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More on this below, but, I have an uncle who we (perhaps appropriately) call "Uncle Buck". I wrote this essay about him, which was originally published on the website Unclenomics. I felt like sharing it today because I've been thinking of him. My Aunt Nancy, who I describe in the essay as my uncle's "earth, moon, and stars," passed away not too long ago. I miss her laugh, and her amused expressions, and her hugs, and the way she said my name in her thick Long Island accent ("Law," aka "Laur"). This essay isn't about her -- someday there'll be one that is -- but she was my uncle's other half, so maybe getting to know him a bit through these words will tell you a little bit about her and her joy, sense of humor, and brightness, too.

Note: I found the picture above, of my four cousins, on Uncle Buck's Facebook page. I don't know if it's a picture from the same legendary day this essay is about, but I also don't know it isn't from that day, and it's a cool picture, so here it is.


I grew up in upstate New York, about four hours from my dad’s childhood home, where his family still lives. A few times a year, my family would pile into our car and head there, where, temporarily but immediately, we’d be swept into the warmth and intimacy of his family, who all lived close to one another. The shorthand that is endemic of a close-knit bunch, which this part of the family definitely shared, attracted my brothers and I, the “outsiders,” like magnets. They finished each other’s sentences, they had great senses of humor, and they had inside jokes that we’d become privy to during our visits.

All of this contributed to our deeming my dad’s side the “fun” side of the family. Often at the center of that fun was Uncle John, my dad’s brother-in-law, who loved a good practical joke, gave giant bear hugs, was never afraid to indulge in amusement, and laughed with his whole soul.

One Thanksgiving, references to someone named Uncle Buck were peppered throughout conversation. People were talking about him like we should know him. Like he’d been part of the story all along. My brothers and I eyed each other. Was there another uncle? One we had never met? Eventually, one of us asked, and we were looped in on what has become family legend. From where I’m standing now, it’s hard to parse out what’s fact, what’s family lore, and what I’ve invented in my mind. In my memory, it all plays out like a VHS copy of a family video:

One weekend while he and my aunt were visiting our other aunt and uncle in the Adirondacks, Uncle John was left in charge of four of my cousins — two of which were his own kids. He took the kids into the woods for a hike. A range of mishaps ensued. What I’ve always pictured is largely informed by 80s-style movies about kids getting into adventures: sliding down hills of leaves, getting trapped in Neverland-style booby traps, and being chased by bears. I’d bet at least one of those things happened on this famous day. Maybe two, maybe all three. And I believe at least one kid was lost at some point. Maybe two, maybe three. Maybe all four.

Later that day, after all of the kids were located and/or released from their booby traps, they all went back to my aunt and uncle’s house, which was an open-concept log cabin with big high ceilings. Above the living room was a loft that didn’t have a railing, making it perfect for the activity that really earned Uncle John his new name. Mattresses and blankets were laid down, and the kids jumped from the loft onto the cushioned living room floor.

That scene — kids ranging in age from 5 to 8 flying through the air — was the scene my aunts came home to. And thus, Uncle John was deemed “Uncle Buck.”

Uncle Buck, you may recall, is a character from a 1989 John Hughes film by the same name. The character, was a bumbling uncle who finds himself in totally over his head while babysitting his nieces and nephews. The punchline of his existence was that, though he had a big heart and good intentions, his time with the kids was full of mishaps.

Which brings me to my favorite thing about my Uncle Buck. Twenty years later, despite its potentially negative connotations, my Uncle Buck still embraces this nickname. Fully. Family members exclusively refer to him as Buck. I’ve heard him introduce himself as Uncle Buck. I recently watched him hand my cousin a bottle opener with an antlered deer on it. “It’s a buck from Buck,” he said, laughing his whole-self laugh.

Why? Rather than ask him (that would be too easy), let me tell you my theory, because it’s something I hold dear. I believe that my Uncle Buck loves his name because he so fully embraces being a part of a family. He’s many things — a photographer, a musician, a film buff — but with every ounce of his being, his anchor is in his family. He and my aunt, who are now in their 60’s, starting dating one another in 6th grade. Sixth grade! To this day, she’s his earth, moon, and stars, and their kids are the sparkle in Uncle Buck’s eye. Family is where his feet are planted, so being legendary for a role within it just feels right.

To me, my Uncle Buck is more iconic than the icon he’s named after. He’s the jovial heart at the center of family gatherings. The one who makes me — still an outsider to that shorthand my dad’s side of the family shares — feel like I’ve always been a part of the gang. He’s the family historian, keeping, explaining, and sharing photos from our decades together. He makes me birthday slideshows of old photos, celebrating all my years. He laughs his infectious, jovial laugh at my jokes. And even though I’m not as little as I used to be, his hugs still feel like big bear hugs. Like he just couldn’t wait to see me, he’s so happy I’m there, and he’s so happy we’re family. And so am I. Really, I couldn’t be happier.

Originally published here on June 19, 2017.

Updated: Feb 26, 2018

Note: I originally published this piece on Medium.

. . .

