Tag Archive | family

Getting Meta and Merry on Boxing Day

More gay lights! Hey, it's right there on the box. It must be true!

More gay lights! Hey, it’s right there on the box. It must be true!

When I talked about why we have been avoiding visiting my family on major holidays the last few years, I realized that I haven’t emphasized quite enough a positive outcome of this. When I visit before Christmas to drop off presents, I usually wind up having long and very pleasant conversations with several of the relatives. That those conversations are mostly one-on-one means that I’m never quite sure what we’ll end up talking about.

Last spring, for instance I wrote about one form of gatekeeping that sometimes happens in publishing under the guise of believability. And as an example of things that some people find unbelievable, I went on a rambling discussion of some of the reasons I referred to my late paternal grandmother as Evil: Believability isn’t just about fiction, or Let me tell you about my Evil Grandmother. During two long conversations, one with Mom, and the other with Aunt Silly, we both got onto the subject of my two grandmothers.

And I was a little bit surprised that this Aunt—who had never been the daughter-in-law of my Evil Grandma—had a relevant story to add to Evil Grandma’s saga. I shouldn’t have been, because she had still been a teen-ager and living at home when Mom and Dad had starting dating. Both Mom and Dad had been in her wedding party when Aunt Silly got married. Aunt Silly had still been living in the same tiny town until maybe six months after both I and my almost-twin cousin were born. But for some reason it had never occurred to me that Aunt Silly would have had more than a few casual interactions with my Evil Grandmother.

First, the shortish version of Aunt Silly’s story (which involves a urinary tract infection that I had when I was only two months old). Evil Grandma had been babysitting me for the day, and was certain that the only reason I wouldn’t stop crying was because my Mom coddled me too much. But when the crying reached a point she couldn’t stand, she’d taken me to Nice Grandma’s house, where Aunt Silly happened to be with her own baby.

During the conversation with Nice Grandma, among the weird things Evil Grandma said was that there was no reason to check a baby’s diaper until a certain number of hours after she’d changed it last. And when both Aunt Silly (who admittedly had only been taking care of her first child for a couple of months) and Nice Grandma had expressed disbelief, Evil Grandma insisted that since I refused to eat, there had been no reason to check the diaper. And she had repeated the assertion that the real problem was Mom’s coddling

And whether the diaper was wet or not wasn’t the issue: it was that Evil Grandma had not noticed that parts of a baby’s body that shouldn’t be were bright red, and even when confronted with the evidence (and after a visit to the doctor and trip to the pharmacy), she remained insistent that it had been perfectly reasonable to assume the problem was Mom’s coddling rather than a medical issue.

Second: Mom’s story is an addendum to the tale that I called the Second Coda in the above linked post of the phone call to me from Evil Grandma when she was in a hospital, on a respirator, and thought she was about to die. After that rather dramatic call, I tried to get hold of my younger sister, because I had no idea if anyone had called her to tell her Evil Grandma had had a stroke. The number I had for my sister turned out to be no longer connected, so I’d called Mom.

A few days later, Mom says, she was trying to get an address to send a ‘get well’ card or something to Evil Grandma, and whoever she had gotten hold of at the hospital, instead of giving her the hospital’s mailing address, had transferred the call to Grandma’s room.

Grandma was no longer on the respirator at that point, and was talking a little bit better. Mom had not expected to actually be talking to Evil Grandma. Mom says, “After I told her who I was and she replied that she was surprised to hear from me, I just blurted out that I had heard she wasn’t well and wanted to make sure she knew that I forgave her, and hoped that she could forgive me of my part in our disagreements.” Evil Grandma had replied, “Thank you. I love you.”

And in other developments: As seems to happen every time I visit Mom, she offered me a bunch of odd things that used to belong to one of my grandmothers or great-grandmothers. Which makes me wonder, once more, how so many members of Mom’s side of the family seem to have a kind of Tardis-like ability to store an apparent infinite number of things in a couple of ordinary closets. I wound up saying “yes” to a couple of the things (but also “no” to a bunch of others). So now hanging on my Christmas tree are two pairs of bells that had been crocheted by my paternal great-grandmother.

And while I was hanging them up, I realized that while I have memories of both of my Great-grandmother’s Christmas trees, as well as Nice Grandma’s eclectic ornament collection, I can’t remember what Evil Grandma’s Christmas trees looked like. I have memories of looking through the presents under her tree, sometimes by myself, but also sometimes with Grandpa or Dad. Both of them were world champions at the art of carefully turning a package over and and around to try to figure out what was inside. Please note that I didn’t say shake—shaking is what amatuers do. You tilt is slowly this way and that, your fingers spread wide over the surface, so you can feel how whatever is inside moves. You can identify bits that are heavier. And especially if the package is big enough in comparison to the contents, you can hear the sound it makes as it slides when you tilt it.

