Uncle Mike

We were laughing in the snow. Tossing snowballs at each other in front of our house in Canarsie. Sliding around on the snow-covered walkway and driveway, enjoying the horseplay. The way I remember it, my brothers, Uncle Mike and maybe my cousins, Laurie and Ira were there. But, I may be remembering a photograph of us in the snow from a different time. This is clear: I felt a cold snowball smushed into my nose and mouth. Uncle Mike suddenly had me in a headlock and had a mound of snow that he was pushing into my face. I twisted and squirmed to get away. Just as suddenly he let me go. I was shocked. I didn’t know where that came from. It would be some years later, but I would come to understand.

It seems to me that a significant part of life is luck. The family you are born into, the time and place, the particular constellation of genes that you inherit are all out of your control. That isn’t to say a person can’t overcome a bad hand or those disadvantages mean a life won’t have joy and accomplishment. But some people seem to be blessed with a life of mostly sunny skies, and others not so much. Uncle Mike, my mother’s younger brother, fell into the latter category.

From the get go Uncle Mike couldn’t catch a break. He was born with a digestive problem that required that he go to the pediatrician’s office regularly for an injection. According to the story my mom told me, she would take Mike in his carriage to the doctor’s office. When he realized where they were going he would start to cry. Mom, not knowing what to do, would mislead him into thinking they were going somewhere else. She felt guilty about this and carries the weight of that to this day.

Despite the health issues, Uncle Mike grew to be a big man, around 6’3”. He struggled mightily with his weight. Obesity runs in our family and at various points Uncle Mike was morbidly obese. Some big men have a toughness about them, or are a presence in a room. That was not Uncle Mike. He was good-natured and he had a softness that wasn’t just physical. He had many friends, but was also the target of bullies. He carried the scars of low self-esteem.

Uncle Mike was 13 years younger than my mother, 13 years older than me. He lived upstairs with my grandparents while I was growing up. He graduated from high school but didn’t get a college degree. He was smart, but he didn’t pursue higher education. In contrast, each of his three siblings earned graduate degrees. For a number of years he drove a truck delivering bakery goods in the city (for the same commercial bakery where my grandfather worked). He frequently worked nights and slept during the day. I was careful not to wake him.

Uncle Mike was fastidious and had no tolerance for anyone who was ill-mannered. Chewing with your mouth open was a favorite target of a zinger. If he heard me chewing gum, he let me know about it. “What are you, Elsie?” his voice dripping with sarcasm, referring of course to the cow, followed immediately by the reminder, “Chew with your mouth closed!” Actually, it was a good lesson – perhaps it could have been delivered more kindly.

An important part of our family life was sports and Uncle Mike was no exception. He was a fan and he participated, playing football and softball with his friends. Uncle Mike was a Jets and Mets fan. My mother and her two brothers had season tickets to the Jet games at Shea Stadium. One more piece of evidence that my family was a little unusual – my father didn’t go to the games, my mother did!

My brothers and I relished watching Met games with him in his bedroom. He would have the air conditioner cranked to meat locker temperature – it felt great since the rest of the house was usually stifling. He provided funny commentary about the lovable losers. He always identified with the underdog. He hated the Yankees, which was the team I favored, though I did it quietly. He loved the movie “Rocky.”

He had a loyal group of friends who visited the house often. I grew up knowing his buddies: Alfred, Philly, Walter and Barry. I was the official scorer at their softball games. I went with Uncle Mike to Staten Island where they played and kept the scorebook for them. While I would have preferred to play, it was fun being there and I learned some colorful language, too.

During my later teen years, Uncle Mike made a concerted, successful effort to lose weight. He moved into his own apartment. I remember going with him to shop for new jeans. He was looking forward to going out on a date and we picked out some sharp clothes.

Uncle Mike was trying to turn his life around. Though in that day and age, it wasn’t spoken of, I believe he sought help through therapy. I remember my dad saying that if emotional issues got in the way of your day-to-day life, and you weren’t able to be happy, it was time to seek help. I think he said that in the context of Uncle Mike, but I’m a little fuzzy on that. Either way, I took that message to heart.

