A Frank Conversation

I spent a lot of Christmas Eves sitting in the corner.

Not because I’d landed on Santa’s “naughty” list, by any means. (No matter what my younger sisters may claim to the contrary.) But because that’s where Frank was. And Frank had a strong gravitational pull.

If you’re a regular here, you’ve met my wife Heather and our developmentally disabled ward Missy. Frank was Missy’s dad and Heather’s grandpa. He and his wife Val would open their home to the entire clan on Christmas Eve. And they came. And came. And came. You could barely move the width of a jingle bell without rubbing elbows with family who’d come from Texas, or Kentucky, or England, or even just down the road to join the festivities.

It was a time of trading presents and stories and occasional jibes – the Year Of The Burned Carrots would never be forgotten – where everyone would get to come together and reconnect as a family. At least, that’s how I’m told it happened. I witnessed a lot of it second-hand.

Because while the merry chaos was going on, I was sitting in the corner with Frank.

Frank was a traveling salesman most of his life and was very good at keeping the conversation going. So good, in fact, that it could be difficult to find a departure point – especially for a young man who’d just married into the family and didn’t want to seem rude.  Heather used to joke that the rest of the family would watch us talking from afar and plan ways to “rescue” me from the world’s most relentless raconteur.

“How long has he been there?”

“Shouldn’t somebody do something?”

“*I’m* not going in there.”

The funny thing was, I really didn’t mind.

We both had a love of history, and Frank knew a lot of it, both national and family-related. We both had a love of bad jokes, and Frank knew a lot of those, too. We both had our share of unbelievable stories, whether it was some of the crazier things that had happened to me on stage or his own belief that he’d seen a UFO while in the Air Force.

Most of all, I think, we were both observers of the world. Sometimes with very different opinions about it, true, and sometimes pushing back a bit on those opinions. But at the heart of it, we had a very real respect for each other – what we’d seen, what we’d learned, who we were.

When you come down to it, that’s the heart of a family.

Maybe the heart of any people that hold each other in love.

Love is a word we throw around a lot, especially this time of year. Too often, we don’t go deeper in examining it than the sentiment of a Hallmark movie or  maybe the Grinch’s heart suddenly swelling by three sizes. It becomes something warm, desirable, even special – but like a tuxedo, a little too special to be everday wear.

Go deeper.

Love starts with respect. The ability to step behind someone else’s eyes. The capacity to acknowledge their joys and pains and needs. The willingness to take someone where they are – and sometimes the refusal to leave them where they are, as well, helping them become something even better.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about enduring abuse, or putting up with gaslighting, or tolerating the outright intolerable. Respect goes both ways. There’s a difference between acting from love and being a victim, just as there’s a difference between political wrangling and outright obstruction or corruption. But when it’s really there, even the most ordinary acts can become gifts as precious as anything under the tree.

May that gift find you all, wherever you may be.

And if it finds you in the corner, get comfortable. You may be there a while.

A Moment Made

Some of life’s great truths have the staying power of Keith Richards and Bob Dylan combined. Which is to say, they’re not pretty, but there’s no getting rid of them.

One of these truths is that the new guy will always get the “fun” stuff.

A second is that the news always happens, regardless of any calendar dates or holidays.

Put these together, and you’ll understand why, about 20 years ago, I was heading into the newsroom of The Garden City Telegram on Christmas Day.

Mind you, the world wasn’t burning down – well, no more than it usually is, anyway. No apartment buildings had exploded, no planes had crashed on Main Street, no eccentric billionaires had decreed that every resident of southwest Kansas was getting a lifetime cash award. (Darn it.) But there would still be a newspaper on Dec. 26, and so the rookie got to come in and keep an ear on the police scanner in case anything happened … and to work on a short feature in case nothing did.

Appropriately enough, I spent the time talking to my colleagues of the moment – namely, the others who by choice or circumstance found themselves working on the holiday. Truckers. Ambulance workers. Police officers. All the folks who quietly keep the gears moving, even when life seems to come to a halt.

For most, it wasn’t a day lost, but a day postponed. There would be time to celebrate, to observe, to enjoy … once the job was done. A time claimed rather than found, a moment to be made rather than simply reached.

I still appreciate that.

After all, it’s a lesson Heather and I came to know very well.


Christmas Eve in Garden City. Our first as a married couple. A friend had invited us to a candlelight service, one of Heather’s favorite things in the world – only for one of her chronic illnesses to have a brief flare-up that evening. We didn’t have to go to an emergency room, but we clearly weren’t going anywhere else, either.

Young husbands do many things out of desperation. Which is how I happened to sit at our piano that night by candlelight, playing carols from the hymnal and reading appropriate sections of the Christmas story.  Since Heather couldn’t go to the candlelight service, I brought the service to her.

We weren’t where we meant to be. We weren’t where we wanted to be. But together, we made the moment.

And a memory that still endures for both of us.


We imbue dates with a lot of power. That can create a sort of magic where it feels like everyone around you is acting in a common purpose, to a common goal. But if for some reason you’re disconnected from the revelry, that approaching holiday can become awkward instead of wonderful, something that everyone else gets to enjoy while you stand to one side.

And like that, “Christmas is coming” starts to sound less like a carol and more like a threat.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Christmas isn’t about Dec. 25. It never was. It’s about setting a time aside to recognize unexpected joy and quiet love, to treasure those who are closest to your heart and focus on what’s truly important. To see those around us as people deserving of kindness (even if they do have horrible taste in sweaters).

That’s a moment that can be claimed at any time.

Or even at every time.

May that moment always be with you, whenever you choose to make it. May it comfort you with a warmth that will last and endure.

If we’re truly fortunate, it might even outlast Keith Richards.