Without him, I might have never liked eggs. That seems like such a small accomplishment, frivolous even. But I’d been forced to eat eggs almost every morning of my life. I hated eggs. My loathing of eggs exceeded the bounds of good manners—as a child, I hid my eggs wherever I could find a secretive spot: under my plate, tucked against the clapper of the dinner bell. Later, my older sister would wake in the mornings to fix our breakfast before school, but I was a kid without an ounce of gratitude. I ranted and raved against her eggs. I was incorrigible. The only way I could tolerate an egg was hardboiled with a sliver of butter on it. Even then, I wouldn’t eat the white. I especially hated scrambled eggs.
Then my new uncle came over to our duplex on Colony Road. I was in the seventh grade, and my mother had recently married “Mr. Van Hecke.” All of my dad’s extended family came to a huge gathering at our Charlotte house for brunch. My new Uncle Merwin not only cooked; he put cheese in the scrambled eggs. Miraculously, the clouds parted, the sun shone, and the hated eggs tasted good.
My Uncle Merwin was a journalist and a scholar. He is in the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame. He chronicled the rise of Charlotte, NC, from an awkward pro-wrestling town to a proud Southern city. He was the last living brother of the four Van Hecke boys who grew up in Chapel Hill where their dad was the Dean of the Law School and their mom a saint. He learned and taught and shared all he knew. But, for me, his impact was deep and personal in ways most people wouldn’t even credit.
At family gatherings, at some point, I would find myself seated on the sofa next to Merwin. I was not unique to this. Most family members gravitated to his side for a spell. There, he would explain to me the intricacies of North Carolina’s participation in the Revolutionary War. Or the true story behind a power play to take over the Charlotte airport. He was a man of broad knowledge.
When I was forced to have my hips replaced at a far-too-young age, Merwin took me aside and told me not to listen to negative things people might say. He had also faced hip replacement in his 50s, and he said those bad things wouldn’t happen. When deep panic set in the night before the first surgery—I was willingly allowing someone to cut me open and insert something artificial into my body—I held on to his reassurance. I told myself, Merwin did this. I can too.
I don’t know if we ever understand the impact we have on others. If we take time to think about it, surely we place odds that our mark will be left by the “big things” we’ve managed to do. If my experience is any measure, we’re probably wrong.