Anyone who has taken geometry is probably familiar with the concept of “similarity”, in which two shapes share the same angles and proportions, although they may be of very different sizes. This is often seen in right triangles, which may share the same angles but can be seen as larger or smaller versions of each other. I thought of this concept recently when I re-connected with a cousin, not in the currently common “Facebook” way but in the old fashioned way, over the telephone, as he stopped in to visit my grandmother.
My grandmother, who is ninety nine years old, is experiencing the final stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, and now spends her days being visited by people from her past, some of whom are still alive. Thanks to the angels from Hospice and my mother’s constant care, she recently arrived at a peaceful place where she spends most of her time conversing with people who died years ago. I am almost surprised that she does not offer them something to eat, a hallmark of politeness in Italian families. Once, she scolded my sister to be sure to wish her grandfather (who died in 1984) good night. My sister didn’t blink, but told her to wish him good night for her, since she could not see him.
My cousin was one of the people who came in person to visit her last week. He is the son of her youngest brother, who had always been my favorite uncle. Her brother had been one of several children she had taken into her home over the years when they needed someone to care for them, and he had grown up more as an older brother to her two children than as an uncle. He always intrigued me, and became a model for the role that people in a family can play in the lives of other family members. It is one that I hope to follow as I play the role of aunt to several children in my family, especially my youngest niece, since it is already obvious that she is academically gifted. It is clear that it not only takes a village to raise a child, but often an entire rowdy, Italian extended family.
This uncle lived outside of New York City, and lived a life that seemed so much more exciting to the teenager I was than any life I could picture in my home town. I remember stories of his wedding reception in a famous New York hotel, and wondered what my life would have been like if I had grown up with such immediate access to the “Big Apple.”
He had two children, a boy and a girl, and I have a vivid memory of the two of them taking us around their neighborhood one day. As one gave directions, the other tried to muddle things by injecting the word “right” to mean correct, when in fact my dad who was driving should be turning left. I had never thought of the fact that there were two meanings to the word “right” before, and sat in the back seat laughing. It was a major insight on my way to learning, as one English professor said, how to “play with words."
He was a teacher, an intellectual in a family where respect and income were most often earned the hard way, with back-breaking labor. When he wrote a book during my teen years, I decided I wanted to do the same someday. The book was about his philosophy of teaching, and I read it at a time in my life when I imagined myself growing up to be a lawyer, wearing business suits and carrying a brief case. This is, of course, very different from the “business casual” attire and tote bags that are my ordinary uniform in academia.
He was a passionate teacher, the kind I have aspired to be since the first days I stepped into the classroom. I suspect that the ideas in his book influenced my own journey as a teacher, and I intend to go back and re-read it someday. A copy of his book sits on an antique bookcase my father rescued, next to my dissertation and a copy of the book “Mama, Ph.D.”
My cousin, my uncle’s son, immediately picked up where my uncle had left off when he died over 25 years ago. He encouraged me in my writing and my work as a professor, and sent me to two places on the web. One was a site where he shares spiritual thoughts; I was not surprised by this, as he and his sister were the first in our family to be educated by the Jesuits. The other was a web site for a business he is part of. On that site, I saw a picture of him, and was startled at how much it looked like the memory I have of his father. Like similar triangles, they were alike in essential ways, but different in others.
These days, my grandmother spends a lot of time hearing from people who have died a long time ago. This last week, when I reconnected with my uncle’s son, in many ways I did, too.