A friend expressed a particular family dysfunction really well: inherited baggage. This is the phenomenon where, because of some issue one, two, or more generations back, there are relatives you know about, and maybe even hear about frequently, but you never really get to know them. Frequently you also are never told why is it that Great-uncle Glenn will never visit. Nor why, though we very frequently visited Great-grandma who literally lives next door to Great-uncle Glenn, yet we almost never stopped in at Great-uncle Glenn’s house.
That isn’t a made-up example.
Whenever we went to visit Great-grandma on her farm, we would also drive a couple miles down the road to the farm owned by Great-uncle Lawrence and see all of his family. To get to Great-uncle Lawrence’s house, we had to drive right past Great-uncle Glenn’s farm. While we were visiting, often Great-uncle Glenn’s wife, Dorothy, would come to either Great-grandma’s house or to Great-uncle Lawrence’s house to see us. But Great-uncle Glenn wouldn’t.
The picture above was a similar visit… Read More…
Now while these relatives all seem to genuinely love my husband7, that doesn’t mean that holidays with them are all happy and gay. There’s a pretty big double-standard we have been expected to swallow most years: they can babble about god, evil liberals, et cetera and ad nauseam but if we bring up any counterpoints, we’re the ones who are shoving our politics down their throats. I did manage to get a few to admit this was a double-standard and maybe we should all refrain, but, well, the Bible-thumping will happen, regardless.
Things got worse and worse during the Obama administration. All of them believe that Obama/Hilary are the anti-Christs and only
Trump can save the world for Christians. Or something.
So last year we did Thanksgiving, but we did the minimum: we drove down that day, and left the same day. No staying overnight at the hotel we usually rent a room at8. And then just before Christmas I drove down on one of my days off to drop off presents and quickly visit several of them.
Interestingly enough, when I drive down for the explicit purpose of just visiting and dropping off presents, no one seems to feel compelled to talk about their latest worry about the destruction of the world by those godless liberals. Clearly there’s something about it also being a holiday that fuels some of that.
So, we didn’t go down for Thanksgiving at all this year. And we aren’t going down for Christmas. I dropped presents off on Friday to mom, my sister’s family, my grown niece’s family, and one aunt. I fixed Mom’s computer and helped her with a couple of things one her iPhone. I helped my aunt with some problems on her computer. I took Mom to dinner.
And yes, it was pretty late when I got home, but it was infinitely less stressful than last Thanksgiving had been. Yeah, there was a little random god talk, but nothing like the pro-Trump cheering of last year.
This weekend is real Christmas for us. We’re hosting the holiday party & writers’ night this year. I’ll get to see many friends, share this year’s ghost story, hear the things other folks have brought to read or perform, eat a lot of good food, chat, laugh, and otherwise have a great time. Then on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day, we plan to just have a quiet Christmas at home, the two of us.
That will go a long way to getting rid of the stress.
It’s been a few years since I quoted Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, “I don’t need anything from anyone but love and respect. If you can’t give me that, you have no place in my life.”
This year, I’m saying it to myself. Giving myself permission to avoid the people who can’t give both.
1. One aunt sent me a 28-page handwritten letter listing all of the words and topics that I would not be able to mention in conversation if I visited her house. It also explained that if I brought my friend (the word was underlined every time she used it) we would not me allowed to call each other “honey” or “dear” or any other pet names or display any affection toward each other at all.2
2. In a follow-up conversation she angrily insisted she just wanted to treat us the same we she did her unmarried children when they brought people over. She didn’t appreciate it when I laughed loudly into the phone and reminded her of the time her middle son brought a young woman with him to Thanksgiving at her house and they kept making out3 at the table! She asked him to cool it, at that point4, but didn’t say a word about the frequent more restrained kissings on the cheeks and lips and forehead that kept spontaneously happening for the rest of the dinner5.
3. Full tongue and nibbling on ears and such. It was like accidentally stumbling into a porn shoot.
4. I and his older sister were trying to decide if they were high or just drunk.
5. I’m also pretty sure that one of the times they vanished that afternoon that they had sex in the downstairs guest bathroom.
