March was a fun month in our house growing up. In addition to St Paddy’s Day’s (Mom LOVED to decorate for the ‘seasons’), we had March break and three birthdays to celebrate: me on the 8th, mom on the 14th and my uncle Ron on the 15th. We would usually celebrate the birthdays together on the last weekend of March break. The party highlight was cutting into Mom’s handmade cake with nickels and quarters hidden inside!
A few things at work this week have me reflecting on my Uncle Ron who was my Dad’s younger brother by 2 years. As I am discovering on a daily basis, his impact on me was significant and something I am still learning to fully appreciate.
Ron was born with Down syndrome which in the 1930’s was a big deal. Listening to stories from my Dad (I never talked with my grandparents about this) the mindset of what to ‘do’ with this baby was focused on the needs of the system, rather than what was best for Ron. There was talk — and a fair bit of pressure — to send Ron away to a special home right away. My grandparents resisted and raised him at home (likely with little support) until he was 4 or 5. He then moved to the Ontario Hospital School in Orillia where he lived for 15 years or so in a formal institutional setting. While the school had significant problems that started in the 1960’s, Dad remembers it being a place where the staff were caring and focused on resident well-being. He and my grandmother would take the train up at least monthly to visit with Ron for the weekend. This was back in the day when the train would stop right in front of the hospital just for them!
Ron looked different than other people. He sounded different than other people. He acted differently than other people. He was a loud and confident person who (not unlike my dad and me) was not afraid to be in the middle of a conversation and often had a lot to say. He was a talented paint-by-number artist and our family has beautiful holiday ceramic decorations that Ron made. He demanded absolute quiet for his nap time and while he did not formally play, was surprisingly assured in front of a piano.
Having Ron in my life as a child and teen was a gift beyond measure. Looking back, I realize that having someone ‘different’ in our home normalized for me what made other kids uncomfortable. I learned a lot from Uncle Ron. Because of him:
- My strong commitment to social justice has been baked into most of my professional and volunteer leadership roles
- My ability to lean on curiosity (rather than fear) is a quasi-natural reflex rather than a muscle I need to re-discover in times of pressure or stress
- I am (usually) comfortable with being uncomfortable and have built skills to invite others to sit in that discomfort
- Diversity is something I see and value as part of a functioning and vibrant team
Another great impact I witnessed because of Ron’s presence in our world was watching my father step into service in ways that he hadn’t before. Frankie took full advantage of his early retirement to organize and take on a driver role for many of the day or week-long excursions that Ron’s group homes would take. Those experiences pushed my Dad out of his comfort zone and I think changed his relationship with Ron and my brother, mom and me.
(Quick aside: most of our family refers to my Dad as Frankie because that is what Ron used to call him. We think Ron likely heard his Mom use it on their weekend visits. While some make fun of us for using it, I think it is a beautiful way to honour Dad’s family legacy.)
My biggest takeaway from Ron was joy. While he was stubborn and knew what he wanted, Ron always seemed happy. In many ways, he lived Elsie’s wisdom better than anyone I know. With his basic needs met, Ron was was always interested in those around him and building relationships. Even as a child, I noticed (and now as an adult really appreciate) that Ron’s expectations of those around him were both simple and high: his focus and behaviours were encouraging us to connect with others.
While he might not have described it that way, Uncle Ron was in service to joy, connecting authentically and homemade mac and cheese with cold ginger ale. Not a bad list of things to spend your life focusing on.