On Thanksgiving this year, I’m thinking of my Uncle Bob. I mostly remember his voice, his hands, and how he would look at me.
He was one of my dad’s two younger brothers and a skilled machinist. For a few years, he worked for my dad, so I would see him most often standing in concentration behind a huge metal lathe on the floor of my father’s factory. I would sometimes stand in his line of sight, hoping he would look up from his work and see me. Even through his safety goggles, I knew I would be able to see how he saw me. He wasn’t given to exuberance and wouldn’t attempt to speak to me over the factory noise; but with his eyes and a subtle smile he told me that the sight of me made him happy.
I remember his hands not because later in my boyhood he had an accident working and lost a couple of fingers. He found a way to return to work and made adjustments around what was missing. He was not a hugger, so when we would gather for a reunion or a holiday, his more formal handshake would remind me of the loss of these fingers.
Uncle Bob never talked much to me. His speech in those gatherings was mostly reserved for his brothers who would sit together on folding chairs as a potluck meal was being assembled in another room. When the meal was ready, my cousins and I would all be corralled together and everyone would stand for the blessing. This was a risky moment because the sudden solemnity of bowed heads and closed eyes seemed to provoke giggles among us kids.
It was then that I heard my uncle string together the most words. His prayer was especially solemn both because of his deep sonorous voice and because he would pray in King James.
“Heavenly Father, we thank thee for thy tender mercies…”, he might begin.
While this language seemed to come very naturally to him, it felt stiff and formal to me. Only later when I studied other languages would I learn that the thees and thous were second person singular pronouns. They were just the opposite of formal and reserved for the most intimate relationships when they were still in common use. They were used to speak to a lover, a child, a parent, or a sibling.
My Uncle Bob died earlier this month. He seemed to be recovering from COVID, but he was already frail and seemed ready to go. I suspect there were those he was eager to be reunited with, his parents, my father, and probably most of all, his son Scotty who had died at age three of leukemia.
I was just five or six at the time, so I can’t really know, but Scotty’s death seemed to hollow out a space in the heart of my uncle and his family. Scotty’s older sister Christie was just a little younger than I. After Scotty they had two more girls, Tracie and Jodie. But I always sensed that the space Scotty left opened my uncle and aunt to a deeper awareness and appreciation of what mattered most. Perhaps it is what I detected in my uncle’s gaze when he would see me and I could see the love in his eyes for his brother’s son. Maybe a missing son made me more precious to him.
So many have lost so much this year around the globe. Lost loved ones, lost health, lost livelihoods. How can we celebrate Thanksgiving? We can only grieve.
Grief and gratitude, though, go together.
I play the acoustic guitar (badly). Like other acoustical instruments, guitars are hollow. It’s their particular emptiness that allows them to reverberate and amplify a vibrating string. My uncle’s voice was resonant because of his big hollow chest and throat.
Grief, if we allow it, can open us up to gratitude, and gratitude is a kind of spiritual resonance. To be grateful is to be attuned to the good around us or that has passed before us, to the blessings of fingers and children and uncles, both present and missing.
To practice, gratitude is to recognize in any circumstance what is good and to allow it to reverberate in us and become amplified through us.
Joy is another kind of openness to gratitude. Like the music of major and minor chords, joy and grief are how blessings resonate in us.
I write today grateful for you and your open heart for Haiti, for how you respond both to the loss and the hope that are so rich among Haiti’s people.
May you resonate with gratitude today and all days,
In deep gratitude,