SAN DIEGO — Father’s Day makes me sentimental. Never mind that the day plays second fiddle to one with a bigger name. Mother’s Day has been an official U.S. holiday since 1914, but Father’s Day has been on the calendar only since 1972.
On previous Father’s Days, I’ve reflected on my own father, who is about to turn 73, and on my becoming a dad. I’ve acknowledged that raising, with my wife, three children under the age of 10 is the most important job we’ll undertake as a couple. Being a dad is also my most humbling gig, since I go around feeling as if I’m always making mistakes.
Yet, this Father’s Day is a somber one, and so my mind is on something else. Or rather someone else. I’m thinking about those family members who step up and make a conscious effort to involve themselves in the life of a child. Even though they don’t have to, and with no one asking them to, they treat that child like one of their own and become an additional father figure.
It’s time to celebrate uncles, especially those who make the strongest impression on their nieces and nephews and impact those lives for the better.
I was blessed to have a few uncles like that. In Spanish, we call them tios. My father had four older brothers, and they were all attentive and supportive of me and my adventures – or, as sometimes was the case, misadventures. But the one who invested the most time and made the strongest impression was my uncle Waldo, who died three months ago. His birthday is the week after Father’s Day, and he would have been 78.
My uncle had two sons. My cousins were close to me in age, and so I was around them a lot growing up. This gave my Uncle Waldo the chance to look out for me, and he did that exceptionally well my entire life. He did whatever he could to make sure that I was happy and successful. He took my cousins and me to movies, arcades and baseball games to watch his favorite team, the San Francisco Giants. His life changed about 35 years ago, when he was hit by a car and paralyzed. But in the decades that followed, I never saw him wallow in pity or fester with anger.
What I saw was that he became even more involved in the lives of the people he cared about, and I was privileged to be among them. We would visit and laugh and talk for hours, as he delighted in relaying to me his strongest memories – both good and bad.
Born in 1936 in Central California, he grew up in an era when discrimination against Mexican-Americans was a fact of life, and opportunities were scarce. Back then, being a success meant landing a job indoors, in a place with air conditioning. Most Mexican-Americans worked in the fields, canneries or packing houses.
One day, while picking cotton with the rest of the family when he was about 15, my uncle got a scolding from my grandfather, who wanted him to be more like those other young people in the fields who were picking much faster. My uncle responded that he didn’t want to excel in that arena but to escape it.
A few years later, he went to work for the state forest service, putting out fires. He got that job when a kindhearted supervisor, an Italian-American, helped him fill out the paperwork because, he told my uncle, “we minorities have to stick together.” Eventually, he worked as an investigator for the county public defender’s office, where he put his Spanish-speaking ability and people skills to work in defense of due process and the rights of the accused.
I like to think he made a difference. But my Uncle Waldo’s greatest legacy is that he was simply a good dad, and a good uncle. That’s enough.
Today, I’m an uncle to six little ones – the sons and daughters of my wife’s sisters. I spend a lot of time trying to take care of them and make sure they don’t miss out on anything. My in-laws sometimes seem mystified, and ask me why I’m doing it.
I don’t have a choice, I tell them. It’s a family tradition. Besides, I had a great role model.
Happy Father’s Day, Tio. And thank you.
Ruben Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Reach him at [email protected]