I’m almost 50, and it wasn’t until about a year ago that I realized something very important: I have a role model. I have someone I’ve been emulating for, I don’t know, maybe about 35 years. As I look back on most of my 49+ years, it should have been obvious all along. And I didn’t even realize who my role model was until one day when I was really annoying my little niece a whole bunch. She was crying, but she wasn’t really crying. She was just pretending to be upset when really she was enjoying the attention she was getting. That’s when I realized that everyone should have an Uncle Mike.
Almost every summer of my childhood involved at least a week at the shore not just with my immediate family but with aunts, uncles, and cousins too. The towns we visited ranged from Manasquan to Point, Pleasant to Long Beach Island. The location wasn’t nearly as important as those present. Although many years have blended together in my recollections, I’m pretty sure that each summer vacation involved my mother’s sister Adele and her children, my cousins, Steven, Joann, and Richie. I can also remember, and I’ve seen pictures to back it up, my favorite uncle and aunt, Mike and Catherine.
One uncle, my Uncle Mike, was probably the greatest role model I’ve ever had, and for that statement, I probably owe an apology to my father. In all my childhood years, there has not been a more distinct thought other than this: “when I grow up, I want to be like my Uncle Mike.” Not any other uncle or relative, just Uncle Mike. I probably leave my father second or third only because of how much we fought in my teenage years. It might not have been his fault that I was so rebellious, but he was supposed to be the adult who knew better and knew how to diffuse the situation. Maybe.
I have about half a dozen nieces and nephews. Any time I’m around them, I’ve got one thought: WWUMD? What would Uncle Mike do? He would make us laugh. He would tease us, bother us, make fun of us, but first and foremost – he would make us feel important. While the rest of the family was playing cards, Uncle Mike was with us: the kids. He was singing, playing a harmonica, leading us in a conga line around whichever property we had rented that summer, and making us feel like we mattered.
As years went on, we still went to the shore, and we still spent the most important times ever with cousins, aunts, uncles, and family. Uncle Mike wasn’t actually there when we had spitball fights in the burger place at the shore, but his spirit was there. He wasn’t around when I tied a $5 bill to a fishing line and lured tourists to chase it across the boardwalk, but he could have been an influence. He wasn’t watching the summer Marx Brothers festival with us, but he would have loved it. Side note: this sounds like he’s dead, but he’s very much alive. I’ll see him in about two months at my brother’s wedding. Maybe he will have seen this by then. Not sure.
I will never let a summer pass without spending time doing exactly what Uncle Mike would do. If it means pitching wiffle balls to a nephew on the beach, I’m there. If it means taking a niece in the ocean to boogie board, hey, whatever she wants. It might means just collecting shells or chasing someone with a crab claw found on the beach. It really is about extending what I would call “history.” My history. My family history. There are things that have happened, that might never happen again, that – in my perception – are beyond urgent and will simply die out, unless someone like me does something about it.
But what if I’m wrong? What if these things will just be roadside teddy bears that are left when a sad accident takes the life of an undeserving child? What if these things will just be soaked by the next rain, splashed by cars on the way to something indiscriminate to anyone else? What if time goes on and nobody remembers any of it?
I guess, for now, that’s my job: to remember it. Cousins, brothers, and sisters: to remember them. Aunts and uncles: to remember them. And maybe, through all that, someone will also remember me. And maybe, if I’m lucky, they’ll compare me to Uncle Mike. He’s also the reason my blog is called “Brainsnorts.” Back in elementary school, my sister had a teacher named Mrs. Brenznowitz. Something like that. It was around the beginning of school, and he asked my sister who her new teachers were. When she said, “Mrs. Brenznowitz,” he said, “Mrs. Brainsnorts? What kind of name is Brainsnorts?” I guess that word just stuck with me for about 45 years.
Did I mention he’s a huge Yankees and Jets fan?