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'A KERA Christmas Story' - A Commentary

By Rawlins Gilliland, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – As a contributing commentator for NPR and KERA, I feel like a small thread of the national public radio fabric. But I write this piece to tell how NPR changed the fabric of my life. A time not so long ago, when KERA helped make a most impossible Christmas dream come true.

In the early mid-1970's, both my parents died. I found myself alone in this world, except for one older sister, Ann. I knew that my mother had a brother. But I never knew them, or where they were, because my mother had been disinherited after she had eloped from the Adolphus Hotel in 1937, only hours after asking a big band musician she saw onstage - my father - to join her for a drink. But that's another commentary.

During the 1980's, my career at Neiman Marcus took off. But being in retail adds to the already immense potential for strain at Christmas, because all efforts are made to make the holidays perfect for everyone else. And often, our personal lives fail to compare favorably to those whose holidays we helped create. Inside my private heart, I yearned for the one thing no one can buy, however successful: family. People to whom I was blood related, who shared the same ancestors. My sister's in-laws had to become, by default, my surrogate family.

Each holiday season, all around me, I observed people either rushing to be with their loved ones or complaining about them. The former made me blue, the latter made me mad. Then in December 1994, I was asked to be a guest on KERA's 7 p.m. talk show with Karen Dennard, discussing the evening topic - Christmas gift ideas.

Two years later, in December 1996, I returned home in a robotic reenactment of those solitary Christmases, playing a Call Notes phone message - a woman's voice saying she had heard me on the Karen Dennard Show - and thought she was my "cousin Tricia." My out-of-body fingers returned the call. I was talking to the youngest of five first cousins born to my mother's brother, John. We quickly made plans to unite in a reunion on Christmas Eve, when my sister and I opened the door to a stranger's home, and left as siblings who had just met our mother's family - people with whom we shared a gene pool, political philosophies, humor, and in some cases, appearance. People with whom I have gone on to share personal histories. Memories.

In the aftermath of 9/11, many of us vowed to make family a highest priority. But I suspected that with time - and the stock market rebounding to 10-thousand - most Americans would knee-jerk back into pre-Twin-Towers delirium. But my hope is that this audience will in some ways re-examine and hopefully embrace, warts and all, the ones with whom you share the most sacred trait, DNA. Remind yourself that most people who are alone and lonely - and there are millions - once had families. They came and they went. My story is in the reverse: they went, and then, thanks to KERA, they came. The unimaginable gift of Christmas 1996 - when the family I felt forever lost was suddenly found, as Bonnie Raitt would say, "Just in the Saint Nick of Time."

Rawlins Gilliland is a writer in Dallas.