It was around that time that Uncle Mike apologized to me. The way I remember it, we were riding in his car to Aunt Simma’s for dinner. He said he was sorry for teasing me so much when I was younger and for giving me such a hard time. I didn’t know what to say, I was so surprised. He went on to explain that he resented my relationship with Nana, his mom, and took it out on me. I accepted his apology and told him it was okay.

I didn’t fully appreciate his gesture until I became an adult. The courage it took to be that honest with me. In so many ways life wasn’t kind to him. His marriage didn’t work out and as a result he was separated from his son, various business ventures fell apart, his health deteriorated, diabetes ravaged him.

Uncle Mike was living in Zada’s apartment in Century Village West Palm Beach when Gary, my husband, and I went to visit him somewhere around 2002 or 2003. At this point his eyesight had deteriorated so that he couldn’t drive and he had parts of his toes amputated because of diabetes. We chatted in his apartment before going to lunch. Uncle Mike wanted to give us a gift. He looked around the apartment, knowing Gary was a huge Met fan. He picked up his mousepad with a giant Met logo in the middle. He insisted Gary take it. Gary was reluctant, but understanding that Mike wanted to make the gesture, he took it.

Through it all he remained good-natured, he enjoyed a good meal, loved movies and telling stories, rooting for the Mets, seeing family and friends. Uncle Mike died of complications of diabetes when he was 58 years old in 2005.

13 thoughts on “Uncle Mike

  1. Its so true that as kids it simply does not occur to us what “issues” the adults in our life are going through. Having the power and ability to reflect back on such things is part of the beauty of our aging.

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  2. I remember my brother Mike, with such mixed emotions. Love, guilt, mostly sorrow. And always love. When I was laid off from teaching, and Mike was working nights,we went to the Staten Island zoo, the movies etc. in th afternoon. One movie I remember so vividly was the Frankenstein movie. The theater was not that crowded, and as we left a few of the patrons, unknown to us, stopped us thanksgiving ng Mike for his laughter.nYes, he had a great laugh, the movie was funny(Mel Brooks) and these strangers said they enjoyed the movie even more because of Michael. We laughed all the way home. Also, much later in Florida we had dinner with his friends, the Romeos retired old men eating out. He made the best of a life that was never kind to him but he always had friends and family that enjoyed his company. So maybe that is something

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    1. Of course it is something – it is more than many people have. I know you, and all of us who knew and loved him, would have liked him to have more. We especially would have liked him to have better health, which likely contributed to the other difficulties. Anyway, I hope your remembrances will be of the good times you had together.

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  3. What I remember most about Mike was his kind heart. He made special cards on the computer for every conceivable occasion, always signing them UM. Before he went to Century Village, he lived with Simma for a couple of years, and it was so much fun to spend time in his company. He loved Foghorn Leghorn from the Bugs Bunny cartoons, so we always tried to add something to his collection every visit.
    One funny memory I have was his letting me borrow his new car to drive around Atlantis…I of course got lost and got back to Simma’s…Mike was the only one who didn’t make fun of my lack of direction. I still miss the emails of totally off color jokes he would sign Big Bro Mike. Thanks for relating your memories, Linda.

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  4. Wonderfully written, Linda. Here are some of my memories of UM

    Took me (and Mark) to our first baseball game — at the Polo grounds to see the Mets vs Pirates. Must have been 1963. I remember Roberto Clemente playing in the game.

    Before I had a drivers license rode me out to Port Washington to see Laurie & Ira. And to go to the Stratamatic (Baseball game we played) every spring which was located in Port Washington to pick up the new season of game cards.

    Driving “up state” to the Red Apple Rest just to get a hot dog and then drive back home.

    And of course there was Woodstock – driving in that rain to visit Laurie and Ira at camp Olympus yelling at all those hippies!!!

    And as mom wrote, that laugh. These are the things that I remember and enjoy.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your memories. I remember Uncle Mike taking me driving when I was learning. And I remember you guys playing Stratomatic – I even got to play sometimes, too! One of the ways I learned about baseball. Good stuff.

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  5. I was just looking at the mouse pad and I took a photo of it but I am not technologically capable of copying it and pasting it onto this site. Anyway, it still looks great. And it still reminds me of how kind and generous a soul he was.

