How to Miss Someone During the Holidays

A larger-than-life uncle and “pit bull lawyer” taught Philip Menchaca gratitude for American citizenship.

I want to write a Reader’s Digest rendition of my family’s Thanksgivings: stories of kooky uncles and crazy antics; that time we carved the turkey with a table saw or something like that. Humorous, pithy even, like a Rockwell in writing.

But I can’t. When I think of Thanksgiving this year, I just feel sad. A snippet of words spin around in my head like a country music song: “you don’t miss it till it’s gone.”

A year ago my uncle died. Suddenly. I remember walking in a snowstorm, drinking a beer, trying to figure out exactly what was happening in my head, in my own chest, and in an emergency room thousands of miles away where my cousins had learned their only living parent had just died. I could not do it. I simply sat in the woods and listened to the hiss of the snow.

My uncle was a big man—in every sense. He wanted to experience life, not just live it. In my memory, he’s the giant in the family. He was a judo champion in college. He’d been skydiving. He even had a suit of armor in his house. It’s no surprise then that to me, he seemed implacable. I’m pretty sure he felt implacable, too.

I remember teasing him after he was featured in an LA Magazine article entitled “Pit Bull Lawyers.” He looked down and kind of smiled and didn’t say much. I smiled fully, though, because I knew that, secretly, he was pleased with the description. The courtroom was his stage and when he found a cause he believed in, he put on a wonderful performance.

There’s a picture somewhere of him carrying me on one shoulder and my cousin on the other. The three Phils. The two of us must have been about eight. He loved being with family and he loved holidays.

When we got together there’d be a moment when he’d gather us and pull out a piece of paper. The paper kept changing. He’d read the Declaration of Independence, the first Thanksgiving Day address, the fourteenth or sixteenth amendment or whatever the hell he’d chosen that year, and he’d ask us, for just a moment, to be thankful. Usually, we would, indeed, think for a moment and perhaps make some comments.

Occasionally, he would follow up on these comments, pushing forward, ready to stop and talk about whatever issue had been raised until someone reigned him in by grasping at the closest distraction: Ha ha, Uncle Phil, here we go again. Hey, have you seen the stuffing? Wow. You should really take a look at it. Really. It looks delicious. Doesn’t that look delicious? Have some more wine.

This Thanksgiving, there is no Uncle Phil. I am not going home and I am not seeing my cousins. It’s a complicated feeling because when I take time to think, for just a moment, just as my Uncle Phil would like me to do, I am thankful.

I’m thankful for the many Thanksgivings we did have together (even those that we spent without electricity. Reader’s Digest, I’m saving that story for you). And yes, Uncle Phil, I am thankful for my life, my liberty, and my property. I’m thankful for the love I have and have had. And I’m thankful because not every person, not every family, had the privilege to sit down and eat and laugh with my Uncle Phil. For having that privilege I am grateful, and I am terribly sad.


Read more on Thanksgiving on The Good Life.

Image credit: Rhett Sutphin/Flickr

About Philip Menchaca

Like many people, Philip Menchaca lives in New York City. When not writing he enjoys visiting parks and animal shelters. Maybe, one day, he'll find a nice cat.

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