[ NOTE: At times a blog becomes quite personal as it is being written even though it may not have started out that way. This is one of those. DJ]
I grew up as a young boy without the benefit of one of life’s most important and influential characters, a true uncle. I loved and respected deeply my maternal and paternal grandparents, all four of whom loved me a lot and taught me many, many things, especially how important it is to care for and love your children and spouse. But, as fate would have it, they did not produce any uncles for me to look up to, to guide me through my formative years. My friends all talked about “uncle Bob” and “uncle Joe’, who would take them fishing, show them how to roll a cigarette or snap the top off a beer bottle, and explain things to them that their parents were uncomfortable talking about. To be fair, though, my mother’s only sister was married, so I did have one uncle through her, Uncle Ken, who was actually very good uncle material, providing my first brush with uncles. He loved to talk about cars, fishing, and sports, and he had a pleasant, confident, reassuring demeanor, so I always enjoyed the idea of seeing him. Unfortunately we did not see him very often. My father’s only sibling, my Aunt Lucy, never married, which may be why she just this year celebrated her 100th birthday, still lucid and happy. So no uncles on that side of the family. I knew subconsciously that I was being somewhat deprived growing up without a true uncle, or what would have been better yet, several uncles, but it was only when I went to Chile in the Peace Corps, at the age of 23, that I entered the exciting world enriched by the constant presence of uncles , or “tios”.
In my second year living and working in Chile, I met Ximena, whom a year and a half later I married and have been married to ever since. As is so customary in Latin societies like Chile, boyfriends (serious ones, not just the casual pretender) are embraced and brought into the family with open arms. Ximena’s family was like most families in Chile, in that they are extended beyond your ability to visualize the branches on the family tree; relatives everywhere. Coming from a very small family in the U.S., I was amazed and entertained by the size of the families and the way Chilean families congregated. Even before we were married, I could drop by Ximena’s home almost any time, and I would be welcome, especially at the dining room table, no matter who was there or how many others were. I could even show up with one or two of my Peace Corps buddies and they were also welcomed (possibly due to the fact that Ximena had three younger sisters). There seemed to me to be a lot of people always at Ximena’s home, coming and going, sitting down for “onces” (afternoon tea with toast covered with avocado spread, scrambled egg, or just plain salty butter and blackberry jam), or at the dinner table during the week or for lunch on the weekend. The Fernandez Gonzalez home was a very social place, and I began to be introduced to the multitude that was their family and friends. I have a lot of endearing memories (and some not so endearing, due to the difficulty I had at that time communicating and understanding in Spanish), but one strong feeling I recall having at the time was how many “tios” there were in Ximena’s family. There was Tio Oscar, Tio Juan, Tio Lalo (in fact, there were two Tio Lalos), Tio Mario, Tio Miguel, Tio Erik, Tio Raul, Tio Gonzalo, Tio Sergio, Tio Julio (El Guaton). Wow. I had never had so much involvement with uncles in my life. They were everywhere. We joked together about “gringos”, drank lots of wine, ate wonderful food, and generally had a great time. They all loved to tell me about parts of Chile I didn’t know, secrets about other family members I had not heard, and stories about my father-in-law they should not have told. But besides the relationship I was beginning to have with the “tios”, there was another dimension to the “tio” that I was becoming aware of. Whenever I met the young children of relatives, and even of just friends, they called me “Tio”. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out how Ximena could have so many uncles, and why so many kids thought I was their uncle.
It took me a very long time to work through all the relationships and figure out who were Ximena’s true “tios” (she had two: Tio Sergio and Tio Miguel). All the other “tios” were either married to true “tias”, that would be Tio Juan and one Tio Lalo, or more distant relatives where “tio” was the most conventional and convenient label to attach to them, like cousins of Ximena’s parents, spouses of cousins, etc. As I began to get all this sorted out, I also understood better that either by design or by habit, children in Chilean culture learn at a very young age to call male friends of the family “Tio”. I have been told this is another way Chileans make friends feel welcome and closer to the family. I believe Children pick the habit up very easily, and like it, because they never have to learn any friend’s name, just “Tio”. So this explains why whenever male friends of Ximena’s parents would drop by their home, or we would see them at social events like weddings, funerals, baptisms, and parties, Ximena and her siblings would refer to them all as “Tio”. This of course led to more confusion for me as to who was related to Ximena, and who was just a friend of the family. Surely the difficulty I had early on sorting through the large number of “tios” in and around Ximena’s family was due to the fact that this family is made up of Fernandezes and Gonzalezes and half (or so it seems) of Chileans have one or the other of these last names. It is a big family. In spite of that, think I have the “tio” thing figured out. And for however difficult sorting this out has been for me, I must admit the Chilean “institution” of the “Tio” has brought me many rewards and memories, some of small, material importance, some with social, long term implications, and some of meaningful personal value, all enriching my life, and worth telling about.
