I remember my parents referring to Uncle Bill as “a confirmed bachelor.” Now, a bachelor was an unmarried man. But what, exactly, was a confirmed bachelor?
I heard my parents and some of my aunts and uncles, call old women – usually in their forties or fifties — “spinsters.” So, I thought there’s got be some connection between the confirmed bachelors and the spinsters.
I pretty much figured it out by the time of my own confirmation. My mother bought me a beautiful dress, and the whole family went to church where Father James presided over the ceremony. So, I concluded that when unmarried men reached the age of forty – or maybe it was fifty – they bought a nice suit and went to church to be confirmed.
But what about the spinsters? Was there a confirmation ceremony for them too? I discussed this with my friend, Rosemary. She told me that if a woman was not married by her fortieth birthday, she had to become a nun.
I thought about this, but quickly realized that Rosemary must have been given the wrong information. There were plenty of spinsters walking around, and some of them were clearly not nuns. Rosemary and I concluded that the ones who did not become nuns must have had secret confirmation ceremonies. Which, of course, made them “confirmed spinsters.”
Uncle Bill was twenty-five years older than my mother. One day I asked her if he was really her brother.
“That’s an excellent question, Eileen. Bill is actually my half-brother. Do you know what a half-brother is?”
“Mom, I don’t have a clue.”
“Bill and I have the same father, but different mothers.”
“Well, Bill’s mother died. Her name was Mary.”
“When did she die?”
“She died when Bill was about twelve.”
“Then what happened?”
“A few years later, Bill’s father married Grandma Helen.”
“And then you were born!”
“Yes. And that makes Bill my half-brother.”
“So then, he’s my half-uncle.”
“So why does he say he’s my uncle if he’s only my half-uncle?”
“That’s because he loves you very much.”
When I was about four, Uncle Bill would play Chutes and Ladders and Uno with me. As I remember, he was pretty good for a confirmed bachelor, and was even able beat me a few times. But he often admitted that I was a far better player than he was.
One day, he asked me what I wanted to be.
He seemed surprised.
“Why a lawyer?”
“I want to help poor people.”
“Eileen, that is truly admirable.”
“Uncle Bill, I know it kind of means ‘good,’ but what does admirable actually mean?”
“It means, honey, even better than good.
“Eileen, I know you are already eight years old, but don’t you think that’s a little young to decide on your life’s work? And how do lawyers help poor people?”
“There was a very poor family that lived just down the block from us. Their landlord threw all their stuff out on the street. They had to go to a homeless shelter.”
“Well, Uncle Bill, if I was a lawyer, I would have gone to court and stopped that landlord from doing that. And the mother had just had another baby.”
“You know something, honey? If you want to be a lawyer – and to help poor people – then I’m sure that you will someday be a really fine lawyer.”
A few years later, Uncle Bill came over for dinner. My mom had made his favorite dish, corned beef and cabbage. He always used to kid that you had to be careful not to eat too much of the cabbage – or not enough corned beef.
He was wearing a jacket I had seen many times before. My dad often teased him about how old it was. Finally, Uncle Bill seemed to take offense.
“I’ll have you know that this jacket was custom made!”
“I’m sure it was,” said my mom. “But for whom?”
My parents roared with laughter. Then, a few seconds later, I finally got it and started laughing too. The laughter was contagious, and even Uncle Bill couldn’t stop himself.
My parents and my other aunts and uncles were divided on this question: Was Uncle Bill rich – or was he poor?
Aunt Rose made the best case that he was rich:
“First of all, he has worked in the Post Office for over forty years, and he’s still going strong. True, the pay is not great, but everyone knows what a tightwad he is. He lives in a small rent-stabilized apartment, and we all know how much he spends on clothes. I’ll bet he’s got hundreds of thousands squirreled away.”
