I grew up with honorary uncles and aunts. They weren’t relatives, just close family friends and that friendship extended to us children. In those far off times, for a child to refer to an adult by their personal name was very impolite, so ‘Uncle Walter’ or ‘Auntie Terry’ were in a special category: familiar enough for the child to use their given name, but with the respect implied by the honorific title of Aunt or Uncle. Otherwise as children we’d have had to call them ‘Mr. Abdullah’ or ‘Miss Dunne.’
Our small family was not given to having godparents. Beliefs of family members went from the atheism which accompanied communism, rationalist Unitarianism, Latin-using High-Church Anglo-Catholicism, bigoted Protestantism, weird Spiritualism to the Baha’i faith and Sufi mysticality. So the family didn’t have a common religious base for inviting in a godparent and probably there was a bit of inverted snobbery. You could guarantee that one or other of the neighbours would comment about any well-dressed groups of children and adults going for baptism or first communion to the church at the end of our road, ‘look at That Lot – making a show of themselves again!’ But honorary uncles and aunts were acceptable – a totally different matter.
Uncle Walter brought into the family an exotic element: stories from the Caribbean, foods like shaddock and Trinidadian Fruit Cake, flavoured with rum. Through him, we had access to the joys of Mas’ and Carnival, steel pans, dancing in the street and an awareness of the everyday discrimination and prejudice he encountered. From Aunt Terry, a larger than life character, a very lapsed Roman Catholic, we got a view, both poetic and scurrilous, of her native Ireland and its institutions, especially the priests. Other ‘Uncles’ and ‘Aunts’ brought a rich world with them. Auntie Shomaaz was a wonderful cook of Iranian food, so that I almost lived round at her house when I could.
My wife has a different background: a large family with a solid core of Roman Catholicism. All had godparents, mostly other members of the family. Some had godparents who were childless older members of the family; others had older cousins, taking important steps in being recognised as being almost an adult, with a responsible contribution to make to the next generation.
Later I became an honorary uncle. My friends had children who started to call me ‘Uncle,’ ‘Tonton,’ ‘Zio,’ or, in one case ‘Really and Truly, Dave Ellwand?’ I never worked that last one out and my daughter still chuckles at the memory of that bright-eyed little inquisitor with his endless questions and seekings of clarifications. I have many, many honorary nieces and nephews who are grown-up. Most call me ‘Tio’ or ‘Oncle’ with twinkles in their eyes and more than a bit of humour – pretending I’m dangerous or powerful so they need to show respect while at the same time including me in their family. The uncle bit also hints at my great age but a bit of their natural fondness shines through. It’s an echo of my enjoyment of their company and my fondness for them, their musicality and their skills, as most of them are wrapped in traditional music. I’d happily adopt the lot of them.
I’ve heard of families who hire an honorary uncle to appear at weddings and funerals – I used to be told about Lo Zio di Roma. In some poor parts of Italy, the family which wishes to impress their neighbours might hire for the occasion an ‘Uncle from Rome’ – a character in a suit whom nobody recognises – perhaps he’s from another village – to confer prestige and who is treated well with lots to eat, a glass kept filled and paid a little to keep up the impression that the family has powerful connections. Nowadays they have agencies in Japan that supply actors to fulfil these roles in a much more professional way and one ‘nephew’ in a mountain town in Italy tells me that their ‘uncles’ come nowadays from New York.
I sometime think I should start my own service – going as the uncle to weddings to fulfil the role of the family member whom everybody hoped wouldn’t turn up. This is the sort of uncle who flirts with the bridesmaids, tells off-colour stories, insults the bride’s mother. In fact, he insults most people, drinks heavily, is first in the queue at the buffet. He borrows cash from any guest who will listen long enough to his rambling story to be willing to pay up to be free of the pest. I have been researching this role for many years and concluded that every family needs not just good role models to act as godparents, but also the odd bad example. There’s one terrifying uncle who does a trick with his false teeth while playing the banjo in an odd posture: “You don’t want to end up like Uncle Albert,” is a very powerful weapon in the armoury of child-rearing.
My first experience of being a god-parent, or in this case, a “guide-parent,” as it was a humanist naming ceremony, was profound. The celebrant mentioned that Lilly’s mum had known me first as a friend of Granddad’s since her childhood. Lilly’s mum has grown close to me and to my family over the years and we were charmed beyond words to be asked. I was deeply moved by the event, not least because my wife with her different background is also a guide-parent. Lilly is totally delightful and I look forward to years of being proud of her. It struck me how overwhelmingly proud I am of her mum and dad, not just for the way they created the naming event, but for all the years of love, worry, tears and joy they’ve worked through and shared in making their wonderful little family. That’s another joy of being an honorary uncle, god-parent or guide-parent –it legitimises and recognises your entitlement to feel proud of them.