My first memories of my Uncle Lenny are so vivid that they smell like sugar. That kind of sensory detail makes good sense. He owned a busy bakery in Brooklyn for most of my childhood and I remember toddling in with excitement shining in my eyes and looking around in wonder. You know that expression, "It's like a kid in a candy store"? I lived that expression, but my candy store involved layer cakes.
My favorite part of our excursion was always going into the huge kitchen. I think it was probably hot in there with all those ovens going at once, but I have no memory of the heat. What I remember instead is that he had all those icing bags filled with whipped cream and butter cream and he would let me eat as much of it as I wanted directly from the bag. He'd also walk me around the bakery and tell me I could have whatever I wanted and I often chose the largest item I could find, like some giant parfait in the refrigerated case by the door. When we'd leave, my mother's arms were laden down with bags filled with cakes and large cookies (my favorites were the chocolate chip and the huge butter cookies with a big dollop of hard chocolate in the center) and boxes of the small cookies that I grew up calling "Uncle Lenny Cookies." I always gravitated towards the complicated cookies. I liked stuff loaded with sprinkles and dipped in chocolate with jelly in the center. Even today, I like my snacks filled with things like cream or crunchies and I see absolutely no need to ever eat what I consider "unadorned" chocolate. If there's no caramel or nougat, what's the point?
I was toilet trained with Uncle Lenny Cookies. My parents had attempted things like threats and cajoling and probably prayer to finally make it happen, but apparently I was immune to all of it. But one day my mother was struck by an idea. I went careening into our yellow kitchen and asked politely for an Uncle Lenny Cookie and I was told bluntly that only big kids were allowed to eat them. Babies weren't allowed to have any and since I was still in diapers, I was a baby. I was always kind of tough and I was tough as a kid too. I took the insult quietly and with just a quiver of the chin and I went out to wander in our garden to think the matter over. Five minutes later, I came running into the house shouting, "I have to go to the bathroom!" The story goes that I peed every five minutes for the next hour and I received cookies each time and I was fully potty trained by the end of the day.
This incident is not something I recall, but it's probably the reason I hate sharing dessert to this day. Permanent psychological scarring aside, I give my parents credit for finding my weakness and exploiting it for my own benefit. That, my friends, is good parenting.
I used to visit my Uncle at his house a few times a year. I remember his kitchen well, how there was a step up to a seating area, and how his bird's cage was in a little nook. He loved that bird. He threw it a birthday party at McDonald's one year and I'd probably consider such a thing a mark of insanity had I not been a person who considered having a quinceanera for my own dog when she turned fifteen. I remember how we babysat that bird a few times and the way my mother was always terrified something could happen to it while we had custody of the thing. She knew her brother would never forgive her.
I've always been a part of a very loving and snuggle-filled family, but my Uncle wasn't really the type to snuggle. He was seventeen years older than my mother and his voice was gruff and for many years he smoked those brown cigarettes that just made him look and smell untouchable. He was never the Uncle who would sit on the carpet of the den and play Sorry or Life with me. He actually never spoke to me all that much when I was a child, but I never held it against him and I never once took it personally. Part of it was probably that he arrived with cake so, as far as I was concerned, he could all but take a piss on me as long as I could have a large slice of the coconut cake dotted with the perfect cherry once I dried off. The other part is that difficult men have never frightened me – something that I’ve since learned is both a blessing and a curse.
As I grew up, my Uncle’s life changed. He sold the bakery. He bought a deli in Manhattan. He divorced his second wife. He remained as brusque as ever. Eventually, he moved to California where his son lived. Within a few years, his other grown son followed – and then his first ex-wife moved out there too. Soon most of my family lived clear across the country, but I couldn't quite say that I missed him. We didn't really have much of a relationship, but I very much missed the bakery cookies.
When I was twenty-two, I started dating a guy I was with for over four years. When he came to New York, my Uncle met the guy –and immediately dismissed him because he wasn't Jewish, an act I found bizarre, cruel, and so fucking stupid. I never end up dating Jewish guys. It's not something I actively try to avoid, but it simply never happens. But what I remember thinking then was how disgusting his reaction was because this guy made me deliriously happy. He was educated and gorgeous and he worked hard and his religion shouldn't matter at all and the fact that it did made me almost fully disconnect from whatever existed between my Uncle and me. It annoyed me, but it didn't feel like too much of a loss, especially when he told me, "If you marry this guy, I'm not coming to the wedding." My response? "Looks like I'll be saving money on catering then."
It would take a dog to finally bring us together.
