I have a habit of looking up the etymology of words before I start writing. Usually, it’s just a way to procrastinate. But sometimes, when I know where a word has been, I feel more equipped to take my words where they need to go.
When I set out to write an essay about my uncle Gutta and kindness, I learned that the word kindness is related to kin. To be treated kindly is to be treated as if one were a relative, a part of a family. It is to be welcomed in, to be claimed. How funny that the kindness we bestow upon family members can often be the most difficult type to impart.
Uncle Gutta’s phone calls were not always met with enthusiasm, but he called often, persistent in winning over my family’s affection. Whenever his area code lit up our caller ID, my two sisters and I tossed around the phone like a game of hot potato. “You answer it!” “I answered it last time!” “It’s your turn!”
It wasn’t that we disliked our uncle, but the man could talk. Answer the phone, and the next 90 minutes of your life would dissipate like snowflakes in the Delaware River.
One dog day in late July, Uncle Gutta rang. I knew it was a hazardous time of year to pick up the phone, as he would inevitably urge us to make the long drive to his home in Pennsylvania and attend the Renaissance Faire with him. But after seven years of politely saying, “I’m busy all 12 of those weekends,” I was running out of excuses. Still, when I picked up the phone, I was calculating an escape strategy.
“Hey, Uncle Gutta. What’s up?”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you …” he began. There was an unfamiliar exertion in the way he spoke, like he had a lump in his throat. “Ballsey just passed away unexpectedly.”
“Oh, wow … I’m so sorry.” Who the heck was Ballsey?
“He was one cat that lived up to his name. But he’s in a place of peace now.”
“So when are you guys gonna come out to my pad? I tell you what, the Celtic Fling at the Renaissance Faire is this Saturday. How ’bout you come over for that?”
“That sounds great,” I said, my mouth doing the talking without my consent.
“Really? Great!” he replied. “I’ll see you on Saturday around 8 a.m.”
He hung up before I could change my mind. It was the shortest phone call of Uncle Gutta’s life.
When my younger sister and I got into the car to drive to our uncle’s the following weekend, it was already 96 degrees. The air was rich and seedy, like an overripe watermelon. I looked over at my sister, whom I had dragged into this visit, in the passenger seat. Scorn emanated from her small frame.
A couple of hours later, we pulled onto the road where Uncle Gutta lived, and he was waiting on his front porch. A beefy six-foot Marine with nine and a half fingers, he was wearing a Scottish kilt, a body-hugging Irish-flag shirt, a do-rag, and a 30-inch sword. I couldn’t tell if he was going for “pirate” or “Renaissance dude”—the distinction was negligible. After we hugged, he showed us around his backyard, which was part enchanted garden and part junkyard.
“This is a scratching post that Ballsey preferred. But he also liked that one,” he said, pointing at some outdoor knickknacks.
“And this is where he used to take naps a lot,” he continued as he steered us toward an undifferentiated spot on the ground.
“This is a special rock that I dedicated to Ballsey. He liked it here a lot too. And this is a spot where I come to pray for our family … and for Ballsey,” he said. He paused, and I noticed that he had tilted his head back, as if hoping his eye would reabsorb the tear that fell down his cheek. “You know, it’s really great you guys came here.”
It was the only statement I’d ever heard him say without that goofy-uncle undertone. And in that moment I realized: Here was not only our uncle but a simple guy who lived in the boonies and missed the heck out of his cat.
“I’m glad we came, too, Uncle Gutta,” I said. The moment the words left my lips, I realized they were true.
“Me too,” my sister chimed in. And when I looked, I saw that she had also softened.
Then the moment passed, and it was back to business. Uncle Gutta had mapped out our schedule for the Faire: a Tartan Terrors performance, jousting, Irish step dancing, Her Majesty’s Royal Performers, and then the Tartan Terrors again. That afternoon, we laughed and jousted and ate turkey legs and danced. It was the silliest and freest I had felt in a long time.
On the ride home, as our near-heatstroke subsided into exhaustion, I thought about why, out of all the times that Uncle Gutta had begged us to visit, I’d said yes this time. Perhaps being part of a family is to recognize—even subliminally—when one of your kin is in need of some care. We monitor our actions so painstakingly with friends, coworkers, and strangers. But family members often get our autopilot selves. Within families, showing kindness is often not a deliberate act. Rather, it is an instinctive reaching out, a recognition of a need in our kin, and doing our best to fill that need—even while kicking and screaming.
When my sister and I saw Uncle Gutta at Thanksgiving, he presented us each with our own shiny broadsword. My mother took one look at them and muttered, “What on earth are you gonna do with that?”
But to Uncle Gutta, the broadswords were a crucial accessory for next year’s Fling. “This year, you got your feet wet, but next year, you guys gotta go all out.”
We smiled, knowing it was his way of saying, “Thanks for coming.”