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.
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.