“He sounds like a second father,” a friend said when I told him about Uncle George.
Honestly, I didn’t need another father. I had two before I was six months old. I never met the first one (his loss) but the second treated me like the best thing that ever happened to him. What I needed was an uncle, and that’s where Uncle George came in.
Easter is a season of rebirth and my parents took that literally, adopting Christian Beaton in March of 1969 and rechristening him William McKinley, Jr. A few months later, George Reiber married my Aunt Margaret and became Uncle George. Both of us were new to the family at the same time, with new roles to play, relationships to build, and memories to create.
Fathers can be dull and responsible; Uncle George was fun and slightly dangerous. He would get my cousins and me wound up and then hand us back to our parents, always with a mischievous, gap-toothed grin. Every time I saw Uncle George in those days I did a swan dive right at him with no doubt that he would catch me, boost me up to the ceiling, and return me to the floor safely. There were three of us nephews, all competing to be hoisted on his shoulders (often two at a time) or dangled from his arms like they were monkey bars. He always obliged, ignoring my grandmother’s reprimands that “somebody was going to end up crying.” And, when my parents adopted my sister a few years later, Uncle George’s fan club added a niece.
He was in his early 30s then and in unusually good shape during an era when Madison Avenue advertised men into early graves. Uncle George had been an athlete since childhood, from high school wrestler to college boxer to Air Force Reservist and police officer. He lifeguarded on the beaches of Long Island and once killed a seven-foot shark after being “alerted by endangered bathers,” according to a clipping Aunt Margaret kept in one of her meticulously organized photo albums. As a kid I used to stare at the newspaper picture of him posing next to the vanquished monster and imagine Uncle George battling it with his bare hands. (He actually took it out with a spear gun, which is even cooler.) If only Roy Scheider had called Uncle George first, Jaws might have have turned out differently.
A lot of guys betray their athleticism as they age, but Uncle George doubled down. He jogged, water-and snow-skied, kayaked, did yoga, and practiced every martial arts discipline he could learn from a book, magazine, or videotape. Sometimes I’d peek through the door and watch him do his Taekwondo workout, yelling “Hi-YA!” as he sliced through the air at an invisible opponent. By day, he was a cop on the beat. By night, he was the Kung-Fu Master of East Rockaway, New York. The Nassau County Police Department even gave him a costume and a special car to drive as he fought the bad guys.
I don’t know what your uncle did for a living, but mine was a superhero. Still, he always found time to do stuff with us kids.
“Remember when you took the boys to see Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?” Aunt Margaret asked him recently. “I bet William remembers.”
Truth be told, my memories of that day back in 1972 are dim, but it’s a story that’s become legend. Somehow Uncle George managed to get my cousins and me – two 3-year-olds and a 7-year-old – to sit still for 90 minutes in a theater packed with kids. And nobody cried. He must have plied us with a lot of popcorn.
“That was the first and last time!” Aunt Margaret said with a laugh.
Perhaps, but Uncle George obviously did something right that day. In the years since, I’ve spent more time in movie theaters than practically anywhere else on Earth, and I’m always well-behaved and call out those who aren’t. That’s a mission accomplished in my book.
After practicing on his nephews and niece for a decade, Uncle George became a father himself. He brought that same playful spirit to his parenting, less reckless perhaps, but active and fun. Even though he was well into his 40s, he still loved to carry his son (also named George) on his shoulders.
My sister and I became our new cousin’s playmates and babysitters, spending more time than ever at Aunt Margaret and Uncle George’s house. It was a welcome refuge during my teen years, when I needed a neutral corner during battles with my mother. Uncle George would fire up the grill and cook some steaks, always followed by ice cream and maybe some popcorn. And then Aunt Margaret would listen to me complain about my overly controlling mom (her sister, by the way) while Uncle George poured a drink and watched Magnum P.I. He never admitted it, but I’m pretty sure Tom Selleck was his mustache idol.
When my sister starting having children of her own in the late ‘90s, I took all my uncling cues from Uncle George. I started going to the gym so I’d be prepared for heavy lifting and my mom scolded me for roughhousing just like Nanny had done with Uncle George. My time with the kids is always filled with joy and gratitude, even if I can’t lift them quite as high as Uncle George did me.
In recent years, he and Aunt Margaret would take my sister’s kids for weeks at a time in the summer. And after my father died, Uncle George made a point of calling me often and inviting all of us to the picnics and barbecues sponsored by his endless roster of retired cop organizations. He was always proud to show us off to his co-workers and friends, so maybe that “second father” thing wasn’t too far from the mark.
Some people look at our extended family and marvel at how close we are, like it’s good luck. In reality, keeping family close takes work, and Uncle George and Aunt Margaret did a good amount of that work across two generations . We had more gatherings at their place than anywhere else, celebrations that were always filled with kids, including their own grandchildren.
After my oldest niece’s high school graduation party this past June, Uncle George and Aunt Margaret sat on their deck, flipping through an old photo album. I noticed him leaning on a cane for the first time, but I dismissed it as part of his recovery from a recent heart valve replacement. I had been his advisor on that surgery, thanks to my own near-fatal heart valve ailment in my 20s. But he was on the mend and itching to get back to yoga, so it was a surprise when Aunt Margaret called two weeks later to tell me he had been hospitalized.
“Perfect timing,” Aunt Margaret said as I walked into Uncle George’s hospital room. “I’ll go home and take a shower and you can feed him dinner.”
Why did a guy who was recovering from heart surgery need me to feed him? I must have communicated that confusion with a grimace, because she immediately backtracked.
“I can do it if you’d rather,” Aunt Margaret said with no judgment.
I looked at Uncle George and he nodded his head as if to say, “What the hell, I’m hungry!” So I sat down next to his bed and began feeding him beef and mashed potatoes.
“Not as good as you used to make,” I said, trying to make small talk while being careful not to overload the fork.
He nodded in agreement.
“And Sarge doesn’t get to lick the cutting board,” I added, referring to the big dog he adopted when he switched to the night shift and worried about leaving Aunt Margaret alone.
Uncle George was clearly confused, suffering the after effects of what we would later learn was one or more strokes. But while his memory was impacted, he was still very much himself. So, with Aunt Margaret gone for a much-needed break, I took it upon myself to unofficially begin his rehab. I quizzed him on current events, family history, names, addresses, phone numbers. His answers to my questions were all spot on, except for one.
“What year is it?
The first time he guessed 1970, the year he married Aunt Margaret. I corrected him and asked again. “1969,” the year cousin Patrick and I came along. Again. “1980,” the year his son George was born. Then 1973, 1977, 1983, 1987. He seemed to understand intellectually that we were in the future, but his answers remained locked in the past we both remembered so fondly.
After awhile I stopped trying to correct him. By my third visit just a week later he was talking about his suitcase, a staircase, heading home to the beach. This was his truth now. For the first time in my life, Uncle George was headed to a party the rest of us weren’t going to attend, at least not yet.
The last time I visited him I kissed him on the cheek, my lips brushing against the coarse white hair of his beard. It was the first time I had kissed him since the age that little boys stop kissing their uncles. He still felt strong and invincible.
“Just do what you’re meant to do,” I said. “We’ll take care of things here.”
And then my sister and I picked up her two youngest daughters and took them to the movies, because there are new memories to make, new albums to fill. I bought the popcorn and the ice cream. That’s what uncles do.