle school experience in a Madbury, NH classroom. I think of it at least a couple of times a month as I work to spark a love for reading in my students. Not only was it a seminal memory for him; it has become, albeit secondhand, a cherished, seminal memory for me.

How did Unk manage to be both the embodiment of a Friday night: light-hearted, free, and hopeful while also a transformative figure who championed the arts and learning and reading, along with fitness and running and a love for the outdoors? It’s no wonder he needed a special pet name beyond “Uncle David.” He was no ordinary uncle. He was an extraordinary person, and “Unk” was a force larger than life in all the best possible ways. Everyone who knew him knows this, experienced this. I think we all realize how much vaster, richer, more joyful, our lives were made by knowing this over six foot tall beacon of enthusiasm and goodwill. When Friday night rolls around each week, some part of me is still registering the anticipation and pleasure of an evening that feels like getting away with something, like “playing hooky,” as Unk would say. It feels subversively liberating and promising, like it’s almost too good to be true. And yet it is. That was Unk for me. Perpetually a Friday night.

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