Mulligan Stew: 17 aunts and uncles taught me everything one needs to know — and I miss them

Today, my dad’s last surviving sibling, Unkajerry (as he spelled it), died. 

My parents, Don and Barbara Mullen, are still living near Bloomington.  Not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate the fact that I still have both of them.  Mom had three siblings; Dad had 14.  Both are now the only survivors.  This rips my heart out.  

There were 52 grandchildren on my dad’s side and 25 on mom’s side.  My family believes in large families. Subtracting my siblings, I had 65 first cousins, and I knew every single one.  I also have four “in-law” aunts and uncles remaining, Everett, Lois, Betty and Pat, all of whom married into the family.

We were never the perfect extended families.  Sometimes our family reunions needed a chalk line to separate the “speaking” and “non-speaking.”  Among the cousins, we’ve become ministers, teachers, good parents, athletes, farmers, undertakers, veterans, (a lot of) writers, bowlers, musicians, and one rabbi.  We’ve also got, among us, alcoholics, hustlers, criminals, dead-beats, and a few bad parents.

As an adult, it’s occurred to me that everything you need to know in life, you can learn from your aunts and uncles.

Although they died in infancy in the 1930s, Aunt Bettye and Uncle Albert taught me the importance of stillborn babies.  Even though they were on earth for just a minute, stillborn babies are never forgotten.  They are always included in the family tree and mentioned when you name your siblings.

Aunt Bev and Uncle Harold taught me that biology doesn’t matter when you’re a family.  They raised her children, his children, their children, and his late, first wife’s child.

Uncle Bob showed me that children can and usually do need to be treated differently.  Be fair, love them unconditionally, but pay attention to each child’s individual needs.

Uncle Richard put a cab-over-camper on his truck to make room for his seven children.  Richard taught me the importance of head-counts.  If you don’t, a child who is slow in the bathroom may accidentally be left behind at a gas station.   

My favorite lesson of Uncle Louie’s is that unless you’re a 19th Century farmer, boys aren’t necessary for a happy family.  Also, he showed how bowling a 299 was just as hard as bowling a 300.  Don’t look at anything as a failure, find some good in everything.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, was preached by UnkaJerry, (Uncle Jerry).

Aunt Martha took the Indy Racing Experience: She rode along with a driver to experience speeds and g-forces at 180 mph.  When it was over, her first comment was “Well, that was relaxing.  What’s next?” Never stop accepting challenges or taking chances. She also won $100,000 in the lottery.

Uncle Tom taught me that if you don’t like something, change it.  You don’t want to be “Lloyd Kermit?”  “Tom,” it is.

Aunt Mary Ann survived the death of her firstborn son, from cancer, and later, the death of her 6-year-old daughter in a car accident.  It’s true.  Very bad things can, and do, happen to very good people.

Uncle Moon knew there were many ways to make money.  Pick ginseng, sell mushrooms, collect aluminum and scrap metal, buy a bar.  If you are unhappy with your job, find another.

Aunt Wimp collected roosters and crumb catchers.  She demonstrated the joy of giving.  If you complimented anything in her home, she sent it home with you.  At the same time, my mother taught us to keep our mouths shut when visiting Aunt Wimp.

Uncle Chet told me my G-G-G-G Grandfather, Zephaniah Miles, was born in Maryland in 1760 and lived 112 years before his death on Nov. 3, 1872, in Adyeville, Indiana.  You can learn to do genealogy, but you can’t be taught to live to be 112 years old.

Aunt Pat was the kind of woman who donned roller skates at the family reunion so she could roll around, visiting people.  She did that at age 56, illustrating that you’re never too old to have fun.    

Uncle Hib always seemed to be so serious. Way back in the 1960s, he gave my young brother his first-ever 7-Up.  Hib told him:  Drink it warm and take a great big gulp.  Of course, the carbonated drink flowed out his nostrils like a spillway.  Don’t take yourself seriously, particularly when you have the opportunity to make nieces and nephews laugh hysterically.

Aunt Nina made the best homemade blackberry jelly and proved that you can always keep a clean house, even if you’ve been drinking all day.

My Uncle Bill served in WWII, the Korean War, and in Vietnam.  He survived one plane crash and was shot, and survived, five times: By his brother (Jerry), his father, the neighbor, once in Korea and once in Vietnam.  You can take the soldier out of the war but you can’t take the Agent Orange out of the soldier.