This week, my nephews arrive from overseas. I will greet them with presents. I will whisk them to the new Harry Potter movie. I will take them shopping for books and will ask, as we ride in the car, if they want to stop for ice cream. The world will be theirs, if I have anything to do with it.
During our visit, I will be all over them. I will rub their hair, lift them up, and promise they are "my two favorite nephews." There are, of course, only two of them. I will throw them a football and lean on a pinball machine as they put their small hands over the flippers. I will be playing a role, one that I love, and one I realize has been overlooked in the rush to celebrate mothers, fathers and babies.
Moms and Pops are essential, we know. But when you're talking influence without interference, fun without friction, guidance without guilt, love without lecture, there is only one word. Say uncle. Uncles, that overlooked species the brothers of the mothers and fathers are blessed and cursed by their short distance from parenthood.
First, the blessings. A father must discipline all the time. An uncle can choose his spots. An uncle can spoil his nieces and nephews with love, food, gifts, sports and seemingly endless fun time, without ever worrying that the child will become... well, spoiled.
"That's enough," my sister will warn, eyeing the second piece of candy I slip my nephew. When she looks away, I wink. The kid loves me. I am his hero. This is the magic an uncle commands. Kids need heroes. Mom and Dad should fill that role, and maybe years later, the child will appreciate them that way. But never during youth. During youth, heroes are outside the Mom and Dad realm. Sports stars and rock singers? They're fine, but they never appear in the flesh. An uncle, on the other hand, can be mysterious, strong, independent, cool and he actually comes to visit!
And when he visits, he doesn't have to go to work, or do the bills, or clean the garage. So what does he do? He plays. He clowns around. He sits next to you as you watch football. I think back on the uncles in my life. One taught me to play the piano, just like he did. Another told me stories from World War II, and about the time when, as a New York cab driver, he thwarted a robbery by grabbing the assailant's knife with his bare hand.
I believed in my uncles. They were men who took the time for me. I adored them in return.
Now the curse. Time is short. The visits end. My nephews, who live in Italy, will soon return home. The gap, momentarily closed, will widen again. Uncles know this. And something else, something only uncles without children can appreciate. There will be a moment when the little ones get tired, or cranky, or scared, when intuition will take over and they will call out "Daddy!" and crawl into his arms. And at that moment, the uncle is reminded that close is only close, and that hero status is not fatherhood.
It's a moment that you smile through because you are supposed to, despite an aching in your heart. That moment is coming. I know it. But so are the fun ones. I think back to my own past, when I was the nephew, and I realize this year, I have no uncles left. They have all passed away. Empty chairs at the table.
The world has shifted. The role is now mine. There are gifts to buy, movies to see, junk food to ingest, and a hero's cape to don. I am wearing the uncle shoes now, and they are big shoes to fill.
Mitch Albom is the author of the bestseller "Tuesdays With Morrie."
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