Before I had a daughter, I held close a daydream of putting wildflowers in her hair, should she ever exist. She does exist, now, and recently we went out into our yard and picked the wildest of our wildflowers. As I tucked one behind her ear, she and I, in our own little world, were the queens of the earth. We were ready to conquer the world with our shining, summery, bursting-with-joy souls.

Every day, I’m grateful to have a daughter. I would be grateful to have a son, too, of course. But she is my dream come true. The day I found out that the baby swimming around in my uterus was to be a little girl, I couldn’t stop looking at the sonogram images I’d been handed. “I can’t believe she’s a girl,” I said, over and over. I dreamt of girly things, yes — flowers in fields — but also of the things we would do together. The conversations we would share. The bright, force-of-nature woman she’ll someday become. The lessons I had to impart on her.

The lessons. I imagine this is a major part of parenting for every parent ever. It is, after all, our most weighty task, other than feeding and sheltering and fostering growth and safety. It’s the lessons that have been giving me pause, lately. I feel outside forces fighting me on some of the more important ones, and that scares me.

. . .

A few days after the election, I wrote a letter to Hillary Clinton. I was heartbroken. Was I heartbroken that Hillary Clinton would not be our president, or was I heartbroken that Donald Trump would? I don’t know. My feelings were confused. I was confused. My reaction time to most everything was dulled. I was staring at my phone, scrolling through Twitter, asking why and how, and what now? How were we going to cope? And what did it mean — not just that she hadn’t been elected but that he had?

A lot of us were reeling. Along the way someone suggested that people start emailing Hillary and thanking her. For trying. For her service. For being there to save us from this, even if she hadn’t been able to. For doing what she had in her life.

I’d never written a fan letter in my life, but the pen in my hand and the knot in my throat felt compelled.

Dear Secretary Clinton, I wrote.

I gave birth to my first child this year — a daughter. Her name is Imogene and she is a dream come true.

From the moment I found out that the child I was carrying was a girl, I began to think more deeply and in ways I never had before about what it means to be a woman. I became aware of and intimidated by all I need to instill with words, with action, and by leading by example. Resilience. Kindness. Strength. Love. Capability. I know that in what she will see and hear from me, I have more responsibility than I ever have before. Responsibly I will hold for the rest of my days.

As Imogene was born and as she grew, you were by our side, championing for her future. I’ve told her — and will continue to tell her — that she can be anything, even President of the United States. I believed, and wish, that yours was the face that was going to adorn Imogene’s history books to each that lesson permanently. In our home, you will always be part of the conversation about what women are capable of.

Thank you for all that you have done for our country, for our children, and for our world. You are an inspiration to me and you will be an inspiration to my daughter. I will never stop telling her about you and what you have accomplished.

With sincere gratitude,

Lauren Harkawik

I cried as I wrote. I was not crying for Secretary Clinton, although I knew intellectually that the pain and shock she must have been experiencing in those days was monumental. I was crying for myself as a mother of a daughter. I was crying for the lessons I needed to find a way to teach and the crumbling foundation of possibility that those lessons had rested firmly on days earlier. Perhaps in that sense I was crying for Hillary too. She is the mother of a daughter, and the grandmother of a granddaughter, after all.

. . .

There are two sides to the coin we were dealt on Election Day. One side said a woman was not elected president. That one I can swallow. 44 presidents who were not women were elected before she would have been. Had it not been for the other side of the coin, that notion might not have stung so much. But the other side of the coin said that a man who had displayed a blatant disregard for women — their rights to their own bodies, their rights to opinions, their intelligence, their capabilities, their autonomy — had been elected. And it dawned on me, or, crashed around me like a million rude water balloons, that a shocking number of my neighbors — of the people who get procedures at the same hospitals I do, who I brush shopping carts with at the grocery store, who I’ve sat next to at baseball games and in churches — think that it is okay for a man to treat women the way Donald Trump treats women. For them his actions and his words were not deal breakers. That fact — the fact that they could look the other way — scared me. It confused me. It hurt me. It rattled me.

That’s what I can’t shake. And what I’m not sure what to tell my daughter about.

. . .

Here are some of the lessons I hope to impart, starting granularly and moving out. I want my daughter to know that she should brush her teeth twice a day and that she shouldn’t skip going to the dentist even when she’s a grown up and she can. I want her to know that making the bed can cause a subtle adjustment to an otherwise off morning. I want her to know I don’t want her to feel like she has to wear makeup, but I want her to know that it’s okay if she, like me, feels empowered by wearing it. I want her to know that anti-woman jokes like men saying women love shoes or that a “happy wife is a happy life” are dumb and she shouldn’t give herself over to the story they tell. I want her to know that she should have her own passions and her own interests, even if she shares a home with someone she loves. I want her to know that she’s enough, and that if she doesn’t have someone she wants to share a life with, that’s fine and great and her prerogative. I want her to know that it’s okay to seek pleasure. I want her to know that motherhood is a gift but that it’s also challenging and it is not something she should feel like she has to do if she doesn’t feel compelled. I want her to know that women who do not have children are not incomplete. They’re women, just like I’m a woman and she’s a woman.

