I received a call from my uncle the night before, and by the following morning I was in an outdoor café I would have never entered, except that it was the preferred meeting place of my uncle. When my uncle and I are together, whether in person, in email, or on the telephone, I find that interesting thoughts are born. I looked forward to this meeting between us at the café.
Shortly after we sat down at the table, I showed him some pictures of my young daughters. Uncle Albert looked them over for just a moment. Hardly long enough to discern and process any detail in the pictures before he replied,
“The girls are in full flight, so alive, and, think about it. So much life and development ahead.”
He paused and took a sip of the coffee that he had brought onto the café premises from his home, a little, run-down apartment overlooking the sea. He did this so that he did not have to pay the establishment for an overpriced cup of coffee, when the one he could bring from home was virtually free, and, furthermore, he claimed that he could taste the salt air in his coffee because he brewed it by the window through which the ocean’s breeze blew in the morning – “the breath of the ultimate power” he called it, “in my coffee.” Who could argue with that?
Uncle Albert spoke at a pace slower than mine, because he is 89 years old. A healthy 89 year-old, but 89 years old nonetheless. He was born in 1925, between the Great Wars that are starting to be forgotten by newer, less connected generations. The inward and outward things he has seen from his perch in Australia all these years we will never know. Unless, of course, we take the time to speak with him.
He continued, looking not at the pictures of my daughters but perilously into my eyes, as was his wont. A good man, like my Uncle, is more interested in looking into the eyes, the soul, the spirit of man, than at the more superficial world around us which too often passes for true beauty.
Uncle Albert then noted, “that development is so influenced by you and Ariel.”
He took a sip of his coffee, now cold. I knew it was cold, and he didn’t care, because the waitress had just delivered mine and it was emitting steam from the surface into the air. Over the polite objection of Uncle Albert, I paid the price of two coffees to cover the cost of his occupying a seat from which he was supposed to order coffee. Perhaps this was why he liked this particular café so much. They let him bring his own coffee. Perhaps they knew that his coffee contained the breath of the Ultimate Power. Or maybe they found him as comforting to speak with as I did.
“Peter, it occurs to me that it would be significant if not also playful and fun to say to your daughters regularly that they will remember and live their lives because of how their mother and father lived.”
I looked at him. I had not yet heard the totality of the thought he was endeavoring to share with me. I was confident that once I heard it all, though, it would come together and I would be left with no lack of clarity concerning the purpose and intent of his discourse. I had ridden these rivers so many times before, and I knew that, even though I didn’t know why he was going where he was in the beginning, I absolutely would when the boat of his words tied up to the shore at its destination. Talking to him gave me the solace and gratitude Dante must have had as Virgil walked him through the Inferno, for is this world much different from that circular place?
Sometimes my wife asked me why I was disappearing for a few hours to go sit and talk with my good Uncle Albert, whom I had not even known until recent years when we connected at a funeral of a distant relative whom neither of us knew and who died penniless. After some conversation on the subject, my wife came to understand that I was a better person for these meetings, and, in some ways, perhaps it exercised my proclivities for being a father, which is always a good thing for a mother, don’t you think?
And so there I sat, in the sunshine that crept around the umbrella which covered the metal table where I sat, with my Uncle, who himself was never a father and, therefore, never married to a mother. That did not stop him from commenting on the subject of family, however. In fact, it emboldened him and honed his opinions on this subject into fine points, like arrows that pointed the way, as he was not spending all of his time and money raising a flock of children, as I was in doing with very little time to enjoy the stimulation that good conversation can bring. He was kind of like a priest opining on marriage, or a woman on manhood. A fatherless man commenting deeply on fatherhood.
Uncle Albert set down his cold coffee, which seemed to be a bottomless cup, as he kept drinking but never procured a refill. Or perhaps he was not really taking sips, just touching his dry, aged lips to the rim of the cup in order to wet them so that he could better speak to me, his nephew. Like lubricant in an engine.
“Maybe I might add, if I were you, when you speak to them, that their choices should and will inevitably come out of what they want nobody else.”
He stopped speaking.
“Uncle Albert?” I prodded him.
“Yes, Peter, maybe that's all a bit much, I was thinking.”
He was testing me to see if I’d take in more of what he had to say. He did this by making a deliberately confusing statement on a very deep subject, which begged questions he could answer.
“Please, Uncle Albert, yes, it is a bit much, but life is a bit much, sometimes. All the time. But with so many people talking to me all the time, and demanding things of me, it is nice to hear someone sing. I’ve always said, Uncle Albert, that your words are like songs to me. That’s what I tell my wife.”
