For much of my life, I secretly wondered whether Uncle Harry was just a dream.
He was, after all, beyond real. Who else could reach into an absurdly cluttered closet and pull out a gift from a princess or your mother’s childhood toy? Who else could just touch people and leave them both smiling and ache-free? And who else could make dogs speak, birds dance and perfect strangers sing with him in public?
Words can never describe Harry Gibbings. Technically, he wasn’t my uncle but my mother’s cousin – a relationship I’m not sure has an endearment. Some people never even knew him as Harry – just George Gibbings, the globe-trotting BBC cameraman.
Though I loved my grandparents, I saw them only a few times in my life. But Harry wove his way in and out of my entire life. We lived thousands of miles apart and often didn’t see each other for years. Then I would hear an unmistakable “Hello, my boy,” and be back in his world. It was always as if we had parted in mid conversation while he went out of the room for a cup of tea, only take up from where we left without batting an eye.
For my mother, Harry was the bridge to the life she left when we moved to America. He would show up at our house just when she most needed a dose of England and the London she so loved. He could bring the memories, the laughter and the smiles back to his beloved “Dinah” in an instant with that special twinkle in his eye.
Harry’s gift to me, however, was the ability to respect life while bending its rules. I learned from him that a good laugh served the world much better than a smug smile, that most doors were made to go through despite the signs above them, that “neat” was a relative term – and that people really should sing in public.
He may not be listed in the history books nor become a statue in Hyde Park, but Harry brought more living to life than any roomful of statesmen ever has.
Maybe Uncle Harry was not a dream, but just a welcomed bit of magic. Even when he is gone, he is always here.
(Harry Gibbings died in London July 25, 2010, just a few days after his 90th birthday.)