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.