Mending Family Rifts Over the Holidays

It was a holiday gathering like none other. Relatives were coming from far and near. Most of them, I had never met before.

I was just a kid, and I had only heard stories about many of the people who would soon be filling our house. I was excited to meet most of them.  My mom had always spoken fondly of her sweet aunt. And her fun memories of jokes and adventures with her cousins made me eager to meet them.

But Uncle Dale was one of the visiting kin whom I was not eager to meet. My mom only remembered him as an old grump during her childhood. But worse than the memories of his sour face were the memories of his outright cruelty. One summer while he was supposed to be taking care of my mom’s pet chicken, he ate it. My poor mother was only ten years old at the time.  She couldn’t enjoy fried chicken again until her thirties.

But the worst was his behavior during a family tragedy. After my four-year-old sister was killed in an accident, he had refused to allow my parents to bury her in the family cemetery. He said that since her last name was our father’s and not our mother’s, he felt no obligation to give her a plot.

My parents were baffled. The relatives that knew about it were upset too. Another family member gave them his own plot in a local cemetery. Mom and dad hadn’t spoken to Uncle Dale since.

I don’t know how they ever got past a thing like that, but they did. And now some twenty years later, they had forgiven him, though he never asked for it, and invited him as a guest in their own home.

I didn’t see why we should show him any kindness. I didn’t want to be nice to him. He had hurt my parents. But Mom and Dad asked us to treat him with love, so we did.

I was shocked that he had the nerve to show up. I’ll never forget his face when he stood on our front porch. He was an old man now. But he had a great deal of both pride and uncertainty written on his face. He wasn’t sure if he was going to get a punch in the nose or a welcome.

He looked rather shocked when both my parents reached out to hug him and bring him into the house. That man had built a life on meanness and hurt. He was completely disarmed by the love and affection they showed him.

He honestly didn’t quite know how to handle the next couple of days. He seemed to be in a constant state of defense and suspicion. It was almost as though he expected to continue a war that he tried to begin so many years ago. It was as though he was waiting for the green light to resume the strife. And when he didn’t see a battleground, he was at a loss as to what to do.

We gave him his own room, brought him breakfast in bed, and saw to it that he had newspapers each morning. By about day three, he was convinced that he was the object of some kind of twisted joke.

He came down the stairs in a huff.

“Who has taken my pajamas?” He had apparently been looking for them for hours. When his searching left him empty-handed, his next assumption was that we had finally broken this charade of smiles and kindness, and we were now trying to drive him crazy by stealing his clothes.

He was really quite mad. Everyone went into hunting mode, looking high and low for Uncle Dale’s pajamas. After about an hour, he collapsed into my dad’s recliner.

“I don’t know why you all would do a thing like that to me,” he pouted. And while he was sitting in that chair, his pant legs crept up a little.  I remember my sister sitting on the floor in front of him, cocking her head, and saying, “Uncle Dale, what is that under your jeans?”

Turns out, Uncle Dale’s pajamas had been very close to him the whole time. They were under the jeans that he was wearing. He looked down, and his face turned about twelve different colors as he immediately realized what he had done. All at once, the entire room burst into roars of laughter.

Now, in Uncle Dale’s defense, he wasn’t a spring chicken, so keeping track of things like that wasn’t among his top accomplishments at this stage of life. But even he had to crack a smile and appreciate the humor of the situation.

In that moment, I saw his walls finally come down. He had been loved on for days by people who owed him nothing but hate. And he finally took a look at that love, smiling all around him, and he wanted to be a part of it. He was a tiny bit nicer the rest of the visit. But what really stands out in my mind is the emotion that he showed when we all said our goodbyes. He actually shed a tear or two.

I learned a lot about love that week. Love is the most powerful thing in the world. It’s been years now since that big family gathering, and I haven’t seen Uncle Dale since then. But I hope he remembers being loved. And I will never forget the power of love—I’m reminded every time I put my PJs on.

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