My Favorite Uncle by
(5 Stories)

Prompted By Aunts & Uncles

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My Uncle Alec was my mother’s youngest sibling, one of twelve first-generation American children, and one of eight who survived infancy. He became Abbo to our family when my younger sister couldn’t pronounce his name. Single all his life, he shared an apartment with his single sister, my Aunt Mary. They lived in Donora, a dying steel mill town south of Pittsburgh and about eight miles away from our home in the even smaller town of West Newton. That is, they usually lived together except for the many times they got on each other’s nerves and one or the other would move in with us for a few days during the cooling off period. Being a grade schooler, I was never sure what caused the fights because my mother and Aunt Mary told all their secrets in Ukrainian and Uncle Alec would just stomp around muttering, “Th-that d-damn Mary….”

“I’m fine. Don’t tell your mother; she worries too much. That’s why, you know.” And I didn’t tell. What ten-year-old would squeal on his favorite uncle?

Uncle Alec worked in the steel mill and though he had over ten years of seniority, I don’t think he ever got through a year without being laid off. During some of these periods he would also move in with us, sometimes for weeks at a time and when he did, I had a fulltime pal. He taught me to play checkers and showed no mercy once I got the hang of the game. After that he taught me blackjack and then poker, complete with odds, raising and calling, and bluffing. Of course, we eventually played for pennies but I rarely lost much; later I realized he was funding my piggy bank by folding some good hands.

We’d play catch endlessly in the backyard every summer. He could catch my best heat barehanded for a few years until my ever-increasing testosterone forced him to buy a glove. One day I threw a wild pitch through the living room window. He immediately blamed himself and set off to the hardware store to buy a replacement pane, which he installed and glazed all before my dad got home from work.

We had other secrets too. The summer after I got a BB gun for Christmas was a bad time for the birds in our neighborhood and not my proudest time, looking back. But my dumbest shot was the time I spotted a fly on my uncle’s back. “Abbo, I’m going to shoot this fly on your back. Don’t move.” He warned me not to do it, was certain I was kidding but I was certain I had a clean shot. Pop! Abbo leaped into the air, howling and swatting at his shoulder. His white tee shirt was torn and his back was bleeding. He gave me a lecture and a well-deserved chewing out but my dad never found out about this either.

Often we’d take a drive in his ’51 Chevy to one town or another, stopping at several bars in each town where he’d treat me to a soft drink and potato chips or peanuts, whatever I wanted. On one of these mid-day jaunts, I recall us getting back into his car when he flung open his door and threw up violently on the street. When he regained his composure he said, “I’m fine. Don’t tell your mother; she worries too much. That’s why, you know.” And I didn’t tell. What ten-year-old would squeal on his favorite uncle?

When I was 16 or 17 we had a little black mutt named Tuffy and when Abbo stayed with us, he and I, always at his urging, would take her for an evening walk after dinner. One cold winter night I dug in my heels and refused to go so he went without me. Ten minutes later there was a loud banging on the back door and Uncle Abbo ran into the house cradling Tuffy in his arms. Her side was ripped open and she was gasping and bleeding badly, her blood already covering his arms and dripping down onto his pants. Abbo was shaking, stuttering, apologizing and my sisters were screaming. We were all screaming. “We gotta go to the Vet!” I yelled and grabbed the car keys. We sped the mile to the Vet, who needed no detailed exam to tell us what we didn’t want to hear. No hope…out of her misery…only thing we can do…. There were other words but these were the ones that stuck. Abbo and I were both crying as he laid her on the cold metal exam table. When it was over and we drove home, Abbo kept apologizing and I kept telling him it was not his fault but inside I felt in some way maybe it really was his fault, maybe a little bit.

My mother did worry about her little brother. He seemed to get sick a lot and was sick enough to be hospitalized periodically. I can remember her more than once stripping his bed sheets in the morning because they were wet. Was this part of his sickness, I wondered? As I got older I visited him during his hospitalizations, which were increasing in frequency while his stays at our house had ended because Aunt Mary had moved out west and he had the apartment to himself. He got sick again the summer before I left for college and I went to the hospital alone. The doctor was there when I arrived, probing my uncle’s bloated yellow stomach. Abbo’s wrists and ankles were strapped to the bed, something that hadn’t happened before. Shaken, I greeted him after the doctor left.

“Unstrap me. I’m not staying here. There’s nothing wrong with me,” he said.

“Abbo, I can’t do that. You need to stay here until you get better.” We went round and round until he realized I was not going to do what he asked. He turned away, staring at the wall.

“G-get the hell out of here! You’re n-no friend of mine. G-get out,” he stuttered. He wouldn’t turn to look at me and after a long silence, I left.

It was November; but which November? I think it was 1970 or maybe ’71. I was married and living in Reading, at the other end of the state, when my alarm went off, too early it seemed one morning. But it wasn’t my alarm; it was the phone and my mother was on the other end. I still remember her first words. “Abbo’s gone,” she said in a near whisper. The demons had won, finally taking my favorite uncle away from me, leaving me only with memories…and so many unanswered questions.

Profile photo of Alexander Alexander

Tags: uncle, Donora, West Newton, Pittsburgh
Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. John Zussman says:

    You give us such a detailed and charming picture of Uncle Abbo that I was saddened when he dies and I too burn to know the answers to those questions. He seems like a very special uncle and I’m sorry for your loss.

  2. Suzy says:

    Thanks for this story, Alexander. Sounds like you had a very special relationship with your uncle. Did you ever get your questions answered by your mother, or Aunt Mary, or anyone else?

  3. I loved reading this story. And it really was a story as much as a portrait with its own arc. I felt the complexity of your feelings for Abbo and you had me empathizing, even though you left us with those questions you alluded to. What did happen to Abbo? And why? Thanks!

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Such a vivid, complex story. You had a wonderful relationship with your uncle and you’ve shared so many wonderful moments as you grew up with this special man. But you left us all wondering what happened. Do you know what happened to him?

    • Alexander says:

      As several people have asked, here’s the reply I sent: Who knows why Abbo became an alcoholic? I learned later from my mother that their mother, my grandma, was also an alcoholic. So, he had that going against him. He was the youngest sibling and when he got his draft notice for WW2, my grandfather had a fatal heart attack as all his other sons were already serving and he couldn’t face losing his “baby,” according to my mother. Then, he failed his physical and could not serve, anyway. He subsequently tried unsuccessfully to enlist several times but some locals labeled him a draft dodger, hurting him further. He was very shy and stuttered; was this cause or effect?

      There were more clues, I suppose, but I’m not a shrink and don’t know for sure how he got to be what he was. He was a wounded man but a wonderful uncle.

      Best to you,


      [aka Alexander-my first name]

  5. Such a beautifully written, tender story of your relationship with Abbo, Dave. I can relate…there are those walking wounded among us, the ones we love but can’t help. I’ve just recently come onboard here at Retrospect and hope you’ll write again.

  6. Thanx Alexander for this beautifully written tribute to your uncle Abbo, you capture the child’s perspective of a beloved uncle so well!

    I’m new to Retro and so I read your 2018 story for the first time. Hope to see more of your stories!

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