Uncle Joe, Art & Pride

Everyone should have an Uncle Joe. You know – the kind of Uncle who knows the cool gifts for Christmas and birthdays. He knows, not just because he follows the latest trends, but because he knows YOU. In his quiet, thoughtful ways, he was always watching and listening to you. His eyes lit up when he saw you and he wanted to know how you were – how you REALLY were, not just the cursory, polite “fine!”

My earliest memories of Uncle Joe were as a child when he was married to his wife Aunty Connie. They lived about a half mile away from us.  When my family moved from Somerville to Reading, people said we “moved out to the sticks!”  When Uncle Joe and Aunty Connie joined us, we were no longer wild pioneers.  We could visit often.  Aunty Connie was energetic, vibrant, fun and loving.  I was mesmerized when she would peel apples in one continuous slice, creating a pair of eyeglass-shaped peels.  She had a garden full of hostas and would join us in popping every purple bud on her plants joyfully every spring, cheering us on as we romped through her garden.  She taught me that decadent whoopie pies could be made at home – a dangerous and indulgent lesson I’ve clung to ever since.  

I was probably not much more than six years old when Uncle Joe showed up at our house for dinner on a Saturday night alone.  It’s funny what you remember – your place at the table, the steak I always hated and tried to disguise by chopping into smithereens, the mashed potatoes and dinner rolls.  I don’t know if we were told directly or just surmised that Aunty Connie was gone.  She had been a beloved family member and eventually it became apparent that she and Uncle had split for reasons that were to remain unknown to the children.  

My parents worried about Uncle Joe in the years that followed.  They worried that he did not have an established career, lacked financial security and wasn’t rooted firmly in his own life.  As I grew up, when my parents were trying to impart financial responsibility to me, they’d often say “we just don’t want you to wind up like your Uncle.”  It was, by no means, a criticism of him.  Eventually I came to understand what they were afraid of.

Like all parents, my parents’ highest calling was to raise to happy, stable, responsible, children with a high moral code.  They didn’t want us to struggle.  They didn’t want us to be alone.  They were not necessarily homophobic but they were understandably unable to create a vision for what the life of a happy, stable gay man could look like for Uncle Joe or for me.  How could they?  At that time, I couldn’t imagine it either and on some instinctual level I understood and related to their fears.  I knew that I was, somehow, like Uncle Joe.  They were not critical of him – the loved and respected him deeply but there was an unknown part they could not understand.

Uncle Joe’s official “coming out” didn’t really happen until he turned 70 and all the relatives gathered for a birthday party at Aunty Sara’s house – where all gatherings took place. Uncle Joe had been diagnosed with lung cancer and we were squeezing in every opportunity to honor him.  When I walked into the party, in the corner were a group of gay men gathered around the table with him.  They were his people.  It filled me with joy and melancholy.  It was that day that we met Paul, Uncle’s long-time companion. Though not a couple, they were family in every sense of the word.  They travelled together, shared a home, supported one another in their day-to-day trials and tribulations and, mostly, they loved one another.  

Uncle Joe lived for five more years and, during that time, we had the chance to share our experiences of being gay in our family, across two generations.  Paul joined us for holidays and after Uncle died, I visited him to fill in more of the details I hadn’t known.  Before Uncle died, he gave me a ring that had belonged to my grandfather. My grandfather brought the ring with him when he came to the United States from Italy.  He gave it to my Uncle who then gave it to me.  In turn, the ring became Art’s wedding band when we got married.

The ring holds many stories of multiple generations finding their place in our family and in the world. It holds the story of my immigrant grandfather and his quest for a new and better life for his family.  It holds the story of my Uncle and his journey of self-discovery at a time when being gay was often shameful and unspoken.  And it holds the story of my marriage to Art – a symbol of our infinite love, fully spoken, recognized and honored.  I wear the ring now and it holds the story of my grief.  

Today, on Art’s birthday during the month of Pride, I’m struck by the journey of this simple ring and what it has witnessed.  The grief of my grandparents leaving their homeland, the search for love and hope, the fulfillment of love and the grief of loss.  I’m struck by the fact none of us can imagine the ways that our own journeys open up the world for those who come after us, in the same ways neither my grandfather, uncle or even Aunty Connie could.  

Neither Art nor I ever imagined we’d find a partner.  Even more so, the thought that we could marry did not even enter our consciousness until the public debate on gay marriage exploded.  Today I celebrate our marriage and this man who was unrelenting in his pursuit of freedom and love.  I celebrate having a second chance at love and I pray that the journey we are all on today continues to move all of us in the direction of inclusion and freedom. The quest for equality and freedom is never over but I am grateful for these milestones in my own journey that point us in the right direction.

Happy birthday Art. Happy Pride wherever you are.  

~ by Art on June 10, 2021.

One Response to “Uncle Joe, Art & Pride”

  1. What a deeply moving and beautiful story.
    Bless you as you remember it all, on this precious day.

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