The first writer I ever met was my Uncle Joe. He was tall, with a fading cap of screwy red hair, big mischievous eyes, and a smile that might have been drawn by Dr. Seuss.
I remember him saying to my younger brother and me that there were goblins in his basement. No way were we going to fall for that. He opened the door, inviting us to take a look. “Go ahead. You can see them, can’t you?” We peered down the basement stairs, into the darkness, but saw nothing. “Whoa, there goes one, did you see it?”
Oh, just stop it, we said. There were no goblins. We could tell. “Well, you have to step a little closer,” he said. So, to prove how silly he was, we went down a step or two. Then he closed the door behind us and locked it.
It was so dark that we got scared and began to think that maybe there actually were goblins in the basement. We banged on the door and screamed until Uncle Joe came back to let us out.
I doubt this behavior would pass muster with today’s parenting experts; if not, all the worse for today’s children. Knowing Uncle Joe was a lesson in How to Be a Character. This is quite different from what people call character development, learning to overcome setbacks, rising to the occasion, and all those other painfully useful clichés.
As it happens, Being a Character is not exactly practical, but, among other virtues, it makes the long afternoons more bearable.
I call Uncle Joe the first writer I ever met, but he was never published, and he made his living as an accountant at IBM. His great accomplishment was raising seven children, all adults now—not a wallflower in the bunch. He was married for 54 years to my Aunt Ann, who recently told me, “It was no big love affair, but we had a great fondness for each other.”
I did have some inkling that Uncle Joe wrote, and I asked him about it once, but all I can remember is him telling me that he possessed the single largest collection of rejection slips on the East Coast. Yet that didn’t strike me as sad. It only took a moment of talking to Joe Howard to realize that books had brought him a huge amount of joy.
Sitting in the backyard of our family house in Queens, he once said to me, “There is only one word for God: ineffable.” If you asked him about his time in the Air Force, beginning in 1950, he’d say that he had enlisted to keep Gene Autry, Oklahoma, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, safe from the North Koreans. On the subject of World War II, he was an expert, having read loads of popular history sitting in an easy chair in his living room.
In 2008, my Aunt Ann discovered an old manuscript in her attic. It was a complete novel, along with some sample chapters and other evidence of Uncle Joe’s marketing efforts. Called The Tribe, it’s a coming-of-age story about growing up Irish in the Bronx during World War II. Full of overbearing parents, busybody priests, and other lower-class white people looking nervously over their shoulders, it’s an earlier version of the world rendered in Alice McDermott’s fiction, and an emotionally rich portrait in its own way.
To my cousin Brian, Uncle Joe’s son, it was “a one-of-a-kind thing.” Brian felt protective of the manuscript, and it gave him an idea. He scanned the fading pages into his PC, typing in many passages where the ink was too light for the scanner to pick up, and did a touch of copyediting. Then he found a way to self-publish the book.
It was intended as a Father’s Day gift, but the work took much longer than Brian, a professional journalist, anticipated. After missing a second self-imposed deadline for his father’s 77th birthday that fall, Brian redoubled his efforts and got the book finished in time for Christmas. With the whole family gathered, Brian made a speech. “I . . . told my dad he’d done something we were all proud of but for which I wasn’t sure he was proud enough.”
When Joe passed away this year, his friends and family talked a lot about the novel, and it made me think that, when all is said and done, who we want to be but never quite become says something important about the people we truly are. My Uncle Joe set aside a great love—for writing—to go on supporting his family as an accountant. I don’t suppose it ever occurred to him to regret the choice. Still, it was its own kind of fulfillment that his children loved him enough to notice.