“Uncle-Dad”

I was scared of my father’s side for most of my childhood. Ever since the gun incident. Even though he wasn’t alive anymore, I still avoided anything and everything to do with my dad. Like when my older brother got a summer job as a “Carnie,” I didn’t ride the ferris wheel, even though it was my favorite because it was too close to the ride he was working. Or if I spotted one of my sisters in the Rite-Aid, I would put down whatever I had intended to buy and duck into whatever aisle was closest until I could sneak out. One time the store manager confused me for a greeting card thief when I was in stealth mode and banned me from the store for a year. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if it wasn’t one of 2 stores in the whole town. Anyway, at least my sisters didn’t see me.

I hadn’t spoken to my siblings since I stopped going to our dad’s, but I knew they would still recognize me. Everywhere I went, people would take one look at my matching dark hair and eyes and say, “You must be a Gamet! I bet I know who your daddy is!” The truth is, and I never confessed this before, I was equal parts ashamed and comforted when people said this. It is true that I was terrified of being associated with my father’s side, but it is also true that I still loved him, and them.

I wasn’t just scared about the gun either. It was also about AIDS. I was still trying to keep my mom’s status a secret and that was much harder to do if people knew my dad. It was still a secret that he died from AIDS, because his wife was still living here in this small town with her own HIV status and of course there was still the matter of all of us kids. None of us were positive, but the town didn’t know that, and they would punish us the same as they would punish our parents if they knew. Still, there are always whispers in a small town and I knew that at least some people knew how my 36 year old father died.

My father’s people had been living in this region for many generations. In fact, some of our ancestors are Indigenous so yeah, some of our people lived here forever. You couldn’t take two steps in any direction without running into one of my relatives. I had to do a lot of fancy footwork to stay under everyone’s radar. It helped that all of my siblings were so much older than me. There was one relative though that always surprised me. I couldn’t dodge him no matter how hard I tried and eventually I quit trying. My brothers and sisters, who grew up with him in a way that I did not, call him “Uncle-Dad.” I call him this in my heart but I have never said it out loud.

To me, he was “Uncle Don” and he was my father’s best friend and brother. My dad had a lot of brothers, but I never took much notice of the other ones and they never seemed to notice me either. But Uncle Don kept tabs on all of “his kids.” He took in all of the stray kids in our family who had lost our parents to drugs, to incarceration, to AIDS and to death. Most of us were biologically related to him at least, but I know he watched out for kids who weren’t even blood.

The people that I respected most in my life were women. They were the ones who were doing all of the loving and hard work of caring in my community. I saw men as a source of violence and pain. But, my Uncle Don was this amazing exception. Now, I know he is a real person and not some fictional character. I know he has flaws like the rest of us, but at that time in my life, I thought he was a superhero. After my step-dad died, mom and I didn’t have a man to fix the little things that would break. I know that’s unnecessarily gendered and mom and I could have rolled up our sleeves and learned how to figure things out like broken heaters and mice in the walls, but we didn’t and we didn’t even know we could. We would just sit in the freezing cold waiting for the landlord who would never fix anything until my Uncle Don would suddenly appear and just like that we would be warm again and the mice would be gone.

I remember one time, this time of year actually, that’s probably why it popped into my mind. It was snowing just a few days before Christmas. Mom and I were feeling low. We didn’t have any presents and we didn’t have any food and we were flip flopping back and forth between grief and rage about that. All directed at each other. We had been fighting all morning and the snow just kept coming and coming. neither of us cared because we had nowhere to go anyway. Our car was already buried under a foot of snow and there seemed to be no end in sight. We would eventually have gone out and brushed the snow off with our arms and took a broom handle to the top. But the sidewalk would have stayed impassable for the whole winter. I don’t think we even owned a shovel.

That’s where Hero Uncle-Dad Donnie comes into the picture. Mom and I pushed the curtain aside to find him digging us out. I hardly knew this man, and yet he loved me enough to show up in a snow storm and make sure that my mom and I could get out safely if we needed to. He would never come in to say hi or look for acknowledgment. Most of the time, he would sneak off without us even knowing he had come, but when we stumbled on his small acts of kindness, we always knew it was from him. There was no one else as generous and thoughtful.

Even though I didn’t have the same anxiety around him that I had for the rest of my dad’s side, I still was a little shy around him. I would mumble a thank you if we found ourselves face to face and try to take in as much of him as I could without looking directly at his face. He is a bald man with honey colored skin. Other than those two features, I look exactly like him.

I went home for my 26th birthday, and was able to spend some time with Uncle Don and Aunt Luann at their restaurant “Don and Lu’s.”

Uncle Don was perceptive enough to understand what I needed without me ever having to ask. He would remind me every time I saw him no matter the setting or the circumstances. “Your dad loved you so much. He loved your mama too. That was his only crime. Loving too much. He was a good man who just happened to be in love with two different women.” I couldn’t agree completely with that sentiment. Loving wasn’t the only bad thing my father ever did, but I still loved to hear him say it. I only ever heard terrible things about my father and hearing good things, especially from such a good man, really made me feel hope that my father was a good man even in part. Maybe there was more to my father and to me than I knew. Once Uncle Don planted and watered that seed in my heart, he would always leave me with this. “Your Uncle Donnie is always here for you. And your mom. You hear me?” Then he would lift my chin so that I had to make eye contact. Looking into his eyes would always make a whole lump of tears form in my throat and I would just nod while he spoke the same words he said every time. “You guys were my brother’s responsibility, so now you’re mine. We’re family and no matter what, that doesn’t change.”

I never gave my Uncle Don any indication that I was hearing him or that this meant the world to me. In fact, I never said much beyond the mandatory polite phrases in response. So, I am writing this now to tell him and to tell the whole world. Thank you to my Uncle-Dad, Uncle Donnie, for showing me the kind of person that I wanted to be in the world and for still being an inspiration for me. I haven’t seen him now in almost a decade, but here he is meeting my oldest two children the last time I made it home. I am so glad that I have these pictures so that I can give my children a face to go with my stories. I want them to know that they come from more than trauma. They come from kind and good people who despite immense pain, continue to love and give generously.

I hope to see my Uncle Don and my Aunt Luann someday soon so that they can meet my youngest and we can update these photos. ❤ ❤ ❤

6 thoughts on ““Uncle-Dad”

  1. Such a wonderful article you have written about a remarkable man. Don is truly one of a kind that I am honored to call my friend. He and Luann are both amazing and will do anything for anyone.

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  2. Crystal, you write so beautifully. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings.
    Your Uncle Donnie and Aunt Luann are very special people. I have known them my whole life. We are cousins and Donnie is my nieces Uncle.

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  3. Your Uncle Dad is an amazing man with a kind heart and morals. One of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. I’m lucky enough to be able to call him my cousin and the first time I met him he didn’t even allow it to be awkward you know he’s family and you know you’re loved when in his presence. I truly believe the works is a better place for having him in it and I know I’m a better man for having him in my life. On that note one thing I picked up from Donnie and have held on to all these years that I’ve been with my wife, though it’s a little thing these are the things that truly count in life, is that both me and my wife share the household duties except one in particular I clean the toilet, “because she’s not gonna miss”, I’m trying to instill that as well as many other things I’ve learned from this great man in my son. Thank you for writing this it’s beautiful and honest and paints a wonderfully accurate picture of the man that both yourself and I are lucky enough to call family

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