The death of Britain’s Prince Philip and the publicity surrounding it got me to thinking of my late Uncle Carl. My uncle, like Philip, was born in the early 1920’s and served in World War II. Both were members of the so-called Greatest Generation. The similarities would appear to end there as my uncle was American, not a European nobleman, raised very working-class, and toiled in blue collar occupations.
Like the prince, Uncle Carl was a notorious curmudgeon with no filter. He was my mother’s older brother. No one was safe from Carl’s biting wit. It’s generous to call it “wit”; no one found his lame attempts at humor funny but him. It always came at someone else’s expense. If you gained a few pounds or something else was otherwise off about your appearance, he was first to let you know. Critical, self-superior, unpleasant. But without Philip’s dashing good looks.
My father was a full decade younger than Uncle Carl. He was everything Carl was not: Handsome, slick, charming, and graciously witty in a way that brought air into a room instead of sucking air out of it. He was also completely irresponsible, vain, and selfish. He had three wives and fathered six children, but raised and supported none of them. I did not lay eyes on him between the ages of three and twenty-nine. If you’ve ever heard the song “Piece by Piece” by Kelly Clarkson, it could have been written about my dad.
Uncle Carl raised four children and was married to the same woman, my aunt, for over 60 years. His kids all turned out well and none ever got into trouble with the law or had drug problems. When my dad abandoned my mom and me when I was little, Carl took a week off from his work and, with a friend, drove 1300 miles to come get us in a U-Haul and take us back to his and my mom’s hometown. Not one time in all the ensuing years that I knew him, until his death in his eighties, did he ever mention it, let alone hold it over us, and if he did, it was not in our presence.
My childhood and youth is scattered through with memories of Uncle Carl being there when we needed him. My mom never remarried. When she was taken seriously ill it would be Carl who came over and drove her to the hospital. When we needed money for something he would loan it to us. Nothing was ever said about it by anybody, thanks were neither expected nor given, because it was understood that this was just something family did for each other.
I recall having no actual conversation of any significant length with my uncle ever, about anything. He intimidated me. I sensed that he never particularly liked or approved of me, but then he didn’t seem to like anybody.
I believe it’s what a person does and how they live, not what they say, that is the ultimate measure of their life. And that brings me back to Prince Philip and the retrospectives on his life. He sacrificed a promising career when he wed his queen and remained married to her for 73 years. He could have bailed at any point, but didn’t. Like Carl, he didn’t try to be liked by everyone and didn’t care if he wasn’t. He set an example by the way he lived a life marked by duty and sacrifice. And didn’t complain about it, even if he may have complained about a thousand trifling irritations every day.
Uncle Carl outlived my mother, his younger sister. I was unable to attend his funeral due to geographic distance, but my aunt later told me that my flower basket was the largest and most prominent at his wake. The card on it said, “Carl was always there for us.”
To Prince Philip and Uncle Carl: the real deal.