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Uncles-for-hire: providing love

Rent-an-uncle is, I suppose, an idea whose time has come. A man in Illinois thinks so. I saw his ad in the New Yorker - Letters for Little People From Uncle Toby.

For $10 a year he will send a monthly letter to a child from 3 to 8 years old. His letters are warm and friendly - about birds, animals in his yard, things to do on a rainy day. One I especially liked describes a train trip he is taking.

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Children love to get mail. But, alas, real uncles don't seem to be much a part of children's lives anymore. Neither do aunts.

I suspect my generation takes being uncles and aunts less seriously than my parents' generation did.

But children today need aunts and uncles as much as ever - maybe more.

Every relationship with a caring adult is like another layer of love for a child. There aren't as many layers as there used to be.

Aunts and uncles can contribute so much - and mine did.

They were fun to be with. They never scolded me, never criticized me. Whatever my shortcomings, they seemed unaware of them. They never tried to improve me, never talked down to me. They were interested in what I said, cared what I thought about, respected my ideas - and my feelings.

Letters? Two of my uncles found time to write to me from Korea while fighting a war. My aunts were faithful senders of Valentines, birthday cards, and just-right presents.

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Did aunts and uncles have more time then?

No. They had less. They made time.

My Aunt Sally always worked when I was growing up. She didn't have a dishwasher or a microwave oven - but she always had time for me.

She was never too tired to make fudge or popcorn, to take a walk or play a game, to talk about anything I had in mind.

My Aunt Ruth and Uncle Dewitt included me in countless outings - his firm's annual family Christmas party, vacations at Indian Lake, visits to his delightful aunt and uncle. They took me out to lunches and dinners - sometimes to fancy restaurants, sometimes to unpretentious ones.

Late one December night, at a White Tower restaurant, Uncle Dewitt introduced me to my first hamburger with onions. I haven't had a hamburger since that tasted as good.

My Aunt Martha had three children and worked five days a week. But she found time, too.

She had no interest in horses. But I did - so, one hot Saturday afternoon in August, she took me to a stable where we rented riding horses. She never once complained about the heat or the horseflies.

My Uncle Gaile loved baseball - yet every summer he passed up Cincinnati Reds games to drive me out to Lakeside Park for a day of merry-go-rounds, ferris wheels, and cotton candy.

I looked forward to nieces and nephews of my own - until one summer day when I was seven.

I was dressing to go out to lunch with Aunt Sally and Aunt Ruth at Rike's Tearoom, and I commented, ''When I'm an aunt, I'll always take my nieces out for lunch.''

An older cousin, in a disagreeable mood, said, ''You will never, ever be ANYONE's aunt, because you're an only child.''

She was right, of course. I'm not anyone's aunt - but if I were, there would be fudge and fun, lunches in tearooms, hamburgers on cold December nights. There would be long walks and long talks and, when distance intervened, letters and post cards and books in the mail.

I would like to do it all - because it meant so much to me.

What aunt - which uncle - is really too busy to dash off a note to a nephew or niece?

We wait a lot in our society. I think if we kept pen and paper with us at all times - to use while we wait - for a haircut, a plane, an appointment, a friend - we could keep in touch with everyone we really care about.

Uncles could write letters during commercials on Monday night football. Aunts could write under the dryer at the beauty shop.

Being an aunt or uncle is an opportunity to play a special part in a child's life - to make a difference. My aunts and uncles made a world of difference in mine.

Uncle Toby has a good idea. He knows there is a need for his letters. He is trying to fill it.

He has competition. Someone called Cousin Ebert advertised in the New Yorker recently. And, last month, in Sunset Magazine, Aunt Elizabeth advertised letters to children.

Can Rent-A-Grandma be far behind?

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