The form had been completed for me, all I had to do was sign. My sister passed a pen across the table. According to the document, I, contact 2, consented to being called by a childcare centre in the event of a medical emergency – provided they could not first reach my sister, her partner, her midwife Karen, or God. At the form’s bottom left, a field blazed with all the possibility of a universe, was the question: “Relationship to infant?” The reply, in my sister’s spidery hand, was uncle. Therein lies the problem: I have no idea what that means.
Technically speaking, I have been an uncle for over 20 years. At 10, though, the title was primarily a schoolyard boast, to be greeted with a mix of reverence and incomprehension. “An uncle?” friends would ask, noting the incongruity during little lunch. “How does that work?” Chiefly, it didn’t: being the youngest in my family – a child myself – responsibilities were waived by default. It was like dodging the family draft! Even years later, tasked with looking after a then school-aged niece or nephew, the age gap always rendered us closer to co-conspirators than warden and charge.
The arrival of another sister’s child – her first, a boy, known locally as The Big Rig – presents an exciting opportunity to define such kinship parameters anew. (I recently explained this to him during bath time; he displayed firm in-principle agreement while chewing on a plastic fish.) But it’s hard to know where to start: there seems little in the way of defining these nebulous parents of the second degree. Does the vodka aunt stereotype imply the existence of a tequila uncle? Would it cause a stir if I turned up to Gay Uncles Day with my girlfriend?
My actual uncles make for a pretty odd blueprint: one, Big Bad Billy, would shake your hand and refuse to stop shaking it until you called him “Mr Handshake”; the other, known chiefly as Grub, has lived overseas my whole life and – probably as a result – has excellent phone etiquette. When I worked at an ice-cream sandwich factory, there was a running gag that I was a nephew of its Gen X co-owner. This mostly meant standing around blast freezers talking about the Flaming Lips. As visions of unclehood go, it’s an incomplete picture.
Lexicography is some help: the Oxford English Dictionary records some five senses of “uncle”, and the general gist is you should display kindness and benevolence; be equal parts protector and patron. But there’s also a negative stereotype of the uncle – those who are racist at holiday meals, overly handsy elsewhere. This is supported, to an extent, by data: if you look in large English corpora for adjectives appearing before the word uncle, you’ll find “crazy”, “creepy” and “drunk” hanging out alongside “rich”. Not for nothing do historical dictionaries of English slang record the noun “uncle” as a code for pawn-brokers, moneylenders and toilets.
Despite this confusion, I feel a love for this nephew that I have no prior referent, and scarce little vocabulary, for. When he eats a banana, or vomits on me, or kisses his favourite giraffe toy, something happens. It is difficult, probably impossible, to separate this love for him from the love I have for my sibling, which under Australian emotional law can never be openly expressed. It surely isn’t the love of a parent – there’s not enough fear or anxiety intermingled for that. But, I think, it gets close: luminescence to their incandescence, perhaps. It’s also, on a practical level, very stupid. My nephew won’t remember anything from the next four years of his life, so why bother attempting to communicate to him, as he tries to eat a cloth hat, that I hold him in such esteem?
Maybe it’s a problem with the term itself: the Latin etymon, avunculus, specifically denoted a mother’s brother. Ordinarily I’d argue against the etymological fallacy – just because the word decimate once meant to kill one in every 10 doesn’t mean more general senses can’t be used – but I think those Romans could be on to something in emphasising the sibling relationship.
A funny fact: since her child was born, this sister and I have spoken almost every day, seen each other every week. It’s a level of contact heretofore unheard of; our teenage selves would die of embarrassment if they knew. She sends me photos of The Big Rig and in return I bore her to death speculating about his approach to consonants. (His delight when he discovered fricatives!) Perhaps this – the mundanity, the gradual back and forth, the steady tracking of milestones and regressions with a loved one, the showing up – is what it really means to be an uncle?
Back on earth, I picked up the pen and signed the childcare form.
• Tiger Webb looks after the ABC’s style guide and pronunciation database. Yes, that’s his real name
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