She is wearing a fluorescent green bathing suit, her thin blond braid approaching the middle of her tanned back. She is 10 maybe, and hesitant to venture out much past her ankles. The man holding her hand, the man she calls, "Uncle Nick," is her wave-riding companion. He gently coaxes her out into the ocean beyond her knees. Nick knows his way around the surf evidently, as it isn't long before the little girl has mastered the art of sliding in on her stomach, coming to a sandy halt and jumping up to start all over again.

From my beach chair, in the space of 15 minutes, I not only watch the girl go from novice to ebullient expert. I'm also &L; watching my 10-year-old self. And thinking about uncles.

A long time ago, in this same ocean, I was standing next to a man I call "Uncle Herb," who is not my uncle at all. He lived around the corner from us, the husband of my mother's college roommate.

These uncles happened a lot back in the 1950s. Like most kids I knew, I was accorded several real ones, who appeared automatically in my life the day I was born, their names printed on the family tree, their birth dates recorded in the family Bible. But others were my parents' childhood friends or neighbors who casually walked in and out of our home the way Ethel Mertz still does at Lucy Ricardo's every morning in black and white on television. These men were my uncles, too.

I was a cautious child who liked lots of practice in private before I did anything publicly. Riding waves in August with hundreds of people standing in the surf carried too many risks for the child I was.

Wading would have been forever fine with me, had Uncle Herb and I not stood together that day in the shallow surf, ankle deep. His children, a slew of blond hearty boys, had already taken their positions out past the breaking surf, yelling for their father to come out and join them.

"Come on, Linda," he said instead, "I'll teach you how to ride the waves."

He held out his hand. Hoping he wouldn't make fun of me when he saw how inept I knew I'd be, I accepted tentatively. He talked me through my nerves as the waves bounced below us.

"Put your arms like this," he said. "Try to keep your head down," he suggested, and I remember how different he looked wet and without his eyeglasses. He held on to me when a big wave overpowered my skinny body and I was tossed under the current.

Uncle Herb stayed with me until I caught on, and I continued riding waves (with a certain panache, I've always thought) right up until the summer when watching lifeguards eat their lunches finally overtook my fascination with the ocean.

Now I realize what I felt that afternoon was not the thrill of a new skill acquisition, but simply how fine it feels to be loved by someone who doesn't have to love you.

Finding uncles like that for my own kids has not been so easy. My husband and I have moved too often. Our childhood friends have lost touch, and our college friends live in other cities. Neighborhoods are more transient than they used to be. Sometimes that thought leaves me with a sad sense that my children have missed out on having "uncles," especially when I remember what happened later that summer of my 10th year.

In a houseful of company, most of whom were relatives, my mother decided to pass around some of my essays and poetry. I was never sure how I felt about this. Certainly I was proud that she thought I had talent, but she seemed rather blind to public opinion. Most of the adults would glance at a few pages politely and then mumble a few kind but vague words.

When it came Uncle Herb's turn to read the handful of notebook pages, I nervously walked in and out of the room several times, peeking at him. To my amazement, his eyes moved carefully over every page.

After he'd finished the last piece, he found me and pressed them into my hand. And as if he had unearthed a great secret between us, he said, "You're a writer. A real writer."

No one beyond my parents had ever said that to me. It would be 20 years before anyone else would, and that person would be my first editor.

If we're lucky, we have an adult in our lives who, even for one summer afternoon, teaches us how to negotiate the surf -- when to jump, when to dive and how to ride the waves all the way to shore. Who tells us to believe something we're only dreaming. Who doesn't have to love us.

If we're smart, we never forget.

"You did great," Uncle Nick is telling the girl now, as they shake the water from their hair and jog toward their blanket on the beach. I watch her face.

Same ocean. Different uncle. Lucky girl.

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