They were like songs. Not lyrics. But songs, the kind we enjoy and from which we derive certain understandings and feelings because they fit perfectly the sensibility within us. When Uncle Albert and I talked, his words seemed the final piece of a puzzle.
Uncle Albert said, “I am glad you tell Ariel about what we talk about. That is good. I am also very happy that we can speak, because, at my age, or at any age, it is difficult to find an ear that is open. You’ll find a lot of mouths, but not a lot of ears.”
“But when you think of it, instilling self-confidence, a belief that your children have what it takes to live and choose well and that most of your responses as a parent are intended to help them reach that maturity necessarily taking years of work and education on all your parts and hopefully enjoying the whole deal.”
“Yes, I see,” I interrupted to give him a break and wet his lips.
“A privileged deal really I suppose traditional family life needn't require this much personal revelation to one’s self and other close family members, but I love the experience of growing awareness and revealing one’s self that can only enrich relationships, memories.”
“I think I understand what you mean,” I said, as I sipped my coffee, feeling the caffeine now coursing through my legs and waking up my brain.
“When aware of ultimate power one identifies with and loves the exercising of it, right?” He asked.
“Mmmm, hmmm, that’s for sure.” I nodded my head, lost in the waters of his words, not really understanding what he was saying specifically, but grasping firmly the meaning and the import of his message like an Ishmael clung to Queequeg’s coffin while he waited for the ship Rachael to retrieve the last orphan floating upon the ocean waves.
He concluded, “I do go on but we both do, right?”
I took his hands. Now it was my turn.
He turned his eyes back into mine with an eager anticipation of what his words had spawned in this nephew of his, whom, though he had never really known him, understood his deepest and innermost spirit as few people do.
When I spoke, Uncle Albert sat mute, never interrupting, as was my habit, and let me speak until I could speak no more, which was rare, as some people have said that I have a way with words, or, more glibly, the gift of gab is the gift that I have.
“Uncle Albert, thank you for your words about the girls. So true, the life and development ahead, and the future seemingly limitless. I really like what you said about mentioning to them the connection between our lives and theirs, and the instilling of self-confidence and meaning in all they do, and that it all be, ultimately, aimed at their attaining a healthy independence that will allow them to move through this existence with minimal fears and maximum awareness!”
I let go of his hands and began using mine to express myself, and to emphasize what I was saying.
“Being of a similar mind to you, I believe that I'm probably already treating and talking to the girls at a level that's advanced in these respects, and that I always will.”
I looked at the ceiling, and his eyes followed mine. He touched his coffee to his lips. I took a sip of mine, and we sat quiet for a few minutes looking at the people pass by on the sidewalk adjacent to the table.
He knew I was not done, that I was just gathering my thoughts like a lawyer gathers his papers as he tries to convey an idea to the finder of fact.
“You know, Uncle Albert, at times I think my daughters express a thoughtful independence that might surpass their peers, and that can sometimes even be a bit overwhelming as they're still learning to control voice and temper, when their brains are fully developed I’m confident that voice and temper will itself temper.”
I wasn’t sure if his mind was quick enough to get that little pun, but we both laughed.
He then said, “yes, it will be tempered. Everything is ultimately tempered.”
He wanted me to know that he did get it. There was little he didn’t get, outside of the mysteries of the universe that we all must agree we don’t completely get. Nor should we.
I loosed my pursed lips with a sip of my still warm coffee. The steam had disappeared by now. Either the coffee was getting cold, or the air warm.
“But we try to remind ourselves that we are hopefully seeing glimpses of their future, highly confident and aware selves. Sometimes it feels like a battle with opposing forces, both societal and natural, but it's a very worthwhile one.
“Traditional family life, you know Uncle Albert, probably doesn't necessarily require such reflection, but I am fully of the mind that the opportunity to engage in such reflections can only strengthen, uncover, and solidify, and so I don't hold it back. On that note, you are certainly right, I too very much go on about topics I enjoy, and we're in good company with each other.”
“Thank you, Peter, I do appreciate that.”
“You’re welcome. Amazing to think, as you mentioned last we talked, that we're all potentially just the product of atoms formed of stardust! And that, though products of stardust, we have within the ability to command our own bit of the ultimate power, whatever that may be.”
At that, we stood up, hugged, and left the café, me getting into my car, he getting onto his bike with his coffee cup looped on the handlebars. We headed in separate directions, and never again looked into each other’s eyes.
But the words he yelled out as he departed on his bicycle, in Italian, continue to echo in my head: E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.