6. Some of the family did come around before Ray died, but barely two months before he did. Fortunately because Ray and I had gotten through that seven year struggle, things have been much better with Michael.
7. I am quite certain that several of them like him more than they like me, but I’m okay with that. It’s a lot better than what we had before.
8. The last few years as the rhetoric in general has heated up, it has been more and more galling on a personal level to pay for the privilege of biting our tongues all day long even during the occasional anti-gay rant of one relative…
This year we came very close to canceling the Thanksgiving trip, because the anti-Hillary/pro-Trump talk in general seems to have encouraged the most bigoted relatives to go all in on the anti-gay talk on social media. Since the big extended family get-together no longer happens, we don’t usually have to deal with any of the actually toxic family members. Instead we’re left with the odd thoughtless/unintentional comments that slowly make your blood boil. We were invited to spend Thanksgiving with wonderful, supportive friends in Seattle, and the invitations were very tempting, but we’ve decided to give the trip to my Mom’s place another go.
We’ve just arranged the trip so we don’t need to stay all day.
Anyway, I hope that you can have a toxin-free holiday. And we may throw a spontaneous Second Thanksgiving later this weekend if we think we need a brain-rinse!
“The holidays are here — which for most people means lots of food and lots of family. But for many queer and trans people of color, the word “family” means something entirely different.”
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
But there are good things in my life. Specifically, good people. My husband. Our many wonderful friends. People near and far who have reached out to say we’re not alone in this. For most of my life family hasn’t referred to people who happen to be related to me by blood. Yes, a couple of my actual relatives have always been supportive and accepting even while others were most actively letting me know that my queer self was not welcome, but they are the minority. I’ve felt much more welcome and accepted by many of my in-laws. Not only that, my ex-wife and several of her family members have been more accepting of me than most of my blood relatives.
But blood or DNA isn’t what makes someone family. I will fight anyone who tries to say the my mom’s adoptive father wasn’t my real Grandpa, for instance. Family are the people who love you not in spite of your flaws, but including the flaws. It’s known that they have your back, and that you have theirs. The old joke is that a friend might help you move, but a real friend will help you move a body; and I am lucky enough to have some friends of the latter category (and I hope they know that I’m in that category for them, too).
The larger world seems to be out of control right now. What’s getting me through the craziness is knowing that I have these people I love, and who love me as well.
I looked at the nearby clock. It was just a bit after 3 a.m. I could hear Michael still awake up in the computer room. For a second I debated whether the phone had actually been ringing. Then it started buzzing again. I scrambled to my feet, grabbed the phone, and saw the name of his oldest sister. I knew it had to be bad news.
It was. There was a house fire not long after midnight at Michael’s mother’s house back in Oklahoma. The fire had completely engulfed the house. At that point, no one knew where his mom was, nor whether Michael’s youngest brother (who had moved back in with their mom a while back) had been home. Worse: one of our nieces (age 14) and one of our nephews (age 12), the children of Michael’s youngest sister, were supposed to be staying with their grandma for the weekend.
The firefighters were still trying to get the blaze under control so they could safely start looking for bodies.
A few hours later we got the news that all four of them had been home, and none of them had survived the fire.
Definitely bad news.
When you hear news like that, you want to be able to help. We feel like we should be able to do something. Everything we can do feels inadequate. We wonder how it could have been prevented. If we were directly involved in the lives of the people, we wonder what we did wrong. What we could have done differently.
I’m in a weird position on this. I never met any of the four people who died. I exchanged some messages with this brother-in-law on Facebook. I’ve had similar exchanges and a phone conversation or two with the mother of the niece and nephew. While I have met and love my husband’s other siblings and his father, the others have remained acquaintances—not helped by the fact that we’ve never gone back to visit. Just to be clear that it’s through no fault of theirs.
Except his mother… well, we’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, so I’ll just say the one and only communication I ever received from her was enough to make me glad we live 2000 miles away. My husband’s family has a bit more dysfunction than most, to be honest. And every time that I assert my family is just as messed up, he always manages to come up with a story that is hard to top.
