Interrupting Uncle Joe

Written by | Columnists and Letters

Nothing makes it feeL like the holidays more than a tradition, and when I was growing up, part of my holiday tradition was a big family gathering at the home of my Uncle Joe and Aunt Chris.

By Paul Hagen

Paul Hagen

Their house always seemed made for celebrating — with a spacious family room where a well-tended fire crackled at one end and, at the other, a large television was hooked up to a video camera pointed at the room. I was told that the video camera was there to document every minute of holiday fun, but I strongly suspect it was actually there because they knew we kids would behave better with a constant reminder that we were under surveillance.

For much of the evening, my 10 cousins and I — along with an annually evolving assortment of grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends of the family — would wander the main floor of the house having conversations or causing general mayhem. But eventually, the time would come to eat, and Aunt Chris would orchestrate a parade of relatives to make sure that the formal dining room table, the kids’ table in the kitchen, and often a third full table were stocked with serving platters piled high. Getting us kids to sit down was a tricky task in and of itself (like herding cats), but even once we had all been seated, there was one more hurdle to make it past.

I have never asked Uncle Joe how long he takes to prepare his annual holiday blessing, but it is clear that he does not take the task lightly. On occasions, it has involved quotes from a stack containing multiple books. He also aims to catalogue many of the year’s special blessings (babies, graduations) and remembers those we’ve lost. As a tradition, it is quite beautiful. To a table of 11 children staring at food they are not allowed to eat, it is a special kind of torture.

By the time my youngest cousin Katelyn was of speaking age, the rest of us had developed a rather rebellious attitude about the situation, primarily expressed through a fair amount of eye rolling and sighing. Katelyn must have picked up on this and — being young enough to sense our group frustration but not old enough to feel constrained by the watchful glares of our mothers — she decided to do something about it.

I’m not sure anyone realized Katelyn had gotten away from the kids’ table until we noticed Uncle Joe stop speaking because she was standing right next to him. This is when Katelyn smiled sweetly up at her dad and let him know that it was, in her opinion, time for him to stop speaking. Exactly which words she used to express this change depending on whom you ask. Certain of my more demure relatives recall Katelyn instructing him to “Shut up!” However, as I remember it, the darling child emphatically employed the most forbidden of all swear words. And then she repeated it several times. Ultimately, she was hurried from the room, Uncle Joe resumed speaking, and the rest of us sat in totally awed silence.

Although it is not, perhaps, the most Rockwellian of family memories, it is one that I treasure. And, in the years since, it has gotten much easier to gather all the cousins to sit down for dinner — in part because the sooner we sit down, the sooner we get to tell this very story. We do it, without fail, every year. We debate some of the finer details (what was said, how many times, whether she may have, in fact, been coached), and it never fails to produce gales of laughter. With each retelling we look back, amazed — both that we were ever so young and that Katelyn (now a fabulous grown woman herself) had such chutzpah. It has, in many ways, become as much of a tradition as Uncle Joe’s annual speech. And nothing makes it feel like the holidays more than a tradition.

Last modified: April 17, 2018