There’s no love like tough love…
“Now Uncle, listen to me very closely.” she said with commanding sternness and locked eyes, “You know I love you and whether you deserve it or not, I want to get you a nice Christmas present. But if I do, you must show up to accept it. Don’t just promise to come… again, and then not show up… again. Frankly, I’d rather spend my very limited money on presents for those that actually spend time with me on Christmas.”
My niece knew exactly how to get through to me. Tough love. Most human forms of communication was something in which I never took too much stock; well-meaning advice, conversation, pleasantries, yada -yada… to me it was all gaunt gibberish from naïve nosy bodies. After all, I knew what I was doing… or, so I thought. And somehow, at her tender age, she figured out what most adults couldn’t, or wouldn’t. Black and white, the naked truth, and getting to the point – that’s what her big headed uncle understood.
She gave me that ultimatum on Thanksgiving Day, 2006 during one of my rare appearances at a family event. And I’m glad I told her with all my heart that I would be there and not let her down, because little did I know, it was to be the last conversation we ever have. Completely unexpected, she died just a few days before that fateful Christmas from complications of a seemingly mild illness. Her sudden departure from this ugly world devastated my family and me, and came very close to killing her mother, my dear sister. All our hearts near broken to this day, we are comforted by the absolute fact that she is in Heaven, for besides Jesus Christ, no human ever walked this earth that deserved it more.
I was a good and smart kid, digressed as an adolescent, but recovered into a sharp, young college student, businessman, and husband. But, after some business set-backs and divorce, I stepped up my dangerous behavior with substance abuse and skirting the law, getting into trouble and getting locked up every other year or so… sometimes more.
So, as my niece grew from an infant to a toddler, a brat with a memory, and finally into a saintly young woman, it seemed throughout her whole life I was always just getting out of jail, and she was right. At the same time my family slowly lost confidence in me – with good reason – and I began to withdraw from get-togethers and holidays for the sake of reducing tension.
But Agatha Ann Riggle-thbee (Rigglesby – not her real name, but she did have a lisp as a little girl) would have none of it. When I finally did show up from time to time, I came to know that before the day was over, I could always expect to hear a secret “psst…” over my shoulder, and be marched into the kitchen away from everyone. There the two of us would have a talk (she talked, I listened) about my “overwhelming lack of talent” at making good decisions in life, and how she was not empathetic in the least… all while doing her best Scarlet O’Hara imitation, a common tactic among proper southern women folk. She would say her piece, and before I could challenge her or poorly explain myself, summarily dismiss me back to the family… “expecting improvement”. I tell ya’, I’d rather take a beating from an angry ex-con.
Similar to the beginning of this story, it was during one of these verbal shaming’s that Aggy Ann first uttered the phrase I cherish…
“And what am I supposed to say if I have to introduce you to someone?” Her hands on her hips. “Oh… hi Suzy, this is my Uncle… Pokey.”
She raised her eyebrows trying to remain serious, and I struggled desperately to stay focused on the lesson at hand. But our faces began to tighten and it was no use. We erupted into a harmony of chortles and laughter at the silly, yet appropriate moniker with which I would forever be branded. And just like that, Uncle Pokey was born. I treasure that memory… that moment… her laugh.
After Aggy Ann was gone, I straightened up. I began to resurrect my Christian upbringing, revive my career, and with my family’s help, crawled up and out of the hole I was in and got busy. It took a while, but with patience, a lot of love, and God’s grace, my life’s ship began sailing a true and relevant course once again.
As part of my psychological mending, I wanted to find a way to give back to my family and those who helped me by helping others, but had no idea how. I spent years wanting to make a difference, but with no direction or inspiration, I was once again lost.
Then one night – true story – Aggy Ann came back to me in a dream, with little angelic fanfare as one might expect, and told me that I, the inner me, wasn’t equipped to help those I need to help, but Uncle Pokey was. Uncle Pokey had the life experiences that could relate to those living with the same affliction for making life’s choices as I had and could speak to them and their families. “Help the lost get their message to loved ones, help families regain the faith they lost… bridge the gap.” She said. Then she raised her eyebrows as if waiting for a light bulb to appear above that big head, laughed one last time, and that was it.
And just like that, the idea for Uncle Pokey greeting cards was born. A noble, Heaven sent mission collaborated by an ex-con and an angel with an attitude – God love her.