The Broadswords Were a Crucial Accessory

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After completing her B.A. in English and Philosophy at the University of Richmond, Brigid Duffy left the capital of the Confederacy to pursue a career in book publishing in New York City. While she’s not copy editing computer science books, Brigid writes for Being for the Benefit, an online arts and culture magazine which she founded in the Fall of 2010. An avid runner, Brigid is a member of the New York Harriers, a competitive running team based in Manhattan. She completed her fourth New York City Marathon last November, and she hopes to one day write a novel about running. As a former student of Matthew Quick, Brigid is delighted to contribute to Q4K.

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My Uncle Gutta

I have a habit of looking up the etymology of words when I don’t know what to write about. Usually this ritual is just a stylized method of procrastination. But sometimes, when I know where a word has been, I feel more equipped to take my own words where they need to go.

When I set out to write an essay for Q and Alicia, I learned that kindness comes from “kin.” To be treated kindly is to be treated as if one were a relative, a part of a family. It is to be recognized as one-with; to be welcomed-in, to be claimed as one’s own. How funny, then, that the kindness that we bestow upon family members is often the most difficult kind of kindness to impart.

My Uncle Gutta was not always treated kindly by my family, but he still called often, persistent in winning over our affection. I suppose he thought that love is a reflection of one’s phone bill. Whenever the familiar 717 area code lit up our caller ID, my two sisters and I tossed around the portable phone like a game of hot potato. You answer it!… I answered it last time. It’s your turn! It wasn’t that we disliked Uncle Gutta, but the man could talk. Pick up a call unsuspectingly, and poof! the next 90 minutes of your life could dissipate like snowflakes in an ocean.

One dog day in late July, Uncle Gutta rang. It was a particularly hazardous time of year to answer the phone, as Uncle Gutta would inevitably urge my sisters and me to make the long drive out to his home in Lancaster County and attend the nearby Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. (He already had all the necessary gear). After seven years of politely saying, “I’m busy all twelve of those weekends,” you start to run out of excuses.

“Hey Uncle Gutta. What’s up?”

“Well, I’m sorry to say that Ballsey just passed away unexpectedly.”

“Oh wow…I’m so sorry.” Who the hell was Ballsey?

“He was a cat that no doubt lived up to his namesake. But he’s in a place of peace now.” That was Uncle Gutta, always given to born-again Christian rhetoric ever since he got sober several years prior.

“Of course.”

“So when are you guys gonna come out to my pad? I tell you what, the Celtic Fling at the Renaissance Faire is this Saturday, how bout you guys come for that?”

“That sounds great,” I said, my tongue doing the talking without consent. “This weekend could work.”

“Really? Great. I’ll see you on Saturday around 8am.”

He hung up before I had the chance to change my mind. It was the shortest phone call of Uncle Gutta’s life.

When my younger sister and I set out to Lancaster the following Saturday morning, it was already a sultry 96 degrees. I looked at my sister, whom I had mercilessly thrown into this visit. Scorn emanated from her small frame.

L’enfer, c’est la ren faire,” I quipped, faux-dramatic. I knew my sister appreciated the pun because even the worst of siblings have a knack for nailing each other’s sense of humor. She did a damn good job of keeping a straight face.

After a long drive up West 76, we were met by Uncle Gutta, a beefy six-foot marine with nine-and-a-half fingers. Wearing an authentic Scottish kilt, a body-hugging Irish flag shirt, a do-rag, and a 30 inch sword buckled to his side, I couldn’t tell if he was going for “Pirate” or “Renaissance Guy.” The distinction was negligible. He proceeded to show us around his backyard: part enchanted garden, part junkyard.

“This is a scratching post that Ballsey preferred. But he also liked that one,” he said, pointing across the heap of outdoor knickknacks. “And this is where Ballsey used to take naps a lot,” steering us towards an undifferentiated mark in the ground. No doubt, in Uncle Gutta’s mind, the whole mound of stuff in the yard emanated Ballsey’s spirit at the height of his powers, embodying all of the time-honored and much-loved Ballsey characteristics and quirks.

“This is a special rock that I dedicated to Ballsey. He liked it here a lot too. And this is a spot where I come to pray for our family…and for Ballsey.” He paused, and I noticed he tilted his head back, slightly, hoping his eye would reabsorb the single tear that fell slowly down his cheek.

“You know, it’s really great you guys came here.” It was the only statement I’ve ever heard him say without that goofy-uncle undertone. And I realized that here was a simple guy who lived in the boonies and missed the hell out of his cat.

“I’m glad we came too, Uncle Gutta.” The moment the words left my lips, I realized they were true.

“Me too,” my sister chimed in. And I saw that she too had softened.

But the moment passed, and it was back to business.

