We were all together at a family gathering in Chicago: uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, my mother, my Aunt Libby, and my Uncle Jack. Also significantly present were my sisters, Selma and Linda, and my cousins, Alice and Eileen.
These get-togethers were rare, because distances are great. Some of us came from California; others from Canada; still others from New Mexico, Georgia, and New York.
That being the case, updates about sweethearts, marriages, jobs, and children were edge-of-seat topics of conversation. Then one of us (Okay. So it was me) slipped up and said, “You realize, of course, that I am Uncle Jack’s favorite.”
Before I continue with my story, I must provide an abridged introduction to Jacob Reuben, since he was the precipitating factor of the resulting bugaboo.
Uncle Jack was a cross between a gnome and a titan. His stature was somewhat small, but his soul was easily able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. He endlessly encouraged his children, nieces and nephews to tackle gigantic challenges, chase rainbows, and pursue unconventional dreams. Did I want to be a writer? Go for it. Did my oldest brother want to make movies? Of course, he could. Did my youngest brother want to write poetry? Excellent career choice. Did his son want to be a private detective? Sure. Why not? Did my sisters want to marry their childhood sweethearts, divorce their husbands, seek true love, take risks, be generous, be impractical, and be wildly successful?
A piece of cake.
To Uncle Jack, the impossible was not only attainable, it was a paper-trained puppy. He believed (and because of him, we believed) that the unattainable was just a heartbeat away. So, of course, we adored him. And he adored us. Well, not actually “us” as a group, because we each assumed that … but instead of describing our assumptions, I will transport you back to the family gathering at which I had blithely announced, “I am Uncle Jack’s favorite.”
My cousin Alice turned to me, her eyes blazing – or were they laughing? – and she said, “Excuse me, but you aren’t Uncle Jack’s favorite. I am. He’s told me that at least a hundred times.”
I could stop now to describe Alice, her sister Eileen, and my sisters Selma and Linda, but we all pretty much fit the same template. Brown hair. Huge dark eyes. Nice features. Obstinate. Opinionated. Strong. Reasonably attractive. And absolutely convinced that nobody could or would love anyone as much as he, she, or it could love us (meaning whichever of us was boasting about being loved at the time.)
Within minutes, the conversation Alice and I was having about who Uncle Jack loved best had escalated to include the rest of the cousins, all of whom had experienced similar glowing exchanges with our father’s brother. We truly did love him, and individually, each of us would have done anything for him. But when the opportunity arose to join together, put him on the spot, and make him uncomfortable (Oh…how we had underestimated Uncle Jack), we could not resist.
I looked at Alice. Alice looked at Eileen. Eileen looked at Selma. Selma looked at Linda. Linda looked at me. We were an army of five. In lockstep, we marched across the room to confront that mighty little man.
He turned to us. I can still see the twinkle in his narrow eyes and the abbreviated smile on his angular face. And I can easily conjure up his ability to single us out. I was not with my sisters and cousins; I was alone. They were not with their sisters and cousins; they also were alone. It was a masterly bit of magic.
His smile widened. He waited. Then, interrupting each other with staccato bursts of indignation, we attacked:
“Every time we talk…”
“On the phone…”
“Or every time I come over…”
“To your house…”
”You tell me …”
“That I’m your favorite…”
“Which is what…”
You have always told me…”
“Surely, we can’t all be your favorite. So…”
In unison, we circled my diminutive relative (we towered over him), and with accusatory eyes, waited for his response.
Uncle Jack. My sweet, smart, clever, adoring and adorable Uncle Jack. Oh. How I miss him. How each of us misses him. He smiled his all inclusive and completely individuating smile, raised his right hand, spread his fingers, held them out before us, and asked, “Do you see this hand?”
“I have five fingers on this hand.”
We nodded again.
“How could you expect me to pick which is my favorite finger?”
I looked at Alice. Alice looked at Eileen. Eileen looked at Selma. Selma looked at Linda. Linda looked at me. We looked back at Uncle Jack.
Brilliant. Absolutely Brilliant.
Five fingers. Five cousins. One living in California. One in Georgia. One in Chicago. One in Ottawa. One in New York.
And each, Uncle Jack’s favorite.
Impossible to argue with that.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com