My mother kept a journal of sorts when we were kids, into which she pasted news clippings, wrote down jokes she liked, and where she stuck cartoons by her brother Donnie. I used to sneak looks at the journal (some of the jokes were what they used to call “risqué”, and she frowned on unsupervised browsing) and I came across this cartoon by Uncle Don. I must have been five or six, and was in the middle of my first artistic period, feverishly drawing soldiers shooting each other, houses with the front door on the ground floor and all the windows on the second floor and the chimney coming out of the roof at an angle, and cars which rolled on the tops of their wheels. Uncle Don’s cartoon was a revelation! Here was a grown man doing this stuff! Was it possible that I didn’t have to go in the army and then get a job in a factory and be a dull grown-up reading the paper and filling his pipe with tobacco? Could I draw cartoons my whole life? Uncle Don had already cultivated a black-sheep reputation in the family. He wrecked his car, he was caught drinking, he smoked (well, they all smoked) and he flunked out of college. When he visited us, his wicked smile lit up our cloister like Lenny Bruce walking into a cathedral. When he began a joke, we’d cast nervous glances at Dad, wondering how long he’d let it go on before shutting things down.
But Uncle Don loved Mom and Dad. Mom we could understand. She was his sister, after all. His affection for Dad made us shake our heads in wonder. One of my favorite moments in the last twenty years was at my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party, where they had chosen Donny as their keynote speaker. Here, in the middle of comfortable middle-aged church-going Ohio, he gave a speech that would have made Don Rickles livid with envy. It was a joy to see these people stunned by his ribaldry and “dirty words”. When he began riffing on Mom and Dad having oral sex on the dining room table, there were audible gasps. It was a beautiful moment.
Several years later, when Dad died, Uncle Don flew in from the West Coast to be with him. When Dad left, Donny cried.
Now it’s Uncle Don’s turn. He died Sunday. I wasn’t close to him; we rarely talked. But there’s an Uncle Don inside me. He gave me permission to draw funny pictures for a living. He told me it was not the end of the world to flunk out of college. He taught me the pleasures of being scandalous among stuffed shirts. He’ll live as long as I do.