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  6. Memories of Uncle Mike are so bittersweet. Nobody made me laugh more than him. Throughout my adult life, I spoke to him at least once a week (and saw him even more frequently after he moved to Florida). Our conversations were mixtures of comments on pop culture and deeper explorations of how we felt about our lives. Uncle Mike was very attuned to his feelings. I think sometimes we were each other’s therapy. I know we were each other’s biggest cheerleaders. There were some things that happened to him that he never got over and for which he found it impossible to see the bright side. But mostly, he was able to be positive about his many troubles. We both loved science fiction movies and tv shows. I remember sitting with him at the dining room table in Port Washington and discussing the original Star Trek series. Years later, we were both big fans of Babylon 5. We would call each other after every episode aired to discuss plotlines. Uncle Mike surprised me by enrolling me in the Babylon 5 fan club. I still have the membership card and the button he got me. I also remember going with him to a local flea market because there was a woman who worked there he had a crush on. They dated a few times but it didn’t work out because she could not handle his physical problems. I was so disappointed for him. When I was a kid, my parents had season tickets to the Mets games at Shea Stadium. I was never a fan of sports, unlike my brother and cousins. When I finally put my foot down (at the age of 12 or so) and said I no longer wanted to go to the games, my parents gave my tickets to Uncle Mike. I think he thoroughly enjoyed going to those games. I know I enjoyed having dinner with him after they all came home. I witnessed how mean Uncle Mike could be to Linda when we were kids. I never understood it because he was so nice to the rest of us. Now I do. After Zada died, and Uncle Mike had some money for the first time in his life, he was so generous with me. Even though I could afford it, he insisted on buying my airline ticket to Rachel’s wedding. By then his health was so bad, none of his siblings wanted him to travel from Florida for the wedding. My mother refused to take him because she didn’t want to deal with the wheelchair. That hurt him a lot and made him cry. He wanted to go so badly to see his beloved Rachel get married and to see the rest of the family. I said I would take him and be responsible for his care during the flights. He wanted to pay me back for being in his corner by buying the airline ticket. I reluctantly agreed to let him do it because it gave him so much pleasure to give me something (like Gary with the mouse pad). I remember so many good times and laughter with him (the trip to Illinois being a highlight). But I also remember how hard the last few years of his life were for him. Like the times he called me at work to say he had some physical problem, calling an ambulance for him, meeting him at the hospital, dealing with doctors and paperwork, and making sure he had the best care possible. Or moving him from Zada’s beautifully redecorated apartment into a smaller, shabbier ground floor apartment when he could no longer climb the stairs. Or trying to clean the bloodstains on his carpet after he had stubbed his toe and could not stop bleeding. I remember taking him to doctors frequently and doing his errands like buying groceries. Of course, my mom did most of the caretaking but she complained about it so much, Uncle Mike would often call me instead when he had a problem. I was happy to help Uncle Mike any way I could. When he died, it left a big hole in my life. I miss him a lot. When I think of him, it is mostly the good times I remember, not the difficult years at the end. Thanks for writing about him Linda.

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    1. First, Laurie, sorry it took so long to get your comment posted – I was away from my computer, in Jersey with my mom. Now, to the point, thank you for sharing your memories and experiences with UM. I’m really glad you had such a close relationship and that you were able to offer him comfort (and he provide the same for you). It adds so much to the blog when you, or others, share your memories and perspectives.

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  7. Uncle Mike:
    i. Stratomatic baseball- playing endless hours with him
    2.The air conditioned room- how great it was
    3. Visiting him in Florida… the last time I saw him, he gave me a hug, and said, “it was great seeing you, but don’t come back…without Pam!”
    What a wonderful sense of humor. Will always remember that.
    4. And nothing can top our trip to Woodstock. How could anyone make a full day sitting in the car fun??? He was special.

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  8. Linda, your blog is very meaningful for our family. I learn so many new things about you and your unique perspective of our family members. I loved learning more about UM. I hold some many special memories of my relationship with my Uncle Mikey, and how important to continue adding to my memories with your’s and through our families’ comments. And thanks Laurie for the cry about my wedding. I felt the same about him.

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    1. I’m glad it has been meaningful for you and your family – that is one of the reasons I am doing this. I also very much appreciate when others share their memories and experiences. If you have more you want to share, I’d be thrilled to post it either as a blog piece or here in the comments section. Much love to you and your family, Ray.

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