We Are All Related
by Jude Joseph Lovell
Recently I have been thinking about a role I am privileged to play in this life, one I share with billions of others. Yet it never seems to get much attention.
It came to mind because someone beloved to me who fills a similar role in my own life is about to turn eighty. I step in and out of this role myself almost daily, thanks to cell phones and social media. I’m referring to being an aunt, or in my case, an uncle. Why don’t we hear more about this unique job?
Is it just too commonplace to be discussed? Is it an honor bestowed too easily—one you fall into without doing a thing—and therefore not worth consideration? Is it of minimal consequence, almost irrelevant, in the long view?
In my experience both as a nephew and as an uncle—and in my reflections on this role we play if we are lucky enough—the answer to all three questions is a hard no. But the whole subject still flies under the radar. I wonder why.
Because I can set down here, with the certainty that in my life is reserved for very few things, that having aunts and uncles, and being an uncle myself has had a profound impact on everything I know and everything I am. I will take only a little time to look at it from both sides.
I’m fortunate to have numerous aunts and uncles. It’s the happy consequence of being the son of two parents from big families. Most of the experiences I draw from as a nephew comes from my mother’s side of the tree. She is from a large Irish-Catholic family, the third of nine children. My father was one of seven. By the time I came around, I had well over twenty aunts and uncles, including their spouses, and a few more joined later. It always felt like a bounty to me.
My father’s side of the family, unfortunately, had much less influence on me growing up. His lineage was German and English. His immediate family was nowhere near as close as my mother’s clan. They endured some tragic events: The Great Depression, one son’s death in infancy, another daughter I don’t remember ever meeting becoming afflicted with mental illness and marrying an abuser.
But my father did have a loving relationship with his big sister, whom he greatly admired. She and her husband were both writers. While we did not see much of them, they were always encouraging and welcoming. Both had brilliant minds and warm, wise hearts. They are both gone now, too.
My mother’s eight siblings, along with seven spouses, have all been sources of love to me throughout my life. It is hard to capture how indispensable that always felt to me, instinctively. But when I became an uncle myself, in 1997, its true meaning came into sharper focus. More on that in a moment.
The best way I can think of to express how I have been treated by these incredible adults is to evoke the story of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke. So far as I know, I never took a portion of my father’s fortune as a youngster and squandered it. Yet whenever I showed up somewhere my uncles and aunts were, to a man and woman they treated me the way the father in that parable does when his wayward son comes home.
They celebrated it. They all but slew the fatted calf. Seeing you was an event!
But readers, I am merely one of six in my family alone. And there are thirty-four of my generation on my mother’s side. Yet my aunts and uncles, as long and as far back as I can remember, treated all of us the same way. They have different personalities, different ways of communicating, but I never felt that my presence around any of them was anything but entirely welcome.
They’d laugh. They’d cry. They’d hug you. They’d smile. And today, though some of them are now gone, they still treat us the same way—and twice that again with our many children.
I feel as though I have under-appreciated this blessing at certain times in my life. But I know what to do about that. Which is, to use that cliche: Pay it forward.
This brings me to my own nieces and nephews. I have sixteen between my wife’s family and mine. Being their uncle, I can say with no equivocation, is one of the unmitigated joys of my existence. As far as I can tell, there is no downside. I don’t have to do the hard stuff with them (that’s for my own kids). All I need to do is be in the mix.
That means I get to goof around, text, play, buy presents, send money (if I can locate any), hug them when I can, and congratulate them on their inexhaustible list of achievements. It isn’t hard. They’re all beautiful, wonderful, amazing young humans.
It strikes me that in my life, I can’t think of many roles I’ve tried to play that I felt fully prepared for. Maybe that is true for all of us. Was I prepared to exist? Be an identical twin? Be a husband or father? Be a soldier when I was younger? Be a writer? Be a professional?
And yet I will remember forever the summer day in 1996, a quarter century ago, when I first learned that I was to be an uncle. My whole immediate family was present (along with my late grandmother). This was one of the brightest days of my life. But I felt something else that day too.
I understood inherently: I can’t do a lot yet—I’m only 25—but this job, I’m ready to take on. If I had to boil my role down to just one word, I knew that day and I know it now, it’s this: encouragement. And that, Jude Lovell can do. It’s been modeled for him his entire life.
One of my uncles, whom we lost in 2019 and whom I loved and admired, had a catch phrase he used increasingly as he grew older and faced a long battle with terminal illness. It is as simple as it is profound. It’s the whole key not only to being an aunt or uncle, but being a compassionate human being, too. The phrase is: We are all related.
Yes, we are.
Photo credit by Jude Joseph Lovell.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.