My favorite uncle’s name was Cleatus. We called him “Uncle Cleat” for short.
In many ways, he was like my Santa Claus. He was always jolly, somewhat chubby, and never failing in his ability to make you feel like you were the most important person in the room. My parents never taught me to believe in Santa, but with people like him in my life, I never lacked a sense of Christmas magic.
Uncle Cleat owned a furniture store on a busy intersection of the south side of Chicago. It was called Custom Corner. Every year during the holiday season, he would decorate the store with holiday ornaments and Christmas lights to prepare for the big revenue generator of the year: selling Christmas trees to all the families on the south side.
My father would take my brothers and I to the furniture store to help out. I don’t ever remember doing any actual work. I was the baby of the family and was allowed to wander around and hang out while my older brothers and cousins helped customers carry their trees to their cars. I remember how huge the store seemed to me. I would get lost looking at all the bright lights and cool trees of different colors. At times, I felt like I was an actual visitor to the North Pole. There was even a huge stock room in the back where the workers would take breaks and clown around. I often fancied that this was what it must have been like to hang out with Santa’s Elves.
And then there was the radiant presence of Uncle Cleat. Everyone loved him and his smile lit up a room as wonderfully as any Christmas tree. “What’s up Teeek-Man” he’d yell at me whenever I walked into the room. He always had a silver dollar or a new toy to give me whenever I saw him too. One of the best things about Uncle Cleat was that he looked exactly like my dad, but he was much more of a goofball. So it was kinda like having a serious dad and a silly dad all at the same time. I honestly can’t think about him without smiling or laughing. Not even possible.
As life is bound to do for all of us someday, it abruptly ended for Uncle Cleat. I wasn’t a kid anymore when he died, but there was nothing about being in my early twenties that made it an easy loss to handle. Uncle Cleat was my man. Whenever I felt self-doubt, he would say “Lift your head up, man. You’re a Coleman.” And his confidence would transfer to my spirit like magic. Whenever I got into a stupid argument with my parents about something, Uncle Cleat was the guy that would have my back. He would talk my parents into taking it easy on me and he would talk me into taking it easy period. When I would come to him seeking guidance on life, he would remind me of how important it was to live with conviction and let go of my paranoia about making the wrong decision. He was an acnhor for me in more ways than I describe.
I didn’t always listen to Christmas music every day. Like most people, I enjoyed holiday songs during the holiday season and I rarely thought it about besides then. This is how life was until about the age of 21. Then one day, there was a Christmas in July special on television and I felt the spirit of my Uncle in the music. I could sense his silliness, his optimism, and his unflinching confidence flow into me through the music. And every single time I’ve listened to Christmas music since then, the experience has been the same. Whether in April or August, I can feel the aliveness of all the magic and motivation that my Uncle Cleat represented for me when I listen to Christmas music. And that’s why I listen to it every day. It’s not only how I keep my uncle alive, but it’s also how I keep a very important part of myself alive. It’s a way of connecting to an energy that I hope to embody for my nieces, nephews, and everyone else that might look to me for inspiration some day.
My hope is that when life comes for me as it once came for him, someone somewhere will keep the tradition of magic and motivation alive by firing up a little Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby in the middle of those April showers. And maybe this will inspire a few more people to believe that you don’t need to wait on a holiday in order to experience its cheer. Sure, people may laugh at you as they have laughed at me, but as long as they’re laughing, the spirit of Christmas will never die.