Uncle Bill taught Bob Brehl the importance of family. Photo courtesy of Bob Brehl

Comment: Uncle Bill brought out the best in family

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  • April 13, 2017

It’s been said family can provide us with great strength and expose our greatest weaknesses. Or, as comedian George Burns once said: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

As we celebrate the holiest of weekends, He and His sacrifice are surely to be reflected upon, but it’s also worth keeping in mind family.

There are many references to family in the Bible, the most famous being honour thy mother and father. Though often inspiring, family can also be wrapped with imperfections that can fester from pettiness and jealousies into hardened, seemingly unsolvable problems. Show me the perfect, happy family and I’ll show you good actors.

During Lent, we were once again reminded of the fragility and shortness of our lives. We came within minutes, perhaps seconds, of losing one family member far too young before medical experts brought her back. And we said goodbye to one of my favourite uncles, a brilliant and compassionate person who always put family first. If you Google words like gracious, intelligent, broad-minded and caring, Uncle Bill’s picture will likely pop up.

If there is one story that shows the character of Uncle Bill, it would involve the hours after the death of my mother, his older brother’s wife. Many years ago, she passed more quickly than expected at 3 a.m. and the family started phoning others around 7 a.m. that day.

By 6 p.m. that very evening, Uncle Bill appeared unexpectedly at the front door of dad’s house after travelling 2,000 kilometres from a different country and different time zone. He wrapped his arms around his big brother, then all of us one by one. Tears flowed initially, but soon turned to laughter as he told family stories honouring our mother. That simple act of love and thoughtfulness has been recounted numerous times by everyone in our family over the years.

Uncle Bill believed in family, recognized limitations and rose above them time and time again. Despite living so far from most of us, he and his beautiful wife, Dawn, were at almost every family reunion, wedding and funeral. “He was always there,” said my cousin Steve, another of Bill’s nephews. “He once told me how important it is just to show up.”

Another aspect of Bill’s character worth noting was his sense of humour, especially if the joke was at his expense. (Somewhat ironically, his funeral was on April Fools’ Day.)

Uncle Bill always had refined tastes, especially when it came to fine dining. In the 1970s, when their six children were young, the family took a trip to California to visit Disneyland. He booked nice restaurants, the types with tablecloths and polished cutlery.

After a couple of dinners with their young children running around, misbehaving and acting like kids, Dawn suggested they’d be better off eating at restaurants like McDonald’s.

Stressed as food was being flung and the waiter and maitre’d tossed stink eyes in their direction, Bill sarcastically answered his wife: “Yes, of course, you’re right and I’m wrong, but you’re a perfect person and I’m not.” Like so many young families, regardless it being today, yesterday or tomorrow, the pragmatic wife is often correct and the husband easily falls into a snit.

By staying clear of fancy restaurants, the rest of the vacation went much more smoothly and a sulking Bill kept referring to Dawn as the “Perfect Person,” which, history has shown, is not that far from the truth. It was a typical squabble inside any marriage and Bill happily wore the collar for his California tantrum for years to come.

He was much more than an uncle to me and I loved him for it. He taught me that little things are important. Little gestures like phone calls, cards and compliments. At his funeral, his two eldest grandchildren, Michael and Billy, spoke and one said: “He taught (family) that you can never say ‘I love you’ too many times, or give too many hugs. He taught that it is okay to call for no reason, even just to talk about toast.”

Uncle Bill told me more than once about the need to overlook family friction that may irritate and grow, if left unchecked.

Perhaps that was because years ago, as a young lad living in Toronto with his family in the 1940s, he witnessed two uncles who didn’t speak — and they lived next door to each other in a semi-detached home. Something happened between them and for 25 years they didn’t talk and then one of the brothers died. They probably both went to their graves not fully remembering exactly what caused the problem in the first place.

Uncle Bill, on the other hand, made our family better and his legacy will not be forgotten. Happy Easter to you and your family.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca, or @bbrehl on Twitter.)

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