Then, Uncle Paddy argued the opposite:
“We all know about Bill’s devotion to the Catholic Workers’ organization. Now I’ve got nothing against them – they do very good work for the poor – but they also make all their members take a vow of poverty. I happen to know personally that he hands over almost his entire paycheck every week.”
“That shows how much you know, Paddy” piped up my dad. The Post Office pays their employees every two weeks.”
“Fine,” said Uncle Paddy. “So then he gets to give ‘em twice as much!”
I sat there listening, and even though I had heard Uncle Bill talk occasionally about the Catholic Worker, all I knew about them was that they helped the poor.
The next time Uncle Bill came over, I asked him to tell me what this group actually did to help the poor.
“Uncle Bill, do you work for The Catholic Worker?”
“Sort of. I do volunteer work for them. Not for them, but for the organization itself. They have a couple of buildings near the Bowery, which is a street in the City. But my regular job is in the Post Office sorting mail.”
“Tell me about the Catholic Worker.”
“It’s a kind of community, a community where everyone shares. If someone is hungry, that person is fed. If someone has no clothes, that person is given clothes. And the homeless are given a place to sleep.”
“Isn’t that like a homeless shelter?”
“In a way it is. But we give out of love. In our “houses of hospitality,” we are all the same. In a sense, we’re all poor. But you could also say we are all rich. That’s because we are a sharing community.”
“Can I come to see it?”
“Of course! But I think it would be best if you came with your parents.”
I went to Uncle Bill’s community many times, usually helping to serve meals, and often just sitting around talking with whoever was there. Going there strengthened my resolve to become a lawyer. I really got to know poverty almost firsthand.
Before going to law school, I still needed to attend college. Even if I had wanted to go to an out-of-town school, my parents would not have been able to afford to send me. And law school would be still another financial burden.
But Uncle Bill remained very encouraging. He often said that if I really wanted to be a lawyer, then I could become one.
I remember the family dispute about whether Uncle Bill was rich or poor. I knew that he certainly did contribute a lot to the Catholic Worker community – in time and money.
When I was ready to apply to law schools, Uncle Bill was even more direct: “If you really want to go, you can do it. I may be just half an uncle, but I have full faith in my niece. “
Was there a hidden message? Was there a hint that if I fully committed to going, he would help pay the tuition? That is, if he actually had the money.
The only way I managed to get through the first year was to live at home and take out huge student loans. I still came to the “house of hospitality” whenever I could. Uncle Bill had finally retired from the Post Office, but only because his health was failing.
Whenever he saw me, he would address me as Esquire Eileen. And whenever I mentioned my financial woes, he observed, “You made it this far; I know you’ll make it all the way.”
By the beginning of the third and final year, I doubted that I would ever be able to pay off my loans – especially since I would never earn very much representing the poor. But I had to admit that Uncle Bill had been right after all. I certainly could make it through law school, and even do it on my own.
A few months later, Uncle Bill passed away. When we visited the funeral home, I tried to hold back my tears. But when I looked in the coffin, I completely lost it. My parents put their arms around me. Then they led me away.
“Did you see what he was wearing?”
Of course they did. It was his custom-made jacket.
A week later, Uncle Bill’s lawyer asked us to come to her office. Surprisingly, none of the other family members was there. It turned out that Uncle Paddy had been right. Uncle Bill had given most of his paycheck to the Catholic Worker Movement.
Then his lawyer addressed me. “You must know how proud you made your uncle. You were the only family member who visited the ‘house of hospitality.’ You went almost every week since you were in middle school.”
She stopped talking. We waited. Was that it?
Then she smiled, cleared her throat, and continued.
“A few years ago, your uncle changed his will. He made arrangements to pay off all your student loans.”
Most people use money as a proxy for success and even happiness. By that standard, Uncle Bill was not a rich man.
Since I was a little girl, he recognized a kindred spirit, and he shared with me the joy of giving to others. And for that, I will be forever grateful. He was indeed my rich uncle.
If you enjoyed My Rich Uncle, leave a comment and let Steve know.
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