In one of my earliest memories, I am in kindergarten at Santa Fe Country Day, a school which no longer exists, and I am sitting alone in a corner by the front door, crying.
I had stolen something from another child’s locker, and though I don’t remember the stealing itself (committing the act is apparently not as emotionally resonant as getting caught), I do remember being reprimanded and being placed in time out. And so there I was in a cold corner of the hallway by the front door to the school.
There I sat crying, I assume out of shame, when my uncle walked in to pick me up. He looked down at me there from the doorway, saw me crying, and then he looked around at the rest of the kindergarten, as if to check whether anyone else could see. Then he looked back down at me and put his hand out. As I grabbed it and he lifted me up off the floor, he leaned down and told me to stop crying immediately, because real men don’t cry.
My uncle Tom
It’s a bit of cliché to even recount that story, I suppose. We know that men have historically been raised to repress their feelings, and to cultivate a kind of emotionally stunted stoicism. That is changing of course, and I imagine that change is for the better.
In my first post on memories of manhood, I talked a lot about love and gentleness, and about the example set for me as a kid by the director of a Summer camp I attended for seven years. This post is about a different kind of example: my uncle Tom was flawed, yes, but for much of my early years he was the only male role model who was consistently in my life. And so he is perhaps no less impactful.
I remember being grateful, in my little six-year-old brain, sitting in that cold corner in the kindergarten, that my uncle had told me that men don’t cry. I hadn’t known that. I had been thinking about being ashamed about the stealing, and about being sad that I had been placed in the corner. I can’t recall whether my uncle asked me about those feelings, or spoke to a teacher at all about any of it. He didn’t seem to care what had happened or why I was there. All I remember is the admonishment: don’t cry.
My dad, it should perhaps be noted, wasn’t around. For most of my childhood he lived across the country, and I saw him, as was common for a child of divorced parents, on alternate holidays and for a few weeks each Summer. So my sister and I were raised mostly by my mom and to some extent by her mom, our grandmother. And, for a time, by my uncle Tom.
A lot of my earliest memories are of my uncle are of him modeling manhood. I remember one day in our house in Santa Fe, at around the same age as the crying incident, when he saw me sitting down to pee. He told me that men pee standing up, and I think he showed me right then and there how to do it, and so from then on that’s what I did.
I remember another day around that time my mom was driving my sister and I back to our home in Santa Fe during a snowstorm, and she must have rear-ended the car in front of her, because all of a sudden my sister and I both lurched forward, hitting our heads against the seats in front of us and then being thrust back again. It was my uncle who picked us up, who came to rescue us from a wrecked car in the middle of a snowstorm.
When I was a little older, and we had moved from Santa Fe to Brooklyn, it was my uncle who took me around the giant Adirondack boulders of Central Park and taught me how to climb rocks. One time we were climbing up an easy piece of granite slab when a group of guys challenged him to climb something nearby that was much more steep and - to my young eyes - much more dangerous.
I remember this moment well because it was the first time I had seen a group of young men try to dare another man into doing something he probably shouldn’t do. They were egging my uncle on, asking if he was too afraid to do it, and betting him money that he couldn’t. And my uncle resisted all this pressure, probably because I was there watching. I don’t know if he just didn’t want to fall and die in front of me, or if he was trying to show me how to resist peer pressure and be my own man. Either way, I remember observing afterward that one need not always prove one’s toughness.
My uncle also broke lots of rules, and sometimes took me along with him. We would hop the New York subway turnstyles to avoid paying the fares. We would also sneak into movie theaters for double features, which is how I saw two of the all-time great pulp B-movies of the 90s: the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Kevin Bacon’s masterpiece, Tremors.
At about the time I left for high school, when I was 13, the don’t cry memory from kindergarten suddenly resurfaced, and I committed myself then and there to living up to my uncle’s early childhood admonishment. I didn’t cry again until midway through College, and I took this years-long streak of not crying as evidence that I had built a proper emotional shell befitting a man. It took me some more years after that to learn that it was ok and perhaps even necessary to let the emotion out.
A young death
When I was 9 years old, my mom came into the kitchen in our house in the suburbs outside New York City and told me that my uncle Tom had died, and did I want to go to the funeral. I shook my head no, and that was all I remember talking about it.
I don’t know exactly what happened. I was told at one point it was from a drug overdose. My grandmother, however, believes he was killed, and though the coroner report listed kidney failure, she thinks the drug overdose story was essentially a cover up. She told me that in fact there was no funeral, that my uncle Tom was cremated and his ashes spread into the Atlantic Ocean.
At various points in high school and in College I considered digging in to it more. I even found a box of materials my grandmother had compiled, apparently for the police to review. But ultimately, whatever happened, the portrait I have of him remains the same.
My uncle undoubtedly lived dangerously. My mom often recounted how he would ski down black diamonds at Santa Fe Ski Valley with me on his shoulders. He rapped and was working on a hip hop album when he died. He got into bar fights. He was brave and a tough motherfucker. He also loved my sister and me and my mom and my grandmother - I know because wherever we went, he followed, and he was there in the snowstorm and so many other times and I remember always feeling his love and protection. He may not have been a perfect male role model, but he was model I had.
One of my favorite pictures of all time is of my uncle and me. He’s in cut off jean shorts and a t-shirt standing in front of the Santa Fe mountains casually balancing baby me on his shoulder. In all his pictures I have of him, he has the same easy smile, as if life was good and there was nothing ahead but joy and love.
I suppose this is what happens when someone like him dies young: we remember them in their youth, full of life, our image of them frozen in time. My uncle was 31 years old when he died - seven years younger than I am now - but he is still with me, in my memories and in other ways.
Ultimately, I am only a little like him. I absorbed a fair amount of his rebelliousness and probably a bit more of his risk-taking, and I have what I imagine was his sense that some of society’s conventions are total bullshit. And I hope I have at least some of his toughness.
Not surprisingly, though, as an adult I am much more a combination of my own parents. I have more less equal parts of my dad’s reasonableness mashed together with my mom’s idealism, and most of my other core qualities can be more or less traced back to them. We revert to our genes, so the scientists tell us.
When my son grows up, he will no doubt reflect some combination of me and his mother, and hopefully he will hold on to all of our good parts and none of the bad. And perhaps, decades from now, he will look back on his childhood and remember examples of when I told him how to act or showed him how to be, like I remember from my uncle.
And then, as I did, I expect my son will develop into his own person with his own sense of what it is like to be a man in the world.