Editorial: There Were Always Uncles at Christmas

By Becky O’Malley
Friday April 07, 2006

In the olden days, back around 1960, I first heard Dylan Thomas’s recording of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” on one of the Pacifica stations, in the period when they were not afraid to celebrate sectarian holidays like Christmas. 

“Were there Uncles like in our house?” Thomas asks in his child’s voice. And the adult’s answer: 

“There are always Uncles at Christmas. The same Uncles... Some few large men sat in the front parlors, without their collars, Uncles almost certainly, trying their new cigars, holding them out judiciously at arms’ length, returning them to their mouths, coughing, then holding them out again as though waiting for the explosion…” The Uncles popped up a few more times in the tale, jumping and rumbling and “breathing like dolphins.”  

Of course, I thought, from the sophisticated vantage point of my 20 years, Uncle Tom and Uncle Fritz. Uncles loomed large in the Christmases of my own then remote-seeming St. Louis childhood of 10 years before. Uncle Fritz was always good company at a party, unmarried then and helping out however he could, telling jokes to the children and getting drinks for the adults. But Uncle Tom was another matter entirely.  

“Waiting for the explosion” is an apt description, though not of Uncle Tom but of the expectations of the rest of the group when he showed up. I eventually ended up with 18 first cousins, but in 1950 I was the only pre-war kid at the Christmas party, in my own opinion light-years older than the flock of post-war boom babies who were following me. At 10 I was starting to listen to the adult conversation and to join it occasionally.  

Most of the adults in the family had not much interest in politics in those days, though many were the kind of genteel liberal Republicans who were quietly pleased when General Eisenhower beat out the more conservative Senator Taft for the 1952 presidential nomination. But Uncle Tom! Uncle Tom Schwarz, a smart young lawyer who had married my mother’s sister Mary Lucille while he was in the Navy during The War, was a mouthy, opinionated hereditary Democrat, and he viewed the family gathering as an ideal arena to set doubters straight on any and all contemporary political topics. Like Dylan Thomas’s Uncles, he was a smoker who used his cigarettes and cigars as props, punctuation for his speeches. He was one of nature’s contrarians, always loudly on the side of the underdog, and never afraid to tell you why you were wrong. 

He’d moved his growing family to the suburbs like many in the post-war period, though in my culturally conservative family leaving the city was viewed as dangerously radical. He designed his own suburban house without benefit of architect, and it was, the in-laws said politely, “unusual.” He loved his pretty good-humored wife and his six lively children extravagantly, but pretended to order them around with much bluster, though they were seldom fooled.  

He’d show up at the Christmas or Thanksgiving gatherings in those days with the three or four oldest, all still under 5, and declaim, as likely as not with a baby or two on his lap. Sometimes someone would engage him in argument, especially his father-in-law, who still thought of President Roosevelt as “that man in the White House”, but the challenger would inevitably be blown away by his sharp wit and cutting logic. My mother now claims that she was a Democrat too then, and maybe she was, but it was Uncle Tom who made the big noise about it. Watching him, I learned that ideas matter, that politics is important, and that there is more to life than Republican pieties. And that arguing could be fun. 

He taught the same lessons to his own children, who grew up knowing that it was up to them to stand up to injustice wherever they found it. The oldest was held up as an example to my own sixties-born children, who lived too far away by that time to get to know their St. Louis cousins, as “Your Cousin Elsa Who Marched at Selma.” I never knew the younger ones well, because my family moved to California when I was in high school, but I’ve been delighted to see various offspring of the next generation, Uncle Tom’s grandchildren, turning up in Berkeley, still bent on saving the world if they can. 

Of course Uncle Tom himself, contrarian to the end, moved to Florida and turned Republican in his old age. Much to my liberal mother’s horror, he even claimed to have voted for one or more Bushes, but he might have said that just to shock her. He also had sarcastic comebacks for those who taxed him with the health pieties of the ’80s and ’90s—he smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, and became a gourmet cook specializing in high-cholesterol delicacies. And pretty much got away with it.  

He died on Monday at 86, still doing as he pleased, wisecracking until the end. They finally persuaded him to go to the hospital, which he hated, the day he died. My aunt told my mother afterwards that as she sat next to his bed holding his hand a young nurse came in. He opened his eyes one more time and asked the nurse “Am I dead yet?” She fled, not knowing what to say to this, a common reaction for many confronted with one of Uncle Tom’s quips.  

I’ve been thinking it over, and I think the answer is no. As long as there are still some of us around—and there are a lot of us now—who remember what we learned from him, that it’s important to care passionately about what’s happening in this world, Uncle Tom’s not dead yet, even though his body is being buried today.