My wife Marlys and her siblings are five of the most socially competent people I have known. There’s no mystery where they learned it. Mar’s parents, Harry and Louise Zwach, lived their 90 plus years making sure they reached out to the people around them and they sent their five children off into the world with a clear understanding of the art of conversation.
Mar’s brother Don, their first born, emerged from the Zwach home with a black belt in social discourse. You put Don in a room with 100 people and he will not leave until he talks with each and every one of them; and actually listens to what they had to say. Mar, the baby of the family and 18 years younger than Don, (she would insist that I point out), is very similar. If you run into Mar at any type of social event, and find yourself sitting across from her, be prepared to talk. If you thought you were going to quietly keep to yourself; forget it. She will sit you down, look you in the eyes, and have you singing like a Von Trapp in a room full of Edelweiss. All of Mar’s siblings have that gift. Put them all down at Gitmo for a few weeks and you would have everyone talking; and they wouldn’t need to use anything stronger than a cup of black coffee.
Last night Mar returned from her annual aunt and uncle hunt; a two day event in which she and her siblings track down each of their five living aunts and their one remaining uncle (all in their 90’s) and sit in their living rooms and make them talk to them. At the end of these two days, Mar will come home, sit me down on the porch and tell me every detail. You’d think that would be, well, a little dull. That’s because you don’t know the Zwachs. Each year I am blown away hearing how these aunts and her uncle, so obviously moved by this long distance house call from their nieces and nephews, share laughter and stories that they have held inside themselves for decades. It brings tears to my eyes.
Reflecting back on this has me thinking. Family has always meant a lot to me and my parents were also great at making sure we stayed in touch with relatives. I am glad they did, but I admit I grumbled a lot when it was happening. After all, how many reunions, weddings, funerals, open houses, etc. can you attend in one life? But, I have come to believe that it all matters, if you do it right. And when I listen to Mar tell stories of these annual trips to the farms of southern Minnesota, I have come to believe that they may have discovered the secret sauce; the way to make all of this meaningful.
These annual trips to Southern Minnesota are a big commitment; traveling across the state and gathering this many people does not happen without a lot of planning and work. If these visits were done simply out of a sense of obligation, I am not sure how special it would be. However, when I see it done the way they do it; going that extra mile out of a genuine desire to make a connection, it is quite powerful.