In Praise of Rich Uncles

Uncle Jimmy was my rich uncle. Actually, he wasn’t that rich, but he worked in New York City, so we thought he was loaded.

In fact, he wasn’t even really my uncle. He was my great uncle, my dad’s dad’s brother. I had a lot of aunts and uncles like that.

We called him Uncle Jimmy to distinguish him from my father, also named Jimmy—though called Hambone by most.

Uncle Jimmy wore bolo ties. Hambone didn’t (and doesn’t) wear bolo ties, or any kind of ties.

As if to punctuate his distinctiveness, Uncle Jimmy spelled his last name without the final “e”—Hennessy. Family lore chalked this up to a typographical error made by a traveling insurance salesman sometime during the Spanish-American War.

Uncle Jimmy lived during his golden years near a golf course on Cape Cod. He was a widower with no children, so the time came when he needed someone to look after him. He moved down to New Jersey to live among the extended family.

Toward the end, he needed full-time care in a nursing home. This meant that the house in Cape Cod sat empty. Uncle Jimmy was more than happy to let the Hennesseys (the ones with an “e”) keep his nice house company.

The place wasn’t right on the beach, but it wasn’t far. On Cape Cod, one never is.

For Hambone and family it was a vacation destination that was otherwise out of reach. We weren’t poor by any measure, but we were far from rich. We were probably somewhere on the low side of the middle.

It’s hard for any kid to know more than the basics about his parents’ finances, but even if we didn’t have spending money for fashionable clothes or the latest hit records, we never missed a meal or shivered in the cold.

Even when times were lean, my mom and dad always managed to scrape together enough to rent a little bungalow on the Jersey shore.

My dad had grown up in our town. He’d held a variety of “helping profession” jobs as he was starting his family. He moonlighted as a bartender for extra cash.

At 50, with the help of friends and family, he and my mother scraped together enough to buy the pub beside the train station. Though popular and beloved, Hennessey’s wasn’t the kind of place that was going to make anyone into a millionaire.

What my dad lacked in earning power he made up in what today is called “social capital.” He knew everybody and everybody knew him. Everything from the houses we lived in to the cars my parents drove to the clothes we children wore was in some way made possible by the inter-generational generosity of family and friends.

When there wasn’t enough spare cash to rent a shore house, special arrangements could always be made.

A week in a bungalow on the Jersey shore is great. Cape Cod is another world entirely. We went on whale watches and took trips to Lexington and Concord. We saw Plymouth Rock and ate lobstah. We spent a day wandering agog amid the madness of Provincetown. We listened to the Red Sox on the radio.

For a Jersey boy it was like going to the moon. For my parents, who were just starting to pay for college for my two older sisters, access to Uncle Jimmy’s Cape Cod house was a difference-maker. When our subsidized vacation was over and we returned to what I considered our humdrum suburban lives, I’d dream of living in Uncle Jimmy’s house.

“Boy, I’d sure love to have a house on Cape Cod when I’m grown up,” I’d think to myself.

Well, here we are. All grown up and still no house on Cape Cod. Not even close.

But I have something even more precious. The memory of ancient Uncle Jimmy sipping whiskey in an overstuffed chair at a Christmas party. The memory of mom and dad blushing and sputtering as our car is overtaken by a flamboyant and feathery P-town parade.

The salt-water smell of teenage summers on the moon.

Those memories are worth at least as much to me now as a house on Cape Cod. Maybe Uncle Jimmy wasn’t as rich as we thought he was. But he gave us more than he probably realized.

In his honor, I’m going to buy myself a bolo tie. We’ll see whether I have the guts to wear it.

From the March 2016 edition of Fairfield County Catholic

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