News & Politics

First Person: My Uncle and Me

He’s always been there for us—singing songs, jumping waves, listening. How do you thank someone like that?

The author’s uncle, Pat McCaffrey, is a priest, so his name in the family is Father Pat. When she was little, she says, “I didn’t want to share him with anyone.” Photograph by Matthew Worden

We’d just had dinner at my sister’s house, and the door was closing over and over as members of our large brood found their way out. When I heard the last slam, I knew who was leaving. I ran to the door, fearing I might miss the chance to tell my uncle goodbye.

I opened the door and called after him, “I love you!” He turned, smiled, and said softly, “Thank you.”

As I watched him walk to his car, I had one of those moments when time stops. In that moment, you’re given the gift of memorizing time instead of letting it go by.

I went into the kitchen, where my sister was finishing up the dishes, and asked if she’d ever noticed that whenever anyone said “I love you” to our uncle, he responded, “Thank you.” I told her how appropriate his answer was. The rest of us simply repeat, “I love you, too.”

I have vivid childhood memories of my uncle—my elbows pressed against the living-room windowsill while I waited for a glimpse of him. My four siblings and I would run out when his car pulled up, and he’d swing us around until we fell over with laughter and dizziness, begging him, “Swing me again!”

He didn’t hesitate to pile us all into his car for the long trip from Great Falls to New York, where our relatives lived. As we fought, he’d belt out our song, “Twiddly Winky Winky Wink,” and we’d sing along. Then we’d be back to battling it out.

We were so excited to get to New York that he could barely open the door before we were stepping over one another. Then it was off to the beach, where he jumped the waves with us—a novelty our parents didn’t try very often.

There were the simple family dinners, too—my uncle talking, laughing, and most of all listening as he blew smoke rings from his cigar while we tried to grab them. Those perfect circles brought even more wonder to him.

My uncle likes to remind me that when I was about six, I asked him if he was married. When he told me no, he says the look on my face was pure satisfaction. I knew even then that I didn’t want to share him with anyone.

Looking back, I don’t think I told him “I love you” as much as I do now. He could tell with every grin, laugh, and squeeze that I adored him.

Then I grew up and had those in-between years—the ones when you’re too old to make a fuss over those you love but too young to know time is fleeting. Then you start your own family and see life through both the eyes of a child and the soul of an adult. That’s when you want someone important to know you get it.

You want him to know that the porcelain Colleen doll he brought you from Ireland is so treasured that it sits hidden away so as not to be broken by the band of children running in and out of your house. That you realize you didn’t just have someone in your life who loved you but someone who made you feel loved.

I think back to that day at my sister’s house, to my uncle’s “thank you,” and can’t help thinking: No—thank you.