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Uncle Arthur had a knack for embarrassing us, but that’s family

He accepted us as we were. And we accepted him.

Gracia Lam

Uncle Arthur was no saint. He was more self-centered than self-sacrificing, more likely to take the last cookie on a plate than hand it to a hungrier relative. Such qualities endeared him to us the way black sheep eclipse good guys. Still, he could embarrass you. "You avoiding me?" he'd scream from across the street. "Baloney!" he'd yell in a silent theater. Though his college major had been Romance languages ("Pardon my French" was his most Gallic phrase), he scuffed around the house in slippers and baggy pants; the only profession filling the blank on his resume was disabled veteran, a result of what my parents called "his spells."

Photos of a handsome, uniformed Uncle Arthur waltzing with women in native costumes — he had served in North Africa — showed he had once led an adventurous life, further demonstrated by his PX privileges and the embroidered leather ottomans he brought back from Morocco.

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I pictured him under mosquito netting writhing with fevers while nurses argued over who got to mop his noble brow. Perhaps the cause of his spells wasn't a tropical disease. More likely, he'd slipped and banged his head on a vat of rations in the mess hall. The huge diagonal crack in the glass of the living room's china cabinet testified to Uncle Arthur's clumsiness, however medically induced.

Alas, that gorgeous soldier bore little resemblance to my slovenly uncle, the shredded straps of his apron repaired with a crisscross of black tape. To us, black tape and plastic ballpoint pens defined his essential Arthurness. Bouquets of cheaper-by-the-dozen pens filled glasses, jars. Rolls of tape stuffed shelves, windowsills, drawers, and mixing bowls.

Cousins reported the horror of accompanying him to the PX. If the sign on the pen display guaranteed "Unbreakable,'' Uncle Arthur would lift a fistful of ballpoints and dash them against the floor. Hard. Then, lowering himself onto the linoleum, he'd investigate the damage. "Truth in advertising" was his motto. When a bottle of aspirin marked childproof cracked open, he wrote to the manufacturer. Within days, a crate of all their products arrived. He was better than a drugstore — and he always threw in a few pens.

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The tape, however, was most useful. His kitchen table was the first stop on the way to the Post Office. Though his wrapping was sloppy — the ends gaped and the tattered paper, recycled from grocery bags, made the packages look forlorn as orphans — any slack was taped over until you ended up with containers so indestructible that even the most delicate teacup inside never suffered a chip.

He was the first grown-up I knew who swore in front of children without apology. He used bad words the way we used "and,'' "or,'' and "the.'' Good manners, proper language, personal hygiene counted for nothing. He didn't care about our grades or if our handshakes were firm. He neither rewarded our exemplary conduct nor tsked at our misbehavior. He accepted us as we were — part of the scene, like pens and tape, though not so practical.

And we accepted him. That's Uncle Arthur, we excused, as unremarkable a part of our household as the clanging radiator.

Arthur died at 57, the result of one "spell" too many shutting down his heart. That night, we sat in the living room facing the china cabinet; its lightning-bolt crack seemed strangely comforting. My cousin Marilyn later had it repaired. But no sooner had the expert replaced the glass than the crack reappeared, a perfect replica of the original.

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The afternoon of the funeral, we told Arthur stories, talked about his truth-in-advertising credo, and how he embarrassed us. I walked past the cabinet and out into the hall. I looked at the jelly jar full of pens. I plucked one and stuck it in my pocketbook.

Novelist Mameve Medwed is at work on a series of essays about her eccentric relatives. Send comments to connections@globe.com.


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