Long before social media took over our world, language and all, an influencer was defined as one who exerts influencea person who inspires or guides the actions of others. Recently, I was considering the influencers in my life? My Uncle Paul crowded out former teachers, close friends, and even my literary heroes. He blew in and out of my life as a child and teenager and then all but disappeared after my early marriage. 

If my mother were alive and reading this, she would have plenty to say about Uncle Paul, my father’s youngest brother. Her rap sheet would go something like this:

  • Married five times—twice to the same woman.
  • An all round “bad lot” as the Brit’s say—absent father of two boys.
  • Loved his MG more than he loved people, except for his fifth wife, Charlotte.
  • Kept my father up late, drinking whiskey whenever he rolled into town.
  • A traveling salesman and we all know about them!
  • Annoying, too frequent expression: “That’s a cold, hard fact. I kid you not!”

As for me, his attention always made me feel special, something I didn’t feel very often. He bought me a red leather nail-care kit when I turned thirteen. My mother, without asking me, returned it to the jewelry store—“too impractical.”

He let me drive his MG from Fort Worth to Dallas, even though I’d never driven a stick-shift before, and smiled as we sputtered and bumped along while I got the hang of it.

He asked me my opinion, he listened without interrupting, and led me to believe I had something to say even though I was just a teenager. He couldn’t have known how my opinions were treated at home. Big brother—she’s a dumb girl, what could she possibly know? My mother—that’s not how it happened or I never said that. My father—you’ll see it differently when you’re older or silence.

In the mid-1960s, my husband and I and daughter left the Midwest and moved to Southern California. And after more than a few years, I finally caught up with my Uncle Paul and his wife Charlotte living there.

By now, she was officially called Gorgeous by Paul and we did the same. Was she Gorgeous? Does it matter? “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me and doesn’t put up with my bullshit,” he said, giving her a loving squeeze on the shoulder as he passed behind her chair on the patio where we sat having a beer.

While I helped Gorgeous in the kitchen bring out snacks, she told me she’d been a WAC during the war and glad that Paul didn’t mind it when she fell back into “ordering him around.” Then, and now, I can only think of a few other married couples who seemed to both love and tease each other with mutual respect and enthusiasm.

Many years after these few visits with Paul and Gorgeous, I mentioned how much I liked him to my mother. While I dried the dishes after dinner, she lowered her voice and revealed a family secret. My father had three brothers: Paul, John, and one who committed suicide in the bedroom of his parent’s house in Mississippi. My father never spoke of him nor did Paul. But John, a crude, loudmouth sort of guy told my mother that Paul was not their father’s son. That their mother had had an affair with a Black man. The language he used that my mother repeated would make our current “sensitivity readers” gasp, so I’ll spare you as well. But I did notice, as an adoring kid and later, that Paul, with darker skin and rounder features, looked nothing like my father.

The only picture I have of Paul, already exhibiting his exuberance. With him is my father.

I know that I started this post talking about influencers and can provide a long list of how Paul influenced me. You know some of the ways; he let me drive his precious MG, bought me gifts now and then (after the nail kit return). Those I carefully hid from my mother’s censoring.

He provided the “rehearsal” dinner before my wedding that was turning into a total disaster. My husband’s parents weren’t going to attend and so Paul took myself, fiancé, and my parents out to a five-star Italian restaurant in St. Louis, ordered off the menu (that brought the chef to our table), got my mother good and giggly on too much wine, and reassured me that all would be okay—more than a few times that week.

But here’s the biggest influence of all. Several times, both stated and modeled, Paul encouraged me to see just how big the world was, full of interesting people and places. All you needed was the desire and sometimes the courage to explore it. No fear should hold you back. Honor that calling no matter what. It was his influence I took with me to Africa and Cuba and for my move to the farm.

Paul believed that life was to be lived, not contemplated; you failed, you succeeded, you kept going until you were satisfied that you’d lived a full life. Only then could you be content to sit out on your patio and have a beer with your niece and her family, and smile.

Because I moved so often, changed partners, jobs, etc. I lost touch with Paul until I was back in the Bay Area and asked my father about him. “We don’t speak,” he said with a clamped jaw.

“Why? What could cause such a breach? He’s the only brother you have left?”

My mother, as always, jumped in and told me in the kitchen—where else—that it was over my Uncle John’s estate. “Money,” she said, like the root of all evil it can be.

I was shocked and distressed, less for my father, more so for Paul, and sent a letter to the last address my parents had for him. I didn’t tell my parents hoping that I could do something to mend the breach.

A few weeks later, I received a letter addressed to me and my parents from Gorgeous saying that Paul had passed away from a heart attack several months prior to her receipt of my letter.

Later, while in the Bay Area visiting her family, Gorgeous included a quick visit to my parents apartment. She was still the competent, straight-backed woman I remembered, now in her early 80s. After a few pleasantries had been made, I asked her how Paul had died. I was surprised when a smile appeared on her face.

“He died like he lived,” she said, “and really with his first love, his MG. He had already had several minor heart attacks, but was back driving and running a few errands for me in the shopping center. When he came out, the landscape company had turned the sprinklers on to water the grassy strips between the rows of cars. Paul had left the top down and when he returned, he could see the errant sprinklers had soaked the inside of his car. You know he had quite a temper and the sight of the damage sent him into a fury that took him down and out. It was an awful visit at my door by the police and it took me a long time to settle with my loss. But now, a few years have gone by and I think maybe Paul went out just the way he wanted—instantly, with his car.”

If there are takeaways from this post, and I hope there are, these come to mind. You never know who you might be influencing. If that’s the case, better to be a positive influence than the other variety, the kind that you promise yourself you’ll “never be like.”

With the help of role models and more intimate guides, we can leave just a bit of the best parts of ourselves behind when we are gone. Like my Uncle Paul.

Who might your influencers be? Who have you influenced? 

Photo credits: Influencer – diggity marketing, Couple on the park bench – marc-a-sporys,
Patio – k-f, MG – metin-ozer.