The Robinsons struggled with high blood pressure and diabetes. Mr. Smith had a bad back. Mrs. Jones had severe vision impairment and stayed at home, where her environment was familiar. Aunt Ella was constantly concerned for them and making certain that they’d not been forgotten. The meaning of a holiday wasn’t lost on her. Walking about Aunt Ella’s neighborhood and delivering meals with her made me more attentive to persons around us who were alone or in poor health.
My grandmother’s sister, my Great Aunt Ella, never married. Her close relationship with my parents meant that she spent most family holidays — Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day — seated at our table, enjoying a meal with us. It never failed: She would accept a plate of leftovers to take home for lunch or dinner the next day, but that plate was always passed on to a neighbor or church member who’d spent the holiday alone and needed both the nourishment and a dose of Aunt Ella’s joy-filled company.
As time passed, my mother followed suit — sharing a plate with one of the widows from church whose adult sons and daughters lived in other cities and who found themselves alone on holidays. My mother scooped a hot meal onto a disposable plate, and I was often sent to deliver while she prepared the next plate. I remember well Mrs. Proctor, Mrs. Solomon, Mr. Burroughs or the Walkers peeking out their doors from a darkened entry as I stood outside with that plate. They stayed with me.
Holidays are not for everyone. They’re not the Norman Rockwell paintings of loved ones gathered around a table, laughing and sharing a meal and time together. For far too many of us, holidays are lonely days, sometimes the saddest days of the year. Holidays may remind us of loved ones lost, whose presence we still miss with every fiber of our being. Holidays may heighten our sense of anxiety and loss around fractured relationships. Holidays may leave us pining over dashed hopes or dreams unfulfilled.
These days, I’m acquainted with more and more persons who are without close family in the places they called home, either because of the loss of loved ones, loss of relationships, career and vocational transitions, or other separations. Whereas years ago, it seemed rarer that family members would relocate across the country from each other, it is no longer true that family members live within a stone’s throw of one another — literally or figuratively. And holiday travel is not always affordable, convenient, or physically possible.
Some of us who are alone are fortunate to have friends at whose tables we are always invited and welcome. Some of us are not so fortunate. How do we become more attentive to the neighbors among us who are alone?
We must be willing to meet them, and not merely pass them each day. Have we stopped to speak to the widower on the corner while he’s out raking his leaves, or taken a moment to admire the dog a young neighbor walks, or complimented the woman whose garden we enjoy every day? Do we engage in friendly conversation with coworkers? While stretching ourselves to engage in polite conversations may take some of us out of our comfort zones, going out of our way to say hello, to let persons around us know that they’re visible to us, is an important way to become acquainted with neighbors and colleagues, and to recognize those who are alone and those who may need and appreciate our support.
We might consider what it looks like to open our homes, or even to seek out an affordable place, to host a community holiday meal, inviting neighbors, coworkers, friends or anyone we know who doesn’t have another place or other persons with whom to share the day. If we are worried about hosting in our own homes, a conference room or a community center may be available.
Asking everyone who’s invited to share in some part of the meal (rolls, cookies, or a jug of iced tea definitely count) means that it doesn’t become an overwhelming burden for anyone and keeps costs in check. And small gifts can serve as excellent icebreakers to conversation and can also be a great way to signal our willingness to be supportive. Since some persons may be wary of receiving that delectable home-baked cake, pie, or tin of cookies (or their dietary restrictions might prohibit them), gifting a small basket of fresh fruit can be an affordable and inclusive way of sharing a treat.
The faith community I’m privileged to lead has tried to become more responsive to persons within our community who might find themselves alone on holidays. A Turkey Tuesday meal held on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and a Spring Sunday brunch on Mother’s Day have drawn a good number of guests and given them not only a delicious meal, but companionship and support at the right time. These meals are reminders to us all that every person in our midst is grateful to have company.
Extending that kind of hospitality to persons who need our companionship and support allows us to show that the true meaning of our celebrations isn’t lost on us.