As my husband said to some friends offering condolences last night, to say that feelings are conflicted right now is putting it mildly.
It’s a sad situation. Powerless to avert all tragedies, the best we can do sometimes is love and support the survivors.
Other than finishing the Christmas Ghost Story (whose title is currently “Whips for the Wicked”) and copy editing, I haven’t gotten any writing done so far this vacation. Some years I manage to get a lot of writing in during my time off for the holiday, but most years are more like this. There are enough things I need to do (finish shopping, mail last minute things, deliver gifts, visit people, clean, cook, change my mind about what we’re cooking a zillion times, watch Christmas movies, sleep in, and spend time just staring at the tree while listening to Christmas music) that very little writing gets done.
That’s okay. One’s mental and creative batteries can get a recharge from at least some of those holiday activities. Being an introvert who does a really good job of faking extroversion, it’s complicated. I get a lot out of spending time with people I love. And I really enjoy those moments when a loved one is overjoyed with a gift you gave them. Heck, I get a charge when I see someone being really excited by a gift someone else gave them. And my time spent with some of my favorite Christmas movies, particularly the ones that make me cry, is good for both my soul and my creative subconscious.
Just this morning I found myself once again explaining to my Aunt Silly, who is probably the biggest extrovert in the family, why I don’t mind having Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with just Michael and I. Yes, I love my friends and family. I enjoyed the time spent with several on Thanksgiving, and everyone who came to the party, and all the visiting I did with family members on Tuesday. And yes, on past Christmases I’ve loved watching my nieces opening presents on Christmas morning with their Grandma. I just don’t need that all the time.And I have to admit, Christmas with the extended family hasn’t been the same since Grandma died. I sometimes miss the big boisterous Christmas Eves when you never knew which shirt-tail relatives would pop in next to say “Merry Christmas” and see everyone. Grandma’s biological children, adopted children, step-children, and honorary children and their kids and grandkids would often make an appearance. Not to mention some of the children and grandchildren of Grandpa’s siblings some of whom still lived nearby. And it really was a wildly extended group.
I remember one day in High School not long after Mom, my sister, and I had moved to southwest Washington (after my parents divorce back in Colorado), a classmate whose name I hadn’t learned, yet, walked up to me and said, “I think we’re cousins.” We weren’t actually related by genetics, it turned out. She was the daughter of the step-son of one of my mom’s adopted father’s sisters. (Say that three times fast!) By the usual definitions, we weren’t cousins, but her entire life she had called my grandmother “Aunt Gertie.” And that was to distinguish Grandma from her other Great-aunt Gertrude, because Grandpa George (Mom’s adopted dad) wasn’t just married to a Gertrude, one of his sisters was also named Gertrude. So she had both an Aunt Gertie and and Aunt Gert.
But what made those big get-togethers work was Grandma. She was happy to see whoever showed up, and her laughter and love poured out and infected all the rest of us. So even when the relative was someone that you couldn’t remember precisely how they were related, they loved Grandma and she loved them, and that made everything feel right. Without the glue of Grandma’s love, some of us are just that awkward person who used to spend some holidays together.
Our lives have drifted in different ways. I’m an out queer guy who votes for Democrats and Greens and Socialists, and then complains that my own choices for elected official are too conservative. That makes me the polar opposite of a bunch of my relatives. That’s not the only way I’m an alien to some of them. Even my cousin who’s an engineer and works for Intel has never quite understood what a Technical Writer/Information Architect actually does, for example.
And don’t get me started on the gulfs between me and some folks on Dad’s side of the family!
I’ve digressed a long way from where I meant to go with this post. It’s nearly Christmas, yet not quite. There are lights on the trees and presents beneath it. Stockings are hung. Soon there will be mulled wine steaming in the kitchen. Cookies will be consumed. The NORAD Santa tracker will be consulted a few times. Carols will be sung. If I play my cards right, I might convince my poor, sick, hobbling-on-crutches husband to kiss under a sprig of mistletoe.
