Amy Choate-Nielsen: Uncle's antics instilled compassion for grandchildren

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 12 2013 4:58 p.m. MST

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My dad has only one sibling: his older brother, William.

But to me, of course, he is my Uncle Bill.

He is seven years older than my father, but I think he is my dad's spitting image. The cloudy color in his eyes is just like my dad's. The wrinkles around his eyes, the furrowed line between his eyebrows and the round tip at the end of his nose — they're all just like my father's. When they talk to each other on the phone, they holler. When they smile, their eyes twinkle. And they're both always up for a yarn.

When I want to know more about my grandmother, Fleeta, who died before I was born, I call him.

He told me about that time he called out in a church meeting. He told me his parents put a harness on him until he was almost 4 years old to keep him safe in public, and he told me he once took his father's straight razor and attempted to shave his face — luckily with the wrong edge.

Recently he told me of a time his mother gave him an orange when he was little and his family was renting an upstairs apartment. My uncle ate the orange, dropping pieces of the peel down the stairway as he ate, until the landlady came and was shocked to see what a horrible mess he'd made. He never did that again, he says.

With each story, he recalls his mother's good-natured response, her humor and her love. He had such a bond with his mother that, to this day, he still can't stand the stories of "Bambi" or "Dumbo" because of how the mother characters are treated.

That is to say, my uncle is a sweet, sensitive man. And even when he goofed up as a kid, it was never with malice.

Now, he and my aunt have 10 children and 49 grandchildren. Among the group, a few of their grandchildren have special issues, including autism and Down syndrome. Most of my cousins live close to one another in Oklahoma, so they get together frequently, and the crowd can sometimes be chaotic, I gather.

But my uncle isn't fazed.

"I tell my children that none of my grandchildren ever did anything like what I did as a child," he told me on the phone recently. "That makes me hopeful for them. I feel like I’m more merciful to them because I set myself up as a standard."

My uncle says he's always felt responsible for how his mother felt that long ago Sunday, when he stood on a church bench. But when his grandchildren today make disturbances — and they do — my uncle is ready to see the bigger picture rather than embarrass his children further.

"The way I see it is, I'm glad they can use their voice, because that's the first step to being able to speak," he says about his more boisterous grandchildren.

Here, in the conversation with me, my uncle goes on to talk about the relationship between talking and reading and the importance of reading, but my mind is stuck on what he has just said.

As a parent, I put plenty of pressure on myself already on behalf of my children. I worry about my parenting skills. When I'm tough, I worry about my children feeling loved. When I am soft, I worry that I should have been tough. I worry how they will grow up. I worry how others will treat them. I am constantly scrutinizing and evaluating and worrying all on my own, never mind the pressure from the rest of society.

But when I think of my uncle's attitude, I just feel sympathy. Understanding. Encouragement. Relief.

Recently, I was in church, debating what would be less disruptive to the congregation — stay in the pew with my noisy toddler, or carry him out to the hallway against his will while he hollers, "Noooooo! I don't WANT a time out!!! You can't make me!!!"

I opted for the latter, but next time, I might instead take a moment to let my uncle's words for his children's children sink in: "I tell them they should be grateful they can make any sound at all."

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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