Voices | Bella English

Between father and friend

A beloved uncle’s passing leads to consideration of the important role such relatives can play

By Bella English
June 21, 2010

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been bombarded with advertisements for Father’s Day gifts and press releases on the changing role of fathers. But what about another important male role, one that gets short shrift?

Uncles. They’re usually portrayed as bumbling buffoons like those in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales’’ or as nefarious characters like Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter series or Scar in “The Lion King.’’

As someone whose uncle was a huge and loving presence in my life, I’d like to put in a good word for uncles in general and for my Uncle Mac in particular. Uncles exist in a funny gray zone somewhere between father and friend. With an uber-uncle, besides DNA and family history, you share all of life’s milestones, happy and sad.

Robert Milardo, a professor of family relations at the University of Maine, last year wrote a book called “The Forgotten Kin: Aunts and Uncles.’’ He interviewed dozens of aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews and was surprised at the depth of relationships. Of course, not all of us are close to our aunts or uncles. “But for some, their relationships are truly extraordinary — they fuse elements of parent-like obligations with friendship,’’ Milardo told an interviewer.

That would be true of my Uncle Mac, whom I teasingly called the Teddy Kennedy of our small extended family, for he was the Super Glue that held the three branches together. The youngest child and only boy in his own family, he grew up in a small Southern town with two older sisters, his parents and a slew of doting aunts.

During the civil rights era, he owned, published, wrote, and edited the weekly Cheraw (S.C.) Chronicle. While the large dailies trumpeted their support for segregation, Uncle Mac’s was a lone, courageous, and consistent voice in opposition. For that, he and his family were threatened, shots were fired through their windows, “For Sale’’ signs placed in their yard. The more polite folks simply crossed the street when they saw him coming. It’s no coincidence that of the 10 first cousins — including his own son — four of us became journalists.

Uncle Mac was family-minded from the time he was a young man, stepping up whenever his mother and sisters had various crises. Later he became the devoted uncle to eight nieces and nephews whom he claimed to love as his own. (Thanks for sharing him, David and Molly!)

Uncle Mac never missed a family event; in fact, he was the instigator of most of them, hosting, roasting, and toasting. He and Aunt Ann (aunts rock, too) were there when my son was christened, and they threw my daughter’s college graduation party — at their retirement center.

It was unusual for a man of his era to be so family-minded, and it was a role he cherished. I believe that, raised with so many women, he had a feminine heart.

Uncle Mac was the family historian, and could go back generations talking about his great-great-great-grandfather or a “fourth cousin, once removed.’’ He loved boxer dogs, history, Bette Davis, and Duke basketball. He made the best fudge on the planet. He was brilliant and hilarious, a talker and a contrarian, never using one word when 10 would do. Before computers, he’d send 15-page letters, scribbled on both sides, including the margins and the back of the envelope. After computers, he’d write e-mails that filled screen after screen.

In an e-mail before the cancer surgery that led to his death in April, Uncle Mac wrote a parody of his own obituary. Noting that many obits begin with, “So and so died after a courageous fight with cancer,’’ he wrote: “A.M. Secrest died this week after a long, cowardly battle with cancer. Secrest, never known to make the best of a bad situation but often the worst of the best ones, whined and complained so much that when the curtain was finally drawn everyone who knew him drew a quiet breath of relief.’’

More seriously, he said, he wanted to live as long as possible, to satisfy his curiosity about the elections in 2010 and 2012, among other things. But most of his last e-mail was about family. In a P.S. he wrote: “I was just thinking how lucky I am to have eight such great nieces and nephews and their wives, and husbands, all of whom I feel as if they were daughters and sons.’’

For those of us who have had an Uncle Mac in our lives, it is we who are the lucky ones.

Bella English can be reached at