Four years ago, I spent a month in northern Pakistan, researching Pashtun culture for my latest novel. My story centered on a pair of Pashtun siblings who migrate to the U.S. when the brother is recruited to play squash – the Pashtuns are among the best in the world at the game. Later, the sister character makes the mistake of falling in love with a Jew. So in my travels I wished to learn the Pashtun code of honor and their attitudes toward romantic love.
I stayed with a host family who took me around to various villages. Everywhere we went I was asked about my family. I had two grown sons, I explained to them, whom I’d brought up mostly as a single mother. They were aghast.
“Where were the uncles?” they asked.
Damn, I thought. Where were the uncles? Plenty of them existed – my brother and my ex-husband’s five brothers. But none of them had acted in accordance with Pashtun tribal norms.
When a father dies there, the uncles step in. They don’t take the place of the father, exactly – they know they can’t. Instead, they each take up some aspect of the fathering that’s called for. One uncle may oversee his nephew’s education. Another may take him on a trip to London. A third may simply move in with his widowed sister and be present for the small crises of adolescence.
But neither my brother nor my ex’s brothers had moved in with me; none had acted to pick up the pieces of fatherhood that my ex had left behind. When I returned to the U.S., I addressed an email to all of them. I described the tight-knit families I’d observed and mentioned my sons’ struggles in moving into manhood. I suggested that if any of them wanted to reach out to either of my offspring, that involvement would be welcome.
They are generous people, these six men. They have families of their own and have always expressed kindness toward me and mine. But I got no response from any of them. They weren’t prepared for Pashtun uncling.
Though my husband hadn’t died, he did suffer from a form of bipolar disorder that led to abuse in our home. Because he had been particularly hard on our older son, Peter, the two of them were strongly cathected, for good or – mostly – ill. By contrast, he had generally ignored our younger son, Sam. (I’ve maintained my sons’ privacy by using pseudonyms for them and others in this essay.)
By the time we finally separated, all the parenting responsibilities had fallen to me, but the need for a father goes beyond what a mother can give. Sam – two years Peter’s junior at eleven years old – went looking for surrogates. He found three of them, two of whom tried hard to give him what he needed and failed, and one of whom succeeded. How and why they failed and succeeded has much to do with what a boy without a good father may need, which is a good uncle.
Always athletic, Sam had become a gifted tennis player, so coaches were the likeliest source for role models. When we moved after the separation, Sam was quickly spotted by the local high-school coach known to everyone as Mac. Within a few weeks, Mac was stopping by our house to get Sam – still three years away from high school – out onto the courts. Mac became his USTA coach, his greatest booster and his harshest critic. Sam always returned his phone calls and took to quoting his advice. Mac referred to him as a “special kid,” and quickly grasped that Sam sorely missed a father’s presence.
Then came high school, which Sam entered under a perfect storm: his father was marrying a woman Sam had never met, I was beginning to date my future husband, and Sam’s older brother Peter was bullying him. Sam fell into a deep, resentful depression. He slept through his classes; he refused to do homework no matter what enticements I offered or what privileges I withdrew. He came alive only on the tennis court.
Mac was not only the high-school coach, he also taught a special class in a large basement room off the cafeteria for underachieving students. As Sam’s grades plummeted, Mac advocated for his being placed in that class. By Sam’s junior year, Mac was directing most of his academic program. Sam also led the high-school tennis team to victories the likes of which they had never seen before. But I was concerned about his future.
I approached Sam’s teachers at the high school. He had done no homework, they confirmed, and he either cut class or paid no attention. “Fail him,” I told them. “Please. Fail him. Once you fail him and he can’t play tennis, he’ll hit the books.”
Mac went to see the teachers shortly after I did. He urged them to give Sam passing grades. He wrote passes for Sam’s absences. He’d work with Sam, he promised; he’d see to it that Sam learned whatever he needed to learn. This didn’t work. Mac and I met with Sam’s guidance counselor. “I’m trying to help,” he told her. “It seems like I’m the only one who can help Sam. But if I’m just enabling—”
“You’re enabling,” she told him. “Knock it off.”
But he couldn’t. Nor could he resist writing Sam a letter of recommendation that got him into the only college that would take him. The others, despite Sam’s athletic prowess and the usual NCAA corruption, could not accept a student with his basement-level GPA and lackadaisical application. Had Sam failed to gain college admittance, he might have taken a gap year, might have realized that his strategies were not serving him well. But Mac wanted Sam’s love more than he wanted Sam to succeed in life. He also wanted, like all coaches, to win. At the celebratory dinner that June, Mac proposed a toast. “To the best player I have ever coached,” he said. “To the most outstanding season we will ever have.” He beamed like a proud parent, his pride blinding him to the failure he was nurturing.
