There are six ways to say “uncle” in Pakistani homes. There’s the standard English word, used to address any South Asian man older than you regardless of actual relation. Your parents’ friends are called “uncles” and “aunties” -- not Mr. or Mrs.
But in the case of truly related kinfolk, there are five different Urdu variations of “uncle” that denote the exact relationship, depending on whether you are referring to a maternal or paternal uncle, through marriage or blood, who is either older or younger than your parent.
It sounds complicated, but I love these specific titles for extended family. It makes each relationship seem special in its own way.
Growing up, I only had one of these uncles nearby. The rest were either in Pakistan, England or another American city.
Lucky for me, my father’s older brother, my Abbas taya, has been a constant presence in my life since I was born. He and my father emigrated within a few years of one another and have always lived in the same city. Our families grew up together. The six children in my family combined with the four in theirs meant we had a team of playmates, confidantes and partners in crime throughout our childhoods.
Abbas taya was the larger-than-life figure that loomed above us.
If every family has a gifted storyteller, Abbas taya is ours. He’s the life of the party, the center of attention in any room, the one making us all laugh with his wicked sense of humor. He’s the one who paved the path of financial success in this country, arriving with little and eventually building a factory that employed dozens. He has flair and a love for the finer things in life -- expensive cars, brand-name clothes, beautiful things and people.
He worked out regularly, and to my young eyes was the strongest and biggest man I knew. He could easily have been an intimidating figure, but that was rarely his way with us. Instead, he charmed us with stories that poked fun at himself more often than others. He defused his frequent teasing with genuine flattery and self-deprecating remarks. He never got sentimental, but his concern and interest in our lives spoke to the unspoken love he has for us.
These were valuable lessons he taught by example: Don’t take life so seriously. Learn to take a joke. Develop a thick skin. Be generous. Dream big. Live big.
He and my father love each other dearly, and also had some epic fights when we were growing up. They share the same quick and volatile temper and sensitivities. Yet they never let any of their personal disagreements spill into any of our family relationships. While my father has always been my intellectual foil, my cheerleader and The Law in our home, my taya has been the one who brings the party, and makes every person he meets believe they are the most talented, interesting and beautiful person he’s ever met.
In the past few years, I watched him struggle with health problems that challenged the way I’ve seen him my entire life. Back problems and neck surgeries seemed to shrink his imposing frame. Some days he can carry on conversations like his old self, but many times, he will ask the same questions multiple times in the same visit. On days when his memory is more clouded, he sits and observes our family gatherings rather than taking center stage, holding court and telling stories.
It’s strange to see him quieter.
He’s 81, which I suppose might sound old to someone who never knew him. But to me, he’s the last person who could have ever gotten old. It took me a while to accept that time can turn the toughest patriarch, the happy-go-lucky success story, into the one who needs care.
I make a point to visit him and my aunt every time I go back home to Houston. As an adult, I can see more clearly the village that helped raise me.
On a recent visit, the brief moments of clarity in our conversation where punctuated with longer pauses of confusion and repetition. As I got up to leave, I walked over to give my taya a hug.
I stopped for a second, kissed his cheek and said, “Thank you for being a second father to me my entire life.”
“What are you talking about?” he said, in the good-natured way he dismisses such comments. He sounded exactly like his old self. Then he kissed my head and said softly, “You’re just like my daughter.”
“I love you.”