At a recent dinner in a candlelit Brooklyn restaurant, I became fully aware of my Great Uncle Pete. And by great, I mean he was my grandmother’s brother. My only hope is he somehow had his own brand of greatness. I’ll never know with certainty. Uncle Pete died long before I was born. Plus, my mother said, “He was a tragic figure.”
Through the years, I would occasionally hear his name at holiday gatherings, but it would quickly fade into the smoke of Aunt Agnes’ Newport menthols, swirls of potato steam and chaotic conversation.
It took a chatty meal with my parents and my mother’s brother to discover this shadowy ghost lurking on an outer branch of the family tree. That night, in the pinball-like herky-jerky of topics, Uncle Pete’s name popped up again. This time, I grabbed it and pressed with questions.
As it turns out, the official moniker on his birth certificate was Pierre, which doesn’t make sense for a kid born into an Irish family. In Brooklyn, no less, the most un-Pierre corner of the world. My mother informed me one of his many brothers once said, “It’s an odd name for an Irish guy.” Indeed.
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But! An Uncle Pierre! That little fact alone left me joyous, because I’ve always wanted to have a Pierre relative, but on my father’s side. My dad hails from France. An actual Uncle Pierre had been a missing link to all the wonderfully cliché French stuff my father’s family has proffered: a chef, an accordion player, a million relatives named Jean, gardening obsessions, oil paintings bearing my surname, old photos of folks in berets, flan skills. I could go on. (And by the way, sending extra thoughts and prayers to the folks of France at this time.)
But there I was, in the heart of Brooklyn, learning all along I had an American Uncle Pierre. I also learned he was quite the character. A rascal, it seems. As the waiter poured the wine, my mom and her brother recounted the time their uncle “made it” in the New York Daily News.
My mother quoted the headline: Police Nab Seven Punks. What? It seems one night Pete/Pierre was out imbibing a bit too much with his friends. As youngish drunk guys in the late 1940s tended to do, one of them pulled an old-fashioned outdoor alarm. Probably the kind you see in black and white movies. As the story goes, they thought it was for the fire department. It was a police alarm. The “punks” were promptly arrested, including Pierre. And get this — he falsified his info. He gave the police his older sister’s address. That sister happened to be my church-going, privacy-loving grandma. Her address was blasted right there in the paper, for all of New York City to see.
My mom will never forget the scene of her own mother reading the embarrassment aloud. Grandma put her hand to her heart. She gasped in sort of a holy-cow half-chuckle, “He gave my address!”
I’m glad my grandmother tried to laugh it off. What the heck. The saying goes, “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your relatives.” Here’s to Uncle Pierre for having that je ne sais quoi that makes family lore so … intriguing.
And that leads to my point. Tomorrow, if you happen to be gathering with family members who know more about the colorful characters in your lineage, why not stir the pot? Ask questions. It could lead to fun stories, or transport you to another era.
The only other nugget I learned about that rogue uncle of mine was that he showed up at my aunt’s elegant wedding ceremony with a toaster under his arm. It was wrapped in newspaper.
Great Uncle Pierre had a unique way of inking himself in family history. And my goodness, it seems he just did it again. Happy Thanksgiving!
Denise Snodell writes alternate weeks. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @DeniseSnodell