I grew up in upstate New York, about four hours from my dad’s childhood home, where his family still lives. A few times a year, my family would pile into our car and head there, where, temporarily but immediately, we’d be swept into the warmth and intimacy of his family, who all lived close to one another. The shorthand that is endemic of a close-knit bunch, which this part of the family definitely shared, attracted my brothers and I, the “outsiders,” like magnets. They finished each other’s sentences, they had great senses of humor, and they had inside jokes that we’d become privy to during our visits.
All of this contributed to our deeming my dad’s side the “fun” side of the family. Often at the center of that fun was Uncle John, my dad’s brother-in-law, who loved a good practical joke, gave giant bear hugs, was never afraid to indulge in amusement, and laughed with his whole soul.
One Thanksgiving, references to someone named Uncle Buck were peppered throughout conversation. People were talking about him like we should know him. Like he’d been part of the story all along. My brothers and I eyed each other. Was there another uncle? One we had never met? Eventually, one of us asked, and we were looped in on what has become family legend. From where I’m standing now, it’s hard to parse out what’s fact, what’s family lore, and what I’ve invented in my mind. In my memory, it all plays out like a VHS copy of a family video:
One weekend while he and my aunt were visiting our other aunt and uncle in the Adirondacks, Uncle John was left in charge of four of my cousins — two of which were his own kids. He took the kids into the woods for a hike. A range of mishaps ensued. What I’ve always pictured is largely informed by 80s-style movies about kids getting into adventures: sliding down hills of leaves, getting trapped in Neverland-style booby traps, and being chased by bears. I’d bet at least one of those things happened on this famous day. Maybe two, maybe all three. And I believe at least one kid was lost at some point. Maybe two, maybe three. Maybe all four.
Later that day, after all of the kids were located and/or released from their booby traps, they all went back to my aunt and uncle’s house, which was an open-concept log cabin with big high ceilings. Above the living room was a loft that didn’t have a railing, making it perfect for the activity that really earned Uncle John his new name. Mattresses and blankets were laid down, and the kids jumped from the loft onto the cushioned living room floor.
That scene — kids ranging in age from 5 to 8 flying through the air — was the scene my aunts came home to. And thus, Uncle John was deemed “Uncle Buck.”
Uncle Buck, you may recall, is a character from a 1989 John Hughes film by the same name. The character, was a bumbling uncle who finds himself in totally over his head while babysitting his nieces and nephews. The punchline of his existence was that, though he had a big heart and good intentions, his time with the kids was full of mishaps.
Which brings me to my favorite thing about my Uncle Buck. Twenty years later, despite its potentially negative connotations, my Uncle Buck still embraces this nickname. Fully. Family members exclusively refer to him as Buck. I’ve heard him introduce himself as Uncle Buck. I recently watched him hand my cousin a bottle opener with an antlered deer on it. “It’s a buck from Buck,” he said, laughing his whole-self laugh.
Why? Rather than ask him (that would be too easy), let me tell you my theory, because it’s something I hold dear. I believe that my Uncle Buck loves his name because he so fully embraces being a part of a family. He’s many things — a photographer, a musician, a film buff — but with every ounce of his being, his anchor is in his family. He and my aunt, who are now in their 60’s, starting dating one another in 6th grade. Sixth grade! To this day, she’s his earth, moon, and stars, and their kids are the sparkle in Uncle Buck’s eye. Family is where his feet are planted, so being legendary for a role within it just feels right.
To me, my Uncle Buck is more iconic than the icon he’s named after. He’s the jovial heart at the center of family gatherings. The one who makes me — still an outsider to that shorthand my dad’s side of the family shares — feel like I’ve always been a part of the gang. He’s the family historian, keeping, explaining, and sharing photos from our decades together. He makes me birthday slideshows of old photos, celebrating all my years. He laughs his infectious, jovial laugh at my jokes. And even though I’m not as little as I used to be, his hugs still feel like big bear hugs. Like he just couldn’t wait to see me, he’s so happy I’m there, and he’s so happy we’re family. And so am I. Really, I couldn’t be happier.