My favorite uncle passed away rather unexpectedly last night. He was my mom’s only brother, and a priest. I mention that only because I think it was our claim to fame. Even after our immediate family ceased to worship in the Catholic tradition, everyone was still quick to note that he was a priest. I’m not sure if having a “man of the cloth” in the family gave us some distinction or something.
But he was so much more than just a priest. He was fluent in several languages, and had a deep appreciation for words and culture. He gave us fascinating gifts like illustrated dictionaries and, before they were popular, CDs. I remember, as a young girl, poring over the section of his textbooks and old school books that resided on my gram’s bookshelf. One that especially fascinated me was Word Origins and Their Romantic Histories by Wilfred Funk. I know I still have that book somewhere, which I read through many times, drawn to the strange histories of many common words. His Latin and French primers were also there and I fancied myself becoming a linguist of sorts at one point.
He could cook too. No surprise there, since my gram was a chef extraordinaire. But while she was like the faithfully burning candle, he was more like the occasional fireworks that lit up the night sky. It was a big deal when he came home and cooked! I especially remember when he’d take my gram down to the Strip District (a market district of sorts in Pittsburgh), and come home and cook all this fabulous food like lobster or filet mignon (or both). He loved food, I think, in a holistic sort of way. By that I mean, he appreciated the entire experience. The shopping. The cooking. The serving (if we were in a restaurant). The dining and sharing of laughter with people he loved.
He could sing as well. Seriously, think Topol from Fiddler on the Roof (a role I’m pretty sure he played once in college . . . unfortunately a movie/musical I cannot abide and therefore will not watch). When we were kids, my gram invested in an organ for herself (gotta love people who are never too old to learn new things!) My uncle would come home from St. Vincent’s and make up these grand soap opera stories, starring Madame X. Will Madame X live to see another day? Will Rupert tell the truth? I have no idea to this day who Madame X was, but we hung on every line and hated how he left us hanging until the next episode (which would be months usually, until his next visit).
Over the past ten years, I got to know even more of this fascinating man, as I sometimes drove up to see him at the monastery, or during the few times he spent the night at our house. (He loved that we had cable and would stay up all night hopping between his favorite shows, including Law and Order). Once I spent a long weekend at the monastery on a retreat of sorts, and we enjoyed lots of walks and meals together.
And I learned that he was a deeply spiritual man. We shared a common love of Madeleine L’Engle and a few other authors. I loved picking out books to give him as gifts and later discussing them with him. And as I mourn his passing, I realize he is still with me in so many ways. In the memories we share. In our appreciation for words and their funky meanings. In our love of learning and books, and our passion for cooking. And in our love of truth and willingness to live in and not be afraid of the questions. And I think in years to come, I will still be getting to know this man I loved deeply, more deeply than I ever realized.