“Ok then, let’s see what’s on the agenda for the day. We got the Tartan Terrors performing at 10, jousting at 11, Irish step dancing at 12:30, Her Majesty’s Royal Performers at 3, and then the Tartan Terrors again at 6.”

“Ok then,” I said. “We’ll make a day of it.”

On the long ride home, as near-heat stroke subsided into exhaustion, I thought a lot about why, out of all of the times that Uncle Gutta begged us to visit, I was so quick to say, “yes” this time. I’m still not sure, but perhaps being part of a family is to recognize—even subliminally—when one of your kin is in need of some familial care. We monitor our actions so painstakingly with friends, co-workers, and even strangers. But family members, for better or worse, often get our auto-pilot selves. Within families, showing kindness is not often a deliberate act. Rather, it is an instinctive reaching out, a recognition of a need in our kin, and we will do our best to fill it—even if it’s done while kicking and screaming.

When my sister and I saw Uncle Gutta the following holiday, he presented us each with our very own broadsword. They were the kind of shiny, single-edged serious weapon that any good parent would not allow in the house. My mother took one look at them and muttered, “What the hell are you gonna do with that?”

But to Uncle Gutta, the broadswords were a crucial accessory for next year’s Celtic Fling. “Last year you got your feet wet, but next year you guys gotta go all out.”

We smiled graciously, knowing it was his only way of saying, “Thanks for coming.”

~Brigid Duffy

Next Thursday, an essay by Paul King.

12 Responses to “The Broadswords Were a Crucial Accessory”

  1. Q says:

    Couldn’t be prouder of my former student. Funny, smart, well-written, and most important….kind. Hey world, look for more from Brigid Duffy in the near future. She’s on her way! You rock, BD. Truly.

  2. Oh Uncle Gutta. What a character. And what a lesson in kindness. Sometimes all you need to do to be kind is spend a little time with someone. Pay them a small amount of attention. Those closest to me no doubt get the ugliest parts of me – the impatient, ungenerous parts. Time to change that. Thanks, BD, for your example and humor.

  3. Kent says:

    Very well-written and touching. I am not so tight with my family but see my close friends as my kin. It’s odd how the “family first” thing wasn’t embedded into my life as much as I see it in others. I get jealous, at times, when I see how tight my girlfriend is with her family. But she just rolls her eyes and says that they drive her crazy more often than not. I would love to have my relatives driving me crazy. Sometimes, I think that is just proof of closeness.

  4. Excellent essay and funny, too. Well made point about kindness within the family. Thank you for sharing that with us. Good luck with your sword fight next year.

    Aside: A while back a guy told me that he had been going through the airport in Lima,Peru, and in the bin where things not allowed on the aircraft are put there was a broadsword. Go figure.

  5. Vera K. says:

    Beautiful essay Brigid! Besides being very close with my family overseas, I also believe you create your own family amongst your friends in your adult life. At the same token it seems like kindness within your own family is often taken for granted resulting in an “auto-pilot self”. Makes me more aware of giving them the best of me more often!

  6. Heather Leah says:

    Such a sweet essay, Brigid! Thanks for sharing. And yes, Uncle Gutta is quite a character. I think sometimes with family, we feel the obligation factor; after all, we don’t get to “pick” our families (or do we?). But I think you’re so right about just seeing and acknowledging the lonliness of an old uncle who misses his cat and responding to that intuition in kind. That’s where the softening starts and the rest is a lot easier. Nicely done!

  7. Elise says:

    Terrific post! And I’m very jealous that you’re A) a speedy marathoner, and B) a multi-NYC marathoner. I ran it (slooooowly) many years ago, and I’m very excited to do it again in November (automatic entry — denied 3 times in a row).

    Here’s the real question… do you still have the broadsword?

  8. Paul says:

    This was great. I think the Uncle Guttas in all our families really appreciate when we reach out like you did, perhaps even more than they let on. That’s awesome you got a broadsword.

  9. BD says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the very kind comments, and to Q and Alicia for encouraging me to contribute.

    Elise: Exciting that you’re doing the NYC marathon again! Marathon day has become one of my favorite days of the year, for better or worse. I will be sure to look for you.

    And the broadsword is safely tucked away at my parents’ house, though Uncle Gutta can’t understand why I didn’t bring it to NYC with me.

  10. This is a really great story. I love that for this instance she decided to go without hesitation as if ]she unconsciously could sense his need for family.

    Its funny because our family are the ones that we assume already love us and can be taken for granted. It is important to focus correctly and see that everyone needs our kindness.

  11. Y Holmes says:

    Inspiring story! Just wanted you to know that I just read the Reader’s Digest version of your story and was struck by the truth of the lesson within it. You are so right when you state how we carefully monitor our actions with everyone except family and family gets the autopilot self. I have recently become aware of my actions that you describe to a T. Your story encourages me to be more conscious of my behavior.

    Thank you

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