But he wasn’t a parent, and he didn’t know how to be an uncle.
In Pakistan, I found, you address any older male who is in some position of intimacy with an authority over you as uncle. Even in my own childhood, when I had a father and two biological uncles, I called two other family friends “Uncle Bill” and “Uncle Art.” It was to Uncle Art I confessed a pregnancy scare at nineteen; Uncle Art who convinced me I was not pregnant but anorexic, that my periods would resume when I started eating more.
The right man can become an uncle by making a legitimate claim to that relationship. He can play that part fully and perhaps be, not a lesser version of a father, but another essential parent entirely.
Sam lasted eighteen months at his first college, where there was no Mac to oil his way through classes. By the time Sam dropped out, his life consisted of sleeping and playing poker. Enter Gary, the beloved racquet-sports coach at the college where I taught. Gary had had his eye on Sam since Sam rose to the top of USTA rankings. Not only had Gary himself suffered from depression, he also had a son who was recovering from heroin addiction. He threw himself into mentoring college athletes to compensate for what he saw as his failure with his own kid. Gary had saved many washed-out guys, and he knew – he just knew – he could save Sam.
Romantically, coaches weren’t my type. They brought out my tomboy nature, my sisterly regard. But I liked and respected Gary, and hope rose when he convinced Sam to take a couple of courses at the college, to prove that he could handle the work. That hope lasted two months, until the dean informed me that my son had again stopped attending classes. I appealed to Gary. Two weeks later, he called me.
“We had a heart-to-heart,” he said. “We sat on the floor of my office for two hours. I didn’t take any of his bullshit. But he can’t do this alone. He needs to be full-time, on campus, where he’s part of the community, part of my team.”
“He’s about to fail two classes,” I said, “and you want him to come on board for four?”
“A moon shot,” Gary said. “It’s the only way. You know, he could really harm himself if we don’t give him this chance. And I won’t let up on him.”
“Well, you talk to Admissions,” I said, turning the reins over. “I’m the mother. I’m not making this argument.”
That Gary would stick his neck out for this kid was enough for the Dean of Admissions, who gave him one full-time semester to make a college student out of Sam. While Sam flew to Bermuda for a poker tournament, Gary persuaded me to step in, to fill out the financial-aid forms, to request Sam’s high school transcript. Three days after classes began, I hauled Sam out of the apartment he’d rented and delivered him to his dorm. This didn’t look good, I told Gary. He had dealt with heroin, he assured me. He was putting Sam at #4 in the lineup, to remind him that he wasn’t to be a coddled star. He was a member of a team and could not let the team down.
Sure enough, Sam perked up. He got a girlfriend. He liked the other tennis players. He hung around Gary’s office, seeking his advice. He seemed happy. But on March 1st, I learned he had stopped attending classes. On March 2nd, I went to see Gary. He was tipped back in his chair, fielding a call from a prospective squash recruit in London. “You’ve got the power here,” I said. “I’m not even supposed to know he’s skipping.”
“I told him I’m not taking any bullshit. I think he believed me.”
“Then kick him off the team,” I said.
The crease in his brow drew his thick eyebrows together. “The team?”
“This is tennis camp to Sam,” I said. “He doesn’t give a shit about anything else. If you tell him he’s off the team, he’ll start attending class. If he attends class, he has a chance of passing. If he passes, he’s a college student. Maybe he gets the degree.”
Gary thought for a moment. “I can’t do it,” he said. “It wouldn’t be fair to the team.”
“You mean you might not win.”
“These guys are bonding. They’re excited about their season, with Sam.”
“It’s one season, Gary. Then Sam fails out, the team doesn’t have him, and he crashes.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Gary said. “He’ll listen to me.”
The team, no doubt, always gets consideration. For a Pashtun uncle, the team is the family – whose ancient codes can lead to violence. It’s not always pretty. On the other hand, an uncle isn’t in it just for the season. Ten years from now, they’ll still be this young man’s uncle. Gary’s teams lasted four years, at best; ten-year consequences fell elsewhere.