When we decided to buy an apartment in Santiago so we could spend part of each year in Chile, we also needed a car to use during our annual visits. While shopping around for the right one, I discussed the options with Matias, one of the sons of Patricia who had been our secretary in the Peace Corps office in the 1970s. At the time he was working for the company that sells Hyundai cars in Chile.
Much to my surprise, Matias told me soon after our conversation, that he could get me the kind of car I wanted with the “employee family member” discount. OK, that would be great I said, but I’m not a member of your family. Matias proudly declared “But Tio David, yes you are”. Sold!! We drive that car to this day, and I am still his “Tio David”.
What has become increasingly meaningful to me as time passes and we spend more time in Chile is the relationship I have had and still have with Ximena’s Tio Miguel.
Tio Miguel is my mother-in-law’s (Ana Luisa) brother, and has become Ximena and my best friend, confidant, and next-door neighbor in our apartment complex in Santiago. Tio Miguel befriended me very early in my relationship with Ximena, and well before we were married he and his wife Eliana took us to many places we could otherwise not have gone, such as to a small, lovely town an hour from Santiago on the road to the coast, Curacavi, for lunch on Sunday at the well-known Hotel Ingles, and to the Teatro Municipal in Santiago to see the opera “Carmen”. (I recall the latter experience well because we sat in a special box in the balcony of this beautiful old theatre, but also because at the intermission I stood and put on my coat to leave, revealing my total ignorance of this opera ,and any other for that matter. Since this embarrassing event, we have lived a few years in Italy and I am a bit more familiar with opera, and when it is appropriate to leave.) Tio Miguel is still a hard working local court judge, who is always there when we need a problem solved, or just a dinner companion or partner for a late night glass of scotch. Over the years he has tried to “explain” Chile and Chileans to me, although it seems to me that as I become better informed by him I am more optimistic about the future of Chile, but he grows more pessimistic. He sees increased corruption where I see a positive trend towards transparency and more open addressing of problems too long covered up. He sees a drastic societal breakdown of traditional respect and public comportment, where I see freedom breaking out, uncomfortably perhaps, after a long period of forced restraint and false security. These differences are possibly due to different expectations, or different perspectives based upon our very different experiences, but regardless, I hope I am right.
Then there is Tio Juan. Tio Juan, Ximena’s father’s sister’s (Tia Carmen) husband, was an executive in a telecommunications company when I met him forty years ago. He always had a fondness and respect for the United States, and he always seemed genuinely happy to see me, so I was always relaxed when we were with him. Tio Juan introduced me to really good pisco sours, a serious predilection he and I still share. Whenever we visited Tia Carmen and Tio Juan at their home, while Tia Carmen prepared her famously delicious “chupe de locos”, Tio Juan would soon appear from the kitchen with a huge brandy snifter type vessel, brimming with frothy freshly made pisco sours. And when that one was finished, there was surely another.
I always had great fun talking, eating and drinking with Tio Juan, and to this day I greatly enjoy seeing him, sitting with him and reminiscing about the good old days we had together with Claudio, my father-in-law. We rehash the argument the three of us always had as to whether Concha y Toro’s Casillero del Diablo was a better wine than Corton from the Irrazuriz vineyard. Eventually they would turn to me to break the tie, and each time I had the right answer: “Let’s drink them both!” Tio Juan is gradually slipping into the haze of old age, which hopefully is as pleasant as the haze caused by his memorable pisco sours.
Now, there is another “Tio” who needs special treatment in this story about “tios”. My Peace Corps group was made up of mostly single young men in our early twenties. One of the foresters in this group was Charlie, a graduate from the University of Idaho, but originally from Mullica Hill, New Jersey. Charlie was sent to Collipulli, a very small town on the Malleco River in southern Chile, to work as a forester. While there, he recorded and compiled valuable biological and ecological information on the native Chilean forest, especially that of Tolhuaca National Park. As destiny would have it, Charlie met a young lady during his second year in Chile, who was from Santiago but who vacationed with her mother near Collipulli, and just prior to departing Chile Charlie and Angelica were married. A year later, also in Santiago just prior to returning to the United States, Ximena and I were married. On that day in 1970, Charlie, who was then living and working in Oregon, became my uncle: Tio Charlie!! You see, Angelica’s father was Ximena’s grandfather (but Angelica’s mother was not Ximena’s grandmother), so on the day Ximena and I were married, my Peace Corps buddy Charlie automatically became my uncle. This relationship prospered through the years after we left Chile, although he would occasionally complain that I was not showing the due amount of respect a “Tio” deserved from his “sobrino”. Tio Charlie passed away altogether too soon, about three years ago, but he is still my “Tio”, a “Tio” we all remember fondly.
So after all and after a slow start, my life has been duly enriched with uncles, and “Tios”, and for that I am forever grateful.
Written in Leesburg, Virginia, on November 6, 2010.
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