My Uncle Malcolm

My uncle Malcolm is eighty-one years old. He lives in a nice house in a nice suburb of Toronto with a nice backyard and a nice dog and a nice wife.

He’s from where I’m from, and — like me — he landed in Toronto in his early twenties. We have a lot of things in common, and that’s just one of them. The first thing I should clarify here is that my uncle Malcolm isn’t actually my uncle: he’s my great-uncle. More specifically, he’s my dad’s uncle, my Granda’s brother.

My Granda was a wonderful person, gentle of soul and sharp of mind. He wore his heart on his sleeve, unapologetically, and pressed slacks on his legs, constantly. You would not catch this man in a pair of jeans, not even at the weekend.

He was a true gentleman, in every sense. He believed in chivalry and in romance, and he worshipped the ground my sweet, crossword-loving Gran walked on.

Together, they turned the back garden of their modest council house in East Kilbride into an explosion of vibrant colour, with flowers of different shapes, shades, and scents bursting forth into the damp Scottish air every summer.

My brother and I spent many days in that garden, sitting in our grandparents’ wooden deckchairs near the back fence. We’d drink sugary, milky tea and eat crunchy toast swimming in butter on Saturday mornings while our grandparents worked silently on the garden, on opposite sides, but in perfect harmony.

I never quite appreciated it at the time — that seamless and simple synchronicity. How could I? I was a few months shy of thirteen years old when my Granda passed away, and Bruce wasn’t even nine. You just can’t understand the nuance and art of a relationship (especially one that’s endured decades) at that age.

But as I grew older, I began to recognise bits of it in my parents’ relationship. My dad didn’t inherit his mum’s green thumb and my mum didn’t inherit her dad’s green thumb. My paternal grandmother and my maternal grandfather were both prolific gardeners, but both my parents are — unfortunately and unintentionally — prolific plant murderers.

One thing my dad did inherit from my Gran, though, was her passion for cooking. But it wasn’t immediately apparent. Most of my childhood and teenage memories of being in the kitchen revolve around my mum.

Her gently tapping the bottom of a can of diced tomatoes so the last little chunks would slither reluctantly into the pot of bubbling bolognese on the stove. Her showing me how to peel a carrot properly. Her shouting, “OH MY GOD, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?” when I came in from the pub on Christmas Eve once and tried to ram the turkey into the (switched off) oven for a “midnight snack.”

But now, when I visit my parents in their cosy apartment in Toronto, my dad grates ginger and chops onions and grinds spices. “What kind of curry d’ye want?” he asks. And his curries are good. They’re really fucking good!

My mum, after years of running around after us and cooking for us, watches from the living room and tosses in an occasional: “Iain, that’s fucking burning.” And she’s earned it, and she’s right: most of the time, it is fucking burning.

Anyway, back to my uncle Malcolm, who got me thinking about this whole thing in the first place. Like I said, he’s my Granda’s brother. And he’s got that same sensitive, caring personality that my Granda did: he just cloaks it with boxed white wine and wispy tobacco smoke.  

To my Granda, I’ll always be that innocent, almost-thirteen-year-old girl. But my uncle Malcolm, he lets me sneak drunk cigarettes in the back garden with him when I’ve had a few too many beers at a family party. He lets me crash on his sofa and drink all his coffee when I’m hungover the next day. He tells me stories about my Gran and Granda from when they were teenagers while I perch on the corner of his comfy, burgundy couch.

At almost thirteen, I was just a tiny part of who I am now at twenty-six. My Granda didn’t get to see who I am now, and that makes me sad. I think about him and my other grandparents a lot, and I miss all of them.

Now, in Canada (where my Granda’s brother landed so many years before I did), I sit in his nice backyard behind his nice house in that nice suburb of Toronto, with his nice wife and his nice dog and — most importantly — him. We sneak sideways glances at each other, passing back and forth a conspiratorial cigarette. And I think about just how loved and how lucky I am.

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