You know who I mean − the relative sitting in the corner outside of the conversation. It’s the same every holiday. Perhaps that person is elderly, has a physical or a psychological problem that prevents them from interacting. He or she may have a hearing or memory problem that keeps them on the outskirts of every joke, story or political discussion. Maybe they are socially anxious and have trouble with crowds?
Years ago I had an Uncle Charlie. A very quiet guy, a widower, and retired small town lawyer who always brought a box of candy for my parents and a fresh Chicago Tribune to every family gathering. He used the newspaper, we assumed, to shield himself from discussions about school, food, boyfriends, music and the round up of the kids’ accomplishments. We tried to make him feel at home and include him in the conversation. But after a few obliging words, he’d revert back to hiding behind his paper. We learned to let Uncle Charlie do his thing. Looking back, he was probably counting the minutes till it was time to go.
One Thanksgiving, well after we had finished dessert, Uncle Charlie slipped away from the group for a bathroom break. About an hour later, noticing his absence, we found him passed out on the sofa downstairs in the den bar next to an empty bottle of bourbon. My Dad took Charlie home and got him into bed. Fortunately, Charlie never remembered the incident or pretended to forget. At Christmas he returned, newspaper in hand. This time, the bar was locked.
‘Social anxiety’ and ‘depression’ were not buzzwords back in the late 70’s, but everyone knew somebody with the symptoms. Feeling sorry for Uncle Charlie and, in part, wanting to avoid another drinking disaster, I prepared a plan for Christmas. I did my homework on Charlie: his interests, war stories that few of us knew about, and what he found most interesting about newspapers. That evening, after dinner, I came to him to his corner of the living room with a Chicago Sun Times tucked under my arm. I thought that bringing in a rival publication might be a good ice breaker. I asked him about the newspapers as a way of taking the focus off him. Gradually, he pointed out things like shifts in the stock market, law suits, sports scores, and other bits that caught his surprisingly curious eye. He started speaking in sentences, long sentences. He came alive. Seeing him enjoy himself was a perfect Christmas present for me. This was an Uncle Charlie I’d never known.
I brought my Dad into the conversation and we chatted about the news for a while. Uncle Charlie stopped checking his watch and instead, easily joined the conversation, keeping it going well after the others had left. He was shocked how much time flew by and apologized for keeping us up. Who was this new Uncle Charlie? Instead of the usual cool handshake on his way out the door, he gave an awkward hug you get from someone out of practice, but a hug nevertheless, nothing like what the old Uncle Charlie would have done. We all looked forward to him coming back for more fun.
Several weeks later, after repeated falls at home due to his drinking, Uncle Charlie moved to California to be with his daughter. He died a few years later.
This holiday season consider an act of kindness that goes beyond presents. Take some time to extend yourself; take a risk and try to create a genuine connection with someone you care about. Find out what rocks their world. Get them out of the corner and invite them into the center of the activity or connect with them alone, apart from the noise. Ask their opinion or advice on topics they can relate to. Surprise them with a new gadget, or a shocking news story, then listen to them tell you how things used to be. Make it a heart-opening holiday for all.