This past holiday weekend, my mother’s uncle passed away and our extended family shrank by one. That’s the pragmatic explanation, but the emotional explanation is that our family lost our treasured Uncle Mel.
As a young child, Uncle Mel was everyone’s favorite family member at get-togethers. He entertained us with stories and tricks, peppered with funny voices, faces and sounds.
Growing up in New York, our Uncle Mel was high school friends with comedian Rodney Dangerfield. I found this bit of information out when I was about 30 years old, and it completely made sense.
Uncle Mel held your attention like a professional performer at all times. When he walked into a room – everyone smiled. Something good was about to happen.
Bigger Than Life
When I was a young child, along with my cousins, we’d find Uncle Mel at a family get-together – and we’d stay. In between all of the great jokes and stories, he’d show us how he could pull his thumb off and put it back on, seemingly pain-free.
We’d stare with the focus of a magnifying glass on a smoking blade of grass, and we’d ask him to do it over and over. Just when we thought we were starting to figure the trick out, he would shift our attention to something else with a hand gesture and a whistle and then we began paying attention to something else.
Our Uncle Mel had great stories that he would tell with demonstrative hands and sweeping gestures that would paint a picture for you in grand scale.
I’m sure everyone has a funny uncle in their family and I’m sure everyone appreciates their contributions to a family get-together. But Uncle Mel was like the Babe Ruth of funny uncles – do you understand?
This is a guy that would dress up in drag and perform like singer Keely Smith, with big balloons under his dress and a long string of fake pearls that he’d swing around.
… You had to be there.
Following Uncle Mel’s Legacy
As the years have gone by, I’ve been one of the jokesters in our family – always cracking wise with a well-timed joke or observation. And a few years ago, my Uncle John said in passing that I was the “Next Uncle Mel” for my generation of the family.
I thought then as I think now – there is no better compliment for a jokester. That was like saying someone was the “Next Michael Jordan” or the “Next Elvis.” (Coincidentally, I have been called the “Next Elvis” of basketball.) I couldn’t imagine becoming the “Next Uncle Mel” – the funny uncle that younger generations run up to and wait for stories and tricks.
And then … just like that … someone mentioned that my cousin Angie was the “Next Uncle Mel.”
It was at this point, that I began to plot her demise.
Angie really is the person that kids run up to at get-togethers. She’s a natural entertainer, trained years ago to be a Disney World character like Pluto and Buzz Lightyear. Had I tried to become a character, I would have been handed the Ursula costume from Little Mermaid, with a warning not to eat the children!
But to be compared to Uncle Mel has always been a source of pride for Angie and I, even though I was compared first, which rightfully makes me more awesome-r, but whatever.
We’ll carry the “funny uncle” and “funny aunt” torch with pride. Uncle Mel gave us a lot to smile about when he was around, and now, even when he’s not around, memories of him still make us smile. We’ll try to convey that same emotion in children in his honor.
When your funny uncle passes away, you lose a connection with part of your childhood. It’s just the evolution of society and all, but it’s still one of those “unfair” events that we are forced to endure. Our “funny uncle” was the loving Dad and grandfather to our cousins. He wasn’t just there for our amusement, but he provided for his family and raised his children.
Looking back, it was an amazing life that Uncle Mel led. He grew up in New York, where he was friends with one of the biggest stand-up comedians in history. Mel was even part of the U.S. military when they stormed the beach at Normandy in World War II. And he raised an awesome family with my Aunt Lee — full of big-character children and grandchildren.
We love them all — and we’ll all miss our Uncle Mel.
And I still can’t figure out how he was able to live so many years with those detachable thumbs.