A can’t wait to see what Santa brings us!
There is some new drama going on with some of the family, and I got to tangentially experience a teeny bit of it, but mostly it was just a wonderful day. The drive down was a dream, so it only took about two hours to get there. The drive home was not quite as good. The rain was so bad that for a couple of stretched visibility was severely reduced, and there was a few points that between the wind and the rain it was a bit of a challenge to keep the car in it’s lane. Still, it only took about 3 hours to drive home, so it was still a lot better than a couple of the really awful trips have been.
My aunt didn’t have a tree up. Usually she has a big tree with all blue ornaments, but she decided last year that it was silly to decorate just for herself, so she gave away the artificial tree, all of her lights, and all of her ornaments. And she says she’s been regretting it all month. So her current plan is to buy a new, much smaller artificial tree and some lights and ornaments (particularly if she can find them in after Christmas sales) for next year.
Mom did something similar a couple years ago, although her story was a bit different. My Great-grandma had a small artificial tree which she bought in 1957 or so, and she set it up and decorated it every year until she died in 1975. Then her tree went into storage at Grandma’s for several years. Until some point in the 80s, when my mom was preparing for her first Christmas after getting divorced from my step-dad, and she happened to mention to Grandma that she wasn’t certain she had to time, energy, or money to set up a tree that year. So Grandma showed up at Mom’s house with Great-grandma’s tree. Mom used that tree every year until it literally fell apart while Mom was taking it down four years ago.
Mom was in the process of getting rid of a lot of things and preparing to move to the small town where my sister and several other relatives live at the time. The first place she moved to there was much, much smaller than her previous place, and she decided she didn’t have room for a tree. Then she moved to her current place which is a bit bigger, but she told me that fall, when we were discussing holiday plans, that she hadn’t liked any of the artificial trees she’d found in stores because all the ones in the size she wanted had built-in lights, and that was a no-starter. So I could her to talk about what she wanted, and as she described it, I searched on-line until I found a tree that met all of her specifications. It wasn’t until after I had ordered it that I told her what I had done, and that her tree would arrive later that week.
She had ornaments. She has some that belonged to Great-grandma, and a few that belonged to Grandma, but also a bunch that were made by her own grandkids (my nieces). She says she’s very happy with it. When we were there on Thanksgiving, she had us help her set it up and decorate it. One of her favorite decorations, a blue glittery garland with white snowflakes (which I think had been Grandma’s), was falling apart badly and she was pretty sad about it.
So while I and the youngest niece were hanging ornaments and Michael was sitting with his broken leg propped up, he secretly searched online until he found an identical garland and ordered it for Mom. It showed up a few days later and she sent me excited texts with multiple pictures of it.If you haven’t figured out by now what a soppy sentimental person I am, you haven’t been paying attention. For example, back in the early 90s, a co-worker came to me one December with an unusual gift. The co-worker’s name was Noreen, and she had been born and raised in Hawaii. She had been named after her Great-aunt Noriko. And Great-aunt Noriko had owned this very silly plastic Santa brooch or pin. Great-aunt Noriko, she told me, had worn it every Sunday in Advent leading up to Christmas, and would wear it to any holiday parties or get-togethers. Noreen had inherited the pin along with other things when her Great-aunt died, but unlike her aunt, Noreen was Buddhist and didn’t observe Christmas. She said she always felt guilty for not wearing the pin at Christmas time; whereas, I wear jingle bell earrings, Santa hats, and other silly Christmas things during December all the time. So it had occurred to her that I might be willing to wear Great-aunt Noriko’s pin.
I told her I would be honored to, and I meant it. I said as soon as I’d seen the pin, I had been flabbergasted because it was identical to one my one Great-grandmother (the same one whose tree my Mom wound up using for many years) had owned, but I never knew what had happened to it. So I said that of course I would wear Great-aunt Noriko’s pin at Christmas time, and tell people about Great-aunt Noriko who loved Christmas and Santa and so on.