Two months later, Sam failed out. Six months later, he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital for eight weeks. Once back in the world, living alone in a rented room, lonely and lost, he wanted only to return to the heaven he’d been part of, on Gary’s team, but he could barely get himself out of bed except to play poker. I had one more card to play, and I decided to play it.
When Sam was in his mid-teens, a new president had taken over at my college. Fred was out of central casting – straight-backed, gracious, with a full head of silver hair. Welcoming him at the reception, I’d noted that he’d come from my hometown. It turned out that he had served with my father – an irascible Southern judge – on a church vestry, and admired my father deeply. Passing on the quad, Fred always greeted me with “How’s the Judge’s daughter?”
Now I went to him. “Not as your colleague or a faculty member, but as my father’s daughter,” I said. “I have a favor to ask.” I told him about my son. This college, I explained, was a sort of heaven for Sam, and Fred was its leader. “That makes you God,” I said.
I asked if he would meet with Sam, give him some words of advice, words Sam might listen to because they came from God.
“Once,” Fred said. “I’ll meet with him once. Have him call my secretary. I leave for Europe next week.”
Sam jumped at the chance to call the president. “Maybe he’ll get me back in!” he said.
“I don’t think so, honey,” I said. “But call him anyhow.”
They met. They met again when Fred got back from Europe. They met every week or so all through that fall and winter. If Sam were ever late for an appointment, Fred told him, Fred would not meet with him again. And no, Fred insisted when Sam told him that he was becoming like a father. Sam already had a father, unsatisfactory as he might be. Sam could consider Fred, if he wanted, as an uncle. And as his uncle, Fred insisted that Sam file taxes on his poker winnings. That he pay car insurance. That he take the job Fred could arrange for him on the college’s grounds crew, show up every day for the job, and work hard. Or Fred wouldn’t see him again.
I never knew what they talked about, at these meetings. I didn’t want to know. Fred did tell me once that at the end of each meeting, Sam hugged him. This astonished me. Sam had not hugged anyone, including me, for years.
An uncle can be hard or soft. He can cloak his power in his softness, and power is one of those replaceable aspects of fathering that a kid can long for, a sort of Look! That’s my dad! yearning. After a year of conferences with Fred, when Sam began talking about wanting a dog, Fred encouraged him to get one from the pound, to nurture it, to discover that he could save a life. Instead, Sam drove with a friend to a puppy-mill outlet where he put $250 down on a $1,000 retriever pup. When Sam took me to see the dog, it was very ill, and the cigar-smoking owner of the outlet extorted another $200 from Sam to hold this dying puppy one more week. For the first time in a year, I called Fred. I reminded him that the dog had been his idea. At Sam’s next meeting, Fred called the puppy-mill outlet. He was a college president, he reminded them, with plenty of friends in the chamber of commerce, and they were going to return $450 to this young man that instant or he would see them shut down within the week. When he’d hung up, he told Sam he did not plan to twist any more arms on Sam’s behalf, and Sam had better get his head screwed on right.
Fred was not a stellar college president. Two years short of his contract, he was drummed out by the board of trustees and took early retirement in the South. With trepidation and promises of regular phone calls, Sam kept it together in Fred’s absence. He stopped playing poker. Eventually he found his way back to health and his passion for sports.
Two years later, when Sam was teaching tennis on Hilton Head Island, he committed an innocent yet embarrassing faux pas that threatened to devolve into a legal crisis. I was at a choral rehearsal when Sam’s text arrived. I stepped out.
“I just got off the phone with Fred,” Sam said, his voice trembling. “I’m nervous to tell you, Mom. But Fred said I had to call you.”
“I’m listening,” I said.
What occurred to me, once the problem had blown over and Sam was able to push through it on his own, was that Fred had brought Sam into adulthood. His job now, as an uncle, was to step back, to return a grown-up Sam to his primary relationship, with his parent.
If it’s impossible, in the end, to be a surrogate father, it’s almost as hard to be a successful uncle. The relationships we form are so often reciprocal. Mac needed Sam to produce a winning streak and to make Mac feel important, and so with all the good Mac did, he got those things by giving Sam what he wanted – excused absences, a college recommendation – rather than what he needed. Likewise, Gary needed his team to be happy, and if Sam backslid, well, that was on Sam. Only Fred didn’t need Sam for anything. Why he made a project of Sam, I may never know; it can’t all have been for the sake of my own long-dead father. But by not needing him, Fred could be a true uncle. He could hold Sam to his word and his ability, to his best self. And then he could release him, not just to his mom, but to the world.