80. Uncle Bernie

80. Uncle Bernie

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


Uncle Bernie

If it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right.

~Bob Basso

Our Uncle Bernie was a true Mr. Malaprop, and he was invariably funny and outrageous, and at the same time always lovable and kind. He was not a real uncle, but a very distant cousin of my maternal grandmother. However, I did not know that until I was an adult. He was always with the family at every holiday, wedding, funeral… come to think of it, he was there every weekend, too!

He was great fun and loved being with the children, but he never got all of our names straight. To make it easier for him, Uncle Bernie gave all of us nicknames. In this way, he could remember who we were and who we belonged to.

“Okay, you are Penny, daughter of Jenny, and you are Skinny, daughter of Minnie,” and on and on until all of the children had a new name and a permanent label. Those nicknames stayed with us throughout our childhood and, in some cases, until today.

He loved watching the evening news, especially during the days of Huntley and Brinkley. Uncle Bernie would go on and on about the intelligence and dignity of those two commentators. Unfortunately, he never got their names quite right. To this day, we laugh at his admiration of that famous team, “David and Brinkley!”

Uncle Bernie was always very generous. However, he was never quite sure about the actual date of anyone’s birthday. So, to cover himself, he kept wrapped presents in the trunk of his car. When he arrived at Grandma’s house for Sunday dinner, he was ready in case it was someone’s birthday.

As the birthday cake was ablaze with candles, Uncle Bernie would rush out to his car to retrieve a gift. The problem was, he never identified the present, so he was never sure what was in the box, or whether it was for a male or female.

This led to many laughs for the adults and much confusion for the children. On my tenth birthday, I received a brightly colored tie from Uncle Bernie. My cousin, who had a birthday close to mine, received a pair of lovely earrings—not especially appropriate for a twelve-year-old boy. Needless to say, we swapped gifts that day.

Uncle Bernie prided himself on his driving ability. He was the self-appointed family driving instructor. As I look back, our parents were foolhardy to give this responsibility to Uncle Bernie. However, it was probably easier for them. Besides, what could possibly happen?

It was the 1950s, and schools were just introducing driver’s education classes. In New Jersey, you had to be sixteen to get a permit and seventeen to get a license. Since we were from a large, extended family, there were five cousins eligible to get permits that year. Uncle Bernie decided he would be our driving instructor.

What qualified him for this position? Nothing, except for the fact he had never had an accident, or so he said.

So one Saturday, he put all of us in his 1956 Chevrolet Sedan, and off we went to a nearby open field. When we arrived at the field, Cousin #1 got into the driver’s seat with Uncle Bernie riding shotgun. The rest of us were in the back seat patiently awaiting our turn at the wheel.

The car had a stick shift on the steering wheel. None of us had any experience with Uncle Bernie’s car. He quickly explained the steps to us: turn on the ignition; step on the clutch; put the gear shift into first; slowly step on the gas and release the clutch; and go. Boy did he go! Cousin #1 went so fast, he hit a tree. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but we were scared.

Uncle Bernie was very calm and told us not to worry. He would take care of everything. He told us to get out of the car and walk home, and we would all meet at Grandma’s house where we were expected for dinner.

As we gathered for dinner, Uncle Bernie said he would like to say grace. With our heads bowed, he said, “Let us all give thanks for family, friends, and trees. If that tree was not planted just where it was, I would have hit the cow wandering in the field.”

Giggles were buried in our hands, and the incident was never discussed again. We all took driver’s education in school.

Uncle Bernie is long gone, but never forgotten. He is remembered fondly, and his stories are repeated time and time again at family gatherings.

~Helen Xenakis

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