Which is when Noreen told me of the Hawaiian tradition of referring to everyone who is approximately your own age as cousin, and any one who is older as either auntie or uncle as a sign of respect, but also a sign of the Hawaiian belief that all people are one big family. Which of course, we are. So she gave me the pin and told me that I should consider myself Great-aunt Noriko’s honorary nephew. So, for over thirty years I have, every Christmas season, worn Great-aunt Noriko’s pin, in honor of her, and my Great-grandma, and my former co-worker.
Merry Christmas, cousin!
This year’s party was a milestone in a couple of ways. For me, it’s now been 30 years celebrating Christmas in Seattle with a group of friends that includes Keith and Mark. It has also been 20 years since the first time that I wrote an original Christmas Ghost Story to read at the party. Since the first one was written and read 20 years ago, that means this year’s story was the 21st such tale. I’ve mentioned before (Conjuring the proper ghosts) about the the variations I’ve explored under the notion of a Christmas Ghost story. Several of the tales have been set in a hard science fiction universe and tended to use more metaphorical ghosts, for instance. I’ve written comedic ghosts, dramatic ghosts, grim ghosts, and hopeful ghosts.
This year’s story had a fairy tale approach. It was the fifth or sixth Christmas Ghost Story that I’ve written set in the same universe as my fantasy novels. I’ve described this particular universe as a light fantasy world using anthropomorphic tropes with an epic fantasy wrapper. So the novels have sorcerers and dragons and knights and epic battles. The Ghost Stories have tended to be a lot more intimate. The most recent one before this year’s was a comedic murder mystery in which one of the constables in the City Watch is confronted by a headless ghost on Solstice Eve to kick of the action. This year’s was a more serious tale, and I think for the first time since I started doing this, directly related to one of the others. It’s actually a prequel to a funny Christmas Ghost Story which, it happens, was mostly written originally long-hand while I was staffing a table in the Dealer’s Den of Midwest Furfest.I had a costume this year. Michael talked me into getting a Father Christmas costume for our friends’ Halloween party (to go along with a devil costume he got to do a silly pun). He’s been talking about getting me some sort of Santa suit or similar to wear to the Christmas party for a few years. This was wasn’t bad. It needs some more work, if I’m going to use it again.
Anyway, one of the Ghost Story ideas that’s been sitting in my queue for a while involved my fantasy world’s version of Santa, who is “one of the oldest of the dark fae” and goes by the name Grandfather Frost. If you know your cross-cultural history, Grandfather Frost is the usual English translation of the Russian character Ded Moroz, which means literally Old Man Frost. In the original Slavic myths he was a snow demon or a winter wizard—generally a creature to be feared. As the Orthodox Church took hold in those regions, some aspects of Saint Nicholas were grafted onto the character he became more like our Santa.
So, since I had the costume, and since some other aspects of the fantasy novel I’m working on were related to Grandfather Frost, I wound up in late October starting a Ghost Story about the character. I had a good start before NaNoWriMo, so I figured this year the story would be done early for a change. No such luck. I had been hung up at about 1200 words for a few weeks into December before I finally figured out where I was going wrong and got the tale straightened out.
People seemed to enjoy the story. Yay! I need to get a couple of short story collections together and either self-publish them or something.
This week I’m in that weird headspace I often find myself in after the party. Spending time with this group of friends, exchanging gifts, and continuing the Ghost Story Challenge tradition (this year Mark and Edd each had a story ready to read to answer the challenge) feels like my “real” Christmas. So I end up feeling a little weird during the days between the party and actual Christmas day. I keep having to stop myself from asking people how their Christmas went, past tense. Or from wishing strangers a Happy New Year.
Today I need to finish packing up the car to head down to Mom’s where I’m going to deliver presents. If all goes well, I’ll be stopping off at Mom’s, one of my sisters’, my older niece, my aunt, and a friend I haven’t seen in person in many years. It’ll be a bit of a whirl, but should be fun. And I hope I wind up saying “Merry Christmas” enough that I remember that Christmas isn’t quite here, yet.
Happy Solstice! Merry Christmas! And have a great day!
