For me, that person is my Big Uncle Joe. Joe was my father’s best friend from when they were both little boys. And that made him my ‘uncle’ from the day I was born. I started calling him “Big Uncle Joe” when I learned to talk, and the name stuck. The funny thing is Big Uncle Joe is not a big man at all. But he’s always come up big. With an oversized personality, he radiated warmth, and he always had a big smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. So the word ‘big’ truly fit him. Still does.
He always came for Christmas with a date that looked like That Girl or Twiggy.
Big Uncle Joe was the quintessential Cool Uncle in the ’60s and early 70s. He showed up at my folks’ in bell bottoms and turtle-neck sweaters at Christmas. He sported a Mike Brady curly haircut when half my uncles were still putting Brylcreem in their hair. And he always came for Christmas with a date that looked like That Girl or Twiggy. They all knew the latest music and would listen to my records with me in my room sometimes! The Beatles. The Monkeys. Crystal Blue Persuasion. The Fifth Dimension. No Sinatra!
It was so much fun, I didn’t even mind being introduced to these girls as “Little Lenny.”
All the kids wanted Skittle Bowl for Christmas in 1970, myself included. It was just so cool. You set up wooden pins on a triangular platform in the middle of a big brown tray, and you swung a ball at them that was connected to chain connected to a tall, tall pole at the edge of the tray. What a crashing sound it made when you connected: Smash! It was great. It was the next best thing to having a bowling alley in your home. See for yourself.
But Santa didn’t bring me Skittle Bowl for Christmas. He brought me Skittle Pool. And although it was every bit as much fun as Agent 86, Maxwell Smart, promised in its commercial, it just wasn’t Skittle Bowl.
Big Uncle Joe showed up late in 1970, way after Christmas dinner, weighted down with wrapped boxes for my brother, sister and me. Mine was really big. I mean huge. When I tore it open…there it was. Skittle Bowl. SKITTLE BOWL!! How did he know? I was over-the-moon happy. It was even more fun and noisy than it looked in the commercial. My Dad and I played against Joe and his date until really late, like 11 o’clock, and Mom never said a word. Not surprising: who was gonna’ go to go to bed with Big Uncle Joe still in the house?
Big Uncle Joe never stopped coming up big at Christmas. When I hit my teens, he gave me headphones for my stereo. (Ok, maybe that was really a gift for my folks). When I was a senior in high school, he gave me the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on 8-track. It hadn’t even been out two weeks. Not many guys had it in their car, because the record stores kept selling out. But I did. So all the girls drove with me! Do you think Joe knew that would happen?
When I was about 21, and no one called me Little Lenny anymore, I asked Big Uncle Joe, just Joe by then, if my Mom had put him up to the Skittle Bowl purchase.
“All I ever did was watch the commercials,” he answered. “I knew what you kids would want. But I did call your Mom to see if she already bought it.”
Time passed. Joe got married and had a family of his own. Many years later, so did I. In between, my Dad passed away. He missed my wedding and my son Lenny’s christening and I missed him more than I am able to express. But Joe and his wife came, and I seated them at the family table, next to my Mom, both times.
Eventually, I bought a nice house for my family in Garden City. New construction. All the design features my wife, Larysa, and I wanted. The kinds of things my Dad and brother and I talked about building ourselves, but never got to because Dad passed away before either of us bought a house.
My Mom had been to the new house many, many times, but never once said what I needed to hear. Maybe she just couldn’t.
Joe hadn’t been around for Christmas in a while.
Our first Christmas in the new house, Joe came over on Boxing Day. He came alone because his wife was sick, and his daughters were grown. I was genuinely excited: Joe hadn’t been around for Christmas in a while. I wanted it to be like the old days. So Larysa made a lasagna and we decanted an old-school Chianti. When the bell rang, my son and I both ran for the door. Some habits die hard.
I delighted in introducing Joe to my son Lenny as “Big Uncle Joe.” Of course, Joe brought a toy for him, and the kid was over-the-moon happy.
Before we ate, I gave Joe the Cook’s tour of the house, basement to bedrooms. When we got back to the kitchen, I started fixing us each a drink at the center island. He stopped me, and put his hands on the sides of my shoulders.
“This is really a lovely home you have here, Len,” he said. “Your Dad would be so proud.”
It was exactly what I wanted to hear. I had needed to hear that for months. I was fighting back tears: Big Lenny’s don’t cry.
“I knew him better than anyone but your Mom. He woulda’ loved this place.”
“Thanks, Joe. That’s so, so good to know.” I tried to collect myself. That wasn’t going well.
“Guys,” Larysa interrupted, helpfully. “We’re eating in 15 minutes.”
“Ok,” Joe said. “Where’s Little Lenny?”
“I’m in here, Big Uncle Joe” my son shouted from next to the Christmas tree. He was playing with the toy Joe brought: that year’s hottest Lego. Joe went in and knelt down on the rug next to him, and they looked over the directions. After dinner, Big Uncle Joe, Little Lenny and me built it together, for hours.
Merry Christmas, everyone. Remember… you can be someone’s ‘Big’ Uncle (or Aunt Big Uncle Joe). You just have to know what they want. Or need.