I got Wookie when I was almost twenty-three and she immediately became everybody's favorite family member. She was beautifully behaved and she loved people and hated other dogs. She liked to lie beside my stepfather as he watched FOX News – an act I tried to discourage, but I think she always knew Bill O'Reilly was a tool – and she really liked watching sports with my stepfather too. Every now and then, she'd jump off the couch to go explore the house and to check out what my mother was cooking. I'd enter the kitchen and see Wookie having a bit of brisket or maybe a slice of turkey and I'd just laugh when Wookie would wolf it down and then turn to me with a glare on her face that clearly read, "Why do you never make brisket at home?" I took that dog everywhere I went, and each time I came over my parents' house, Wookie came too.
When my Uncle came in from California, Wookie and I went over to visit. He was staying at my parents' house and I walked inside and hugged him briefly and then I introduced him to the dog. Instantly – beautifully – his face lit up. He held Wookie and he played with her and he complimented me emphatically about how well she was behaved. He laughed a booming laugh when she trotted by the living room with her stuffed duck in her mouth like she was on some important top-secret mission and he asked me all kinds of questions about my life with her. Even when my boyfriend came by for dinner, his mood remained upbeat. He even refrained from bringing up words like "conversion" and "circumcision" at the table – which was good because one of those had already transpired and the other one never would – and he cuddled my dog close when I left that night and I felt like something important had shifted.
I started to talk to him more frequently, mostly about my dog (who we both agreed was fantastic) and about politics (about which we disagreed on almost everything). He sent me emails about the importance of keeping Israel safe. I sent him emails telling him that I finally taught Wookie to sit on command.
When he visited New York another time, I told him how much I missed his chocolate chip bakery cookies and he made an enormous batch. Both my mother and I froze our cookies and kept the last one for a very long time because we didn't want to be without them again.
I found out that he loved "Seinfeld" so I sent him the box set. I refrained from bashing my own head through a wall when he mentioned "President Gingrich" had a nice ring to it. I told him about the time I went out to dinner with a guy and he looked at the bill before sliding it across the table for me to pay and he was horrified and told me I was far too beautiful and way too wonderful a person for such a moron.
I finally felt like I had a real Uncle.
I went to some vineyards one day and we stopped at a farmstand on the way home that sold pies and cookies along with the most perfect stalks of asparagus that have ever been grown in soil. I bought one of the chocolate chip cookies and, when I took a bite, I was stunned. It tasted exactly – and I mean exactly – like an Uncle Lenny Cookie. I felt like I was chewing on my own youth. I got home and called him. "Uncle Lenny," I exclaimed when he answered the phone. "Someone has stolen your recipe!" He laughed and laughed and mentioned something about the importance of salt in a cookie and how to mold them to exactly the right size and I hung up the phone feeling like I'd just learned something terribly important.
My Uncle is eighty-five years old now and the last year has not been kind to him. He was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and he lost weight he can’t afford to lose. He was in the hospital just the other day because his body was swollen and he couldn't breathe. My mother flew out to see him and he was released but today he's back in the hospital again.
I spoke to him two nights ago. He told me my mother had taken him food shopping so she could show him how to eat in a healthy way and that he can't wait for her to leave so he can throw all that shit away. He expressed condolences for the loss of Wookie and asked me to tell him all about my new puppy. And he asked if I was treating her like a dog or a person ("umm...," was my response to that because, well, I probably treat the dog like she's human) before telling me about the times when he would babysit Murphy, my cousin's Old English Sheepdog, and how he'd toast him a bagel after his morning walk before taking him for a ride in his golf cart. "And you're telling me to treat Tallulah like a dog?" I asked with a great big laugh.
His voice sounded different the other night. It was still gruff, but it sounded weak – and it broke my heart because “weak” is perhaps the last word I’d use to describe my Uncle Lenny. I asked him which candidate he hoped would snag the Republican nomination and I was surprised that he wants Rubio. I listened as he told me how John F. Kennedy's father was a Nazi sympathizer. Before we hung up the phone, I told him that I loved him and felt a flutter pass through me when he said it back.
Yesterday my mother sent me a text that I should know how much Uncle Lenny cares about me and that he tells everyone I stay in touch with him. "You're a very good person, Tuffy," she wrote. "I got that from you," I texted back and then I sent him some pictures of Tallulah because I think I know that they will never meet.
Family is a strange thing and I'm reminded of that often. Relationships ebb and they flow and we change along with the years. I guess I can wish that my Uncle and I had always been close, but I also know the past might not really matter anymore. What does matter is today and how I only want him to feel better and to come home and to forever be gruff and full of life. I want him to bake cookies again to always know that I do truly love him.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.