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I was still hiding behind my mom’s skirts when pushy Uncle Mel taught me about chutzpah

DANIEL FISHEL/The Globe and Mail

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I was a shy kid. Though racing down the log plume ride at Expo 67 is my first vivid childhood memory, it competes with the remembered safety of times spent under my mother's skirt in the presence of those less known to me.

"He's just hiding," she would say and carry on with her conversation.

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When I was 7, my parents took a trip around the world and I was sent from London, Ont., to spend the summer in Montreal with my Uncle Mel. He was not shy. He came straight out of the womb directing traffic and, I'm sure, never spent a moment in the confines of his mother's skirt. What he lacked in social grace he made up for in loyalty and protectiveness to his inner circle.

If you had spoken to Mel of the complexity of looking out for those you love without overstepping your bounds he would have looked at you as if you were from Mars.

A math teacher, he would have seen no complexity in an equation with only one input: You take care of your own. He loved his wife, Lily, with a complete devotion that we should all envy. He loved his son, Scott, and my father with the fierce protectiveness of a parent and older brother. And he loved me.

Early in my stay, Aunt Lily accidentally closed the car door on my hand and I didn't cry. Mel had already identified me as the chosen one, and this episode merely served to clarify it for others.

We shared a love of sports, and there were bikes, gloves and balls meticulously laid out in preparation for my arrival.

Although I had much in common with Mel, we were also a study in contrasts – the quiet and the fury. And so began our skit-like show one summer afternoon circa 1970 in the Montreal suburb of Beaconsfield.

I had ridden my Mel-procured bike over to the neighbourhood park with a ball and glove to watch the local youth baseball team practising. Although they were my age, I kept my distance, watching from afar, tossing my ball in the air and circling for the catch. My vision of a perfect evening was for a ball to come my way so I could throw it back impressively and they might think "wow," and then we'd all go our own ways.

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When Mel arrived on the scene I learned quickly that this was not his vision, and we were soon marching toward the coach.

"I have good news for you," Mel told him. "My nephew is here for three weeks and he loves baseball."

I remember the coach being so nice and saying, "Hey, would he like to come out to our practices while he's here?"

"Well yeah, of course he'll come to practice – he's a dedicated player," Mel replied, "but he's going to need a uniform for the games."

With my mother's skirt currently in India or thereabouts, I was left to stare at my shoes with my hat pulled down, hoping for spontaneous combustion or lightning to strike.

"Geez … I … um, I guess with kids' holidays we could maybe even try to sneak him into an odd game," the coach said.

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"Yeah, well, he plays shortstop."

"You know, we have a shortstop so we'll just maybe play it by ear."

"I've been watching your shortstop. Trust me, this is going to work out well for you."

And thus began my three-week career with the Beaconsfield Tigers.

We all grow older, and kids change more than adults. I am no longer shy.

At times, the changes in me upset the balance of my relationship with my uncle. Looking back, I think maybe I should have just stayed deferential – our times together were so brief. We always shared a strong bond; he would hug me to make my bones creak, but we were best meant for each other that summer.

Mel has since passed away. He died while cutting his grass after playing tennis at the age of 63. He still had six-pack abdominals, and all of his loved ones were doing well in life. Listening to my father speak at the funeral, I was taken by a rare emotion and walked out mid-eulogy to be by myself. Mel would have liked that.

Now, when I finagle to ensure that my wife and daughters have prime chairs by the resort pool, or rearrange the teams in a pick-up soccer game so our family all plays on one side, I tell them I am their Mel. They like the results, but sometimes prefer to take a walk while the accommodations are made.

Though I was paralyzed by embarrassment back in Beaconsfield, I am glad now that I stayed to see the show. I am a far diluted version of the master. They have no idea.

Looking back, finally, I recall that Mel did not believe in heaven, a view that I have also grown to share. If this condemns me to an afterlife in the warmer clime, then I take solace in the expectation that Mel will have secured a spot for us far from the furnace.

If I get there on a Monday, I'll be playing shortstop by Tuesday.

Sandy Mikalachki lives in London, Ont.

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