My Grandma P. had all sorts of favorite old recipes, but most of them weren’t Thanksgiving fare (her chili was to die for!). But about ten years before she died, after she had let my Aunt Silly take over hosting the annual Thanksgiving dinner, Grandma brought this frozen cranberry salad which everyone loved. Really, really loved. And they begged her to make it again for Christmas. It became the dish she brought to all the holiday get-togethers from then on. For some reason, I never asked her to explain the recipe to me. I was a bit surprised, after Grandma died, when I found out none of my cousins, nor my aunt, nor Mom, had ever asked for the recipe. We had some discussions and realized that none of us agreed on all the ingredients we recalled being in it. It was frozen, it had cranberries, and orange slices, and Cool Whip mixed together, but also had layers. But some of us remember it having nuts, while some said it never did, and others remember coconut, while others thought it was marshmallows, and so on. I suspect it’s because Grandma had alway been an improvisational cook, so I bet she never made it exactly the same way, twice.
Over the years since, I experimented in an attempt to re-create it, and have come up with a process that gets something most of the family members agree is darn close. I know that Grandma probably made hers with canned cranberry sauce, but I always start with raw cranberries and mandarin oranges, cooking them down to make homemade cranberry sauce. In the tradition of none of us remembering it the same way, every year I intentionally do at least one different ingredient than the previous year. My sister keeps insisting Grandma’s had mini marshmallows (at least two cousins agree with her), while Mom and I are pretty sure it didn’t. But this year, for my sister, I’ve added mini marshmallows.
For the last fifteen years or so, Mom has made this thing she calls Mistake Salad. Originally she meant to follow a recipe she got from a magazine, but she skipped a major ingredient. But everyone liked what she made, so she’s kept doing it “wrong.” If you’ve ever heard the novelty song “Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise,” this thing Mom makes is from a similar tradition. Except if there were a song about Mom’s, it would be called “Pistachio Pudding Pineapple Cottage Cheese Surprise.” And while that may not sound good, I assure you it is sinfully delicious.
Family holiday traditions are weird like that. Several years back my sister had Thanksgiving dinner plans go badly awry, and she wound up making spaghetti and meatballs, because that was what she had left that was fit to eat. Her oldest daughter (my niece) loved that Thanksgiving, and now spaghetti and meatballs is her favorite food to make for the holidays.
When I was young, the gravy served at big family meals was always so thick, it could have been served with a fork. After you spooned some onto your mashed potatoes and stuffing, he had to sort of mash it into the potatoes and the stuffing with your fork to get the flavor blended. A friend once explained that her family’s gravy was always thin and runny, so when you poured some on any part of your dinner, it flowed all over the plate, and everything got some gravy on it. For her, that’s the flavor of Thanksgiving: a bit of gravy on everything.
For me, it isn’t a holiday dinner if there isn’t a relish tray (at least two kinds of olives, pickles, other pickled vegetables). For my husband, the dinner needs a green bean casserole—specifically the kind made with cream of mushroom soup and French’s fried onions. And afterward there has to be pie. Unless I’m feeling up to make cherries jubilee (the kind with flaming brandy! Fruit, sugar, ice cream, and fire! How can you top that for a dessert?), then I can live without pie.
This year it’s just going to be the three of us at my Mom’s. So we’re only going to have part of a turkey, and only a couple of side dishes. Though I can tell from the messages I’ve been exchanging with her that both of us have picked up a few extra things besides what we discussed when divvy-ing up the menu. So we’ll probably wind up with enough food to feed a dozen. It may be more than filling, but it will also be fun.
So, what are you having?
I love overcast days with light rain. It’s my very favorite weather, so it was like nature was giving me a birthday present. I posted to twitter and got caught up on personal email until I was out of coffee. But the weather was so nice that after I unlocked the door and refilled my coffee, I grabbed one of our cloth folding/picnic chairs and my iPad and went back onto the porch. I sat there, reading, visiting with a neighbor, watching three bluebirds have a fight, and so forth for for a few hours… Read More…