June 12, 2000

My Uncle

Today is the fifth anniversary of my uncle's death, at the age of 74.
I don't want this entry to be morbid so I won't dwell on the last days, his illness (cancer, what else) and how difficult it was. I do want this to be a tribute to his life.

Uncle Natie was my mother's younger brother, her only sibling. Their mother died in an automobile accident when they were teenagers. My mother stepped in to provide a maternal influence, and they were close with each other and their father (who never remarried) all their lives.

Mom and Uncle
Mom and Uncle, early 1920's

He attended McGill in the 1940's (managing to get accepted despite the quota on Jewish students at the time) and graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering in 1944, and a Master of Engineering in 1949. He worked all his life for Bell Canada and/or subsidiaries, and was instrumental in the development of the area code system and overseas phone service. He travelled extensively, representing Canada at international technology meetings, often in Geneva Switzerland, but also in Australia, Argentina, and many parts of Europe and the U.S.

Uncle never married, lived with and cared for his father until his institutionalization and eventual death in 1980, and made my family his own. My father considered him a brother rather than a brother-in-law, and so did the entire side of that family. He even became a part of my step-family's lives when Daddy remarried only two years after my mother's death. I wasn't sure how Uncle would take that but if he had any misgivings he kept them to himself and treated Stepmom and her children with love and consideration.

This was the sort of man that time forgot, who clung to old ways and values much longer than most people. He insisted on wearing a 1940's style men's top hat and a long wool top coat in winter. The most casual thing he owned was a dark green windbreaker for spring and fall. When he was growing up, Canada looked much more towards Great Britain for influences than towards the United States as it does now. Uncle's manners and outlook were decidedly British.

He and his father were my functional grandparents, living close enough to my home to babysit and indulge me completely with toys and especially books. (I had a grandfather on my father's side, whom I loved, but who had his own life and was much more distant.)

In turn, Uncle Natie was my childrens' functional grandparent, as my father preferred to live his own life, seeing us often but not getting as involved as I would have liked in our daily lives. Hubby's mother saw us too but she was old and sick by that time.

The kids absolutely adored Uncle, not only because he came for his weekly visit laden with books and baseball cards and cookies and whatever else he could think of, but because he read to them, listened to them, attended their school concerts and baseball games, and unconditionally loved them, as he did me.

Uncle, me & Dad, 1990
From the left, Uncle, me, and Daddy, 1990

Strangely enough, Uncle was easy to shop for. He loved to read, not novels but non-fiction. Favourites were books about Jewish history and culture, Canadian politics, the history of Montreal, and anything about railroads. I don't know why exactly but he loved trains. I remember an outing to the Canadian Railway Museum near Montreal as a real treat for him.

He wasn't perfect of course.. living alone so long made him set in his ways, and he imparted to Younger Son a dislike of eating chicken. I guess his greatest fault would be that he often expected other people to live up to his standards of gentility, honesty, and respect for others, and sometimes became angry when he was disappointed.

I'm confidant that Uncle would have loved the internet and been fascinated by its technology, particularly the role of telephone lines, and would have approved of my use of this medium to tell the world about him and what he means to us.

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