My Uncle’s Listening Lesson

unclesKinfolk. Ca. 1970

Cracking the Code

I called my uncle “Pete” this past weekend. He’s really my great-uncle, half-brother to my grandfather, but through one of those odd genealogical twists of fate, he’s only a few years older than my mother (his niece) was. Anyway, I phoned him to make good on a promise I’d made earlier in the week when I’d been out of town on business and too exhausted from meetings to carry a conversation.

So Saturday, I poured myself a glass of ice water, put my feet up, and called my uncle. Something you should know about uncle Pete is that he is the self-styled black sheep of the family. One could apply descriptions like “ornery old cuss” or “cantankerous curmudgeon” and be very close to capturing the essence of his persona.

Except this: Under that ornery veneer beats a gigantic, marshmallowy soft heart. But to find it, I have to steel myself: Pete’s the uncle with no qualms about using coarse language in front of ladies. Pete’s the uncle who will tell you that churches are a bunch of money-grubbers. Pete’s the uncle who will never, ever, display any sweetness–unless he’s talking about small children. He’s comfortable showing his heart for the little ones. But apart from that, I have to listen very carefully to hear the love.

He’s given me a tremendous gift, this cranky old uncle of mine has: he’s taught me to sift through the prickly words to uncover the kind heart. It’s a bit like panning for gold–you have to do some mucking about before you come across the nuggets. It’s like sitting stock-still in the forest, waiting to spot some elusive woodpecker. You have to tune your ear to the rat-a-tat-tat you’re seeking.

I have fibromyalgia, I tell him. 

Well, can’t they fix it? he asks.

Well, it’s manageable. But it doesn’t go away. 

He’s down a rabbit hole, yakking about how so many doctors are quacks and he’s glad he’s got a good one and then he’s telling me about when he needed a walker for nine months.

And then he brings up the heating pad. I have this great heating pad, he tells me. It’s big enough to cover the whole back of my recliner and it gets good and hot. I bought one for your cousin Janice and mailed it to her, because nothing was helping her. You can burn yourself if you fall asleep on it, though. Let me see. Ah, here’s the label. Do you have a pencil? No? Well get one. I’ll wait. It’s made by Battle Creek Equipment and their toll-free number is 800-yadda yadda yadda. Your cousin Janice tells me that the heating pad I sent her really helped with her sciatica. They’re expensive, but they’re made to last. One of these might be the thing you need to feel better. Look around and see if you can’t find one. And if not, well, my chiropractor sells them. I could pick one up for you and then you could come up and we could go out for lunch. Do you like Chinese? How about your old man? Does he? Well, I just found this old Chinese restaurant that we used to go to sixty years ago. My daughter-in-law looked it up and it has four-and-a-half stars, so we gave it a try and it’s as good as it ever was, and cheap, too. 

So anyway, he tells me, you look into that heating pad and just let me know if you need me to get one for you. 

Okay, Uncle Pete, I promise him.

He tells me about the granddaughter who got married on Halloween and asks about my “old man’s” job. He circles back to the heating pad. He tells me that November 7 would be his wedding anniversary, if Aunt Amanda hadn’t up and died last year. He circles back to the heating pad. He asks about my grandchildren, my siblings, my father. He circles back to the heating pad.  He tells me a funny story about his big brother, my grandfather. He circles back to the heating pad.

After an hour, we’re wrapping up our call. Don’t forget to let me know if you need me to get you one of those heating pads, he says.

I won’t. I love you, Uncle Pete. 

Yeah. Say “hi” to the old man for me. 

It’s only later, as I share the news from Uncle Pete with my “old man,” I hear it:

Buy yourself a heating pad is Uncle Petese for I’m sorry you’re hurting. I love you. 

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
When it is in your power to do it.

Proverbs 3:27



  1. Exactly, Sheila. And get yourself a heating pad, okay?

  2. If you asked him for one of those pads, it just might make his day! I love listening to older people talk. Their stories. Their graphic use of the past and the present are amazing. Pete sounds very interesting. And when you used the term, “rabbit hole,” I just chuckled.

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