Those are the lessons that I may be able to spin at home. But there are others, too. You see, I want my daughter to know that her time and her brains are worth just as much as a man’s, and that she should be compensated accordingly. I her to know that her health and wellbeing is as important as her male counterparts’. I want her to know that sex is something that happens — willingly, gleefully, fully — between two people; it’s not a decision a man makes nor is it a concession that a woman makes. I want her to know that when considering motherhood and whether it is something that fits into her identity and her vision for her life, should she decide not to have kids, she doesn’t need to support that decision through celibacy if that’s not what she wants.

I want her to know that she is smart enough and wise enough and autonomous enough to know what’s right for her body — whether that means sex, no sex, birth control, no birth control, or, if for some reason it’s necessary, terminating a pregnancy. I want her to know that if a man assaults her or takes advantage of her, he will be held accountable, the same way I want her to know that if she assaulted someone or took advantage of them, she would be held accountable. I want her to know that she could be president. God, I want her to know that. I want her to grow up thinking that the sky is the limit.

. . .

Maybe I should pause here to let you know who I am. I’m 32, married, mother of one. I work, and I’m respected in my work. At home, I cook, clean, and child rear, but my husband does those things too. We’re one of those “modern-day” couples who are really, seriously, sharing household roles. There are some traditionally male things he handles — he mows our hilly yard, for example — and some traditionally female things I manage. I like dreaming up meals, so grocery shopping is sort of therapeutic for me, as is cooking. But for the most part, we approach our lives together as equal sides to one family unit. As such I do not feel, in my personal life, quieted, disrespected, or at a disadvantage for being a woman. But I’m also not impervious to the messages our society sends me about being a woman and what it means to be one, nor am I immune to the constructs in our society that often make it difficult to be a woman.

. . .

I believe that women and men should be treated equally, which means that a man (all men — be it the UPS guy or the president of the United States) cannot say terrible things about women and have it be okay (nor should a woman speak that way of a man). I believe I should not, as a woman, have fears about my place in society, or about what people think of me, or if I’m being too bossy or too forward or too ‘whatever’. But the truth is that in our society, men and women are not equal, and to say that everything is cheery and wonderful and that we have it all would be a big lie. The truth is that as I woman, I often feel very foggy about what it means to be a woman, what type of a woman I am, what type of women exist, and what it all means. If I’m to be honest, there are thoughts that stream through my mind that make me feel like I’m on wobbly ground in terms of where women stand in our society and where I stand among them. Unfortunately, I’m not stronger than what’s brewing around me. If you are, praise be. But I can’t help but feel the sting of the many societal blows women are dealt on a daily basis. We’re expected to do, have, and be it all. The expectations of us are unreasonably high and are incredibly contradictory.

We’re told we have to breastfeed our children but that we can’t do it in public lest a man see a nipple. Breastfeeding should have nothing to do with men, and yet the debate about one’s right to do it in public has everything to do with men. The babies we’re feeding, by the way, are the result of sex, which in the zeitgeist, women are far from having control over. Sex In The City didn’t fix everything. The age-old adages about girls being “easy” for sleeping with boys but boys being popular/awesome/great for sleeping with as many girls as they can are still brewing in the halls of high schools. In the same grain, there is constantly a rhetoric creeping up in our shadows about men deserving and/or not being able to resist our bodies. That’s always been there (see: high school perceptions of easy vs. baller) but it seems like people are acknowledging it more, and that scares me. Meanwhile, our access to birth control is constantly being challenged, and our access to abortion is constantly threatened to be revoked as though flighty women are running around in short skirts just wishing they could conceive a child and abort it. As though we need men to control our abortive urges. So, we’re to have all of the babies all of the time, and yet our access to healthcare, to women’s health services, and to medicine like birth control — which, although it shouldn’t matter, has uses other than contraception — is consistently dangled before our eyes.

Do you feel tired yet? Burdened? Cross-eyed, confused, and scared? I do, and we haven't even talked about careers or equal pay. And I can transport myself back to that field of wildflowers for a moment of serenity, but then the little girl with the big eyes and the flowers in her hair looks at me and I see her entire future in my hands. And I’m right back to asking myself — how do I tell this little girl that she is worth the world when the world is telling her (relatively empowered, lucky, lives-a-good life) mother that she’s worth far less than that?

We need to do better, all of us. We need to think about what every action we take, word we speak, or opinion we share in front of our children is doing to shape our future society. We have to. We have to do better for our girls, and we have to do better for our boys. Every boy and every girl needs to be taught respect, and that starts from day one of their lives. They need to see moms who help dads and dads who help moms. They need to see teachers who respect one another and respect each student equally, regardless of his or her gender. They need to see public officials, doctors, lawyers, firefighters, astronauts, police officers, patrons, and grocery store clerks being cordial to each other. Our children need to see men hold doors for women, but they also need to see women hold doors for men.

And please, we cannot look the other way. We cannot let men off the hook. We cannot say it’s okay to say the things that man said. We cannot.

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