Anyway, I know what corner of her living room that Evil Grandma put her tree every year, but I don’t recall what kinds of ornaments she had and so on. Which seems weird given both my life long obsession with Christmas decorations, and that almost ever single Christmas before my parents’ divorce was final (when I was 15 years old), was spent at her house.

But I can’t remember what her trees looked like. I realize that for Great-grandma SJ, Great-grandma I, and my Nice Grandma I happen to have photos of some of their Christmas trees—usually with me standing in front of the tree at various ages. I also own a couple of decorations that originally were owned by one of those three. So I’ve had something to refresh my memory for them.

Finally: my Nice Grandma liked to have all the family get together to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. And once she had moved back to southwest Washington, where a whole lot of extended family members lived nearby, she’d host this big get-together where relatives, in-laws, ex-in-laws, and friends would show up. You never knew who you would run into at Grandma’s Christmas Eve, because she collected strays her whole life.

There was a point when her health started making it difficult to handle all the cooking and such, so we’d shifted to most of the Christmas Eve get-togethers happened at my Aunt Silly’s house. Then Aunt Silly sold her house and moved into a much smaller place, so the next few years a cousin who had a big house hosted instead.

The first Christmas after Grandma died was… odd. Everyone said they wanted to get together for Christmas Eve but it wasn’t clear who would host it. The cousin who had hosted the last few years wanted someone else to do it. Apparently a couple of other cousins weren’t sure they wanted to make the drive. There was a point during the discussion when Aunt Silly apparently angrily said to one of her kids, “…now that Mother’s gone, I’m the matriarch of the family and I’m in charge!” Which eventually led to Aunt Silly inviting folks to her place—but not many showing up.

It happened to be one of the years that Michael and I spent Thanksgiving with Mom but stayed in Seattle for Christmas. So we didn’t show up at anybody’s get-together.

Since then no one has felt the need to make a concerted effort to get all of the cousins together for Christmas. And I get it. Most of my cousins are grandparents themselves, now. Just trying to spend time with most of their own kids and kids-in-law and grandkids is hard enough. When Grandma was alive she actually was the matriarch of this branch of the family, and it wasn’t that she ordered people to get together for Christmas Eve, it’s that at least down to my generation, we all wanted to stop in to see her and get one of her signature hugs. If you wanted to know where most of the family could be found on Christmas Eve, you called to ask Grandma where she was going to be.

I usually call her my Nice Grandma because, certainly by comparison to Evil Grandma, she was. But she was also stubborn and opinionated. Traits I inherited from her in abundance, by the way. Her stubbornness wasn’t about being inflexible—I’ve said before that if you presented a case for why you disagreed with her, she would sometimes change her mind, and even if she didn’t she would acknowledge that you had the right to make your own decisions. She wasn’t focused on always proving that she was right, her priority was simply never to give up on those that she loved.

She would explain why she was giving the advice, and what she thought would go wrong if you did it differently. She wasn’t always right. And she wasn’t always pleasant. But there she didn’t believe in treating anyone with disrespect. She was always trying to be kind. It would never have occurred to Grandma to tell other people that they were supposed to do what she said because she was “the matriarch of the family.”

I mean, if you have to pull rank? You’ve already lost the argument.

Carols and Kris Kringle—the fourth day of Christmas vacation

Monday I dashed down to southwest Washington to visit my Mom, drop off Christmas presents for her and other relatives, and generally spread the holiday cheer before coming back to spend Christmas with my husband1. I had a good time. I had a great visit with Mom, got to spend some time with my sister, was able to not-so-subtly make it clear to certain family members that I fully support the announcement my sister’s youngest made last year that they5 are nonbinary asexual without starting a fight, got to hang out with the niece’s two awesome children, and had a nice visit with the silliest aunt in the world6.

It was mostly a good day. I got up without sleeping in too long, I managed to get everything packed into the car close to my target exit time, and the drive down was uneventful.

The drive back was a different matter.

I got onto the freeway a bit after 9pm, and it was intermittently foggy. So I was in the right lane, traveling a teeny bit under the speed limit because visibility wasn’t great (but it also wasn’t bad). There were about about a dozen sets of tail lights ahead of me scattered randomly across the three lanes within the space I could see. And I was only a few miles north of the town where Mom lives when suddenly all of those vehicles started hitting their brakes. And even more disturbingly, starting sort of errtically zigging and zagging!

I hit my brakes and tried to slow way down. Before I’d gotten as slow as I wanted, out of the fog it came: the road was covered in debris as if at least one of the huge logs from the log trucks one frequently sees in that part of the state had be dropped across the road from a great height.

Some of the broken pieces of wood on the road were small enough that you might run them over and only run risk of blowing a tire or scratching the body of the car. Some were big enough that you would seriously damage your bumper and front end. So suddenly I was doing the mad dodging thing.

It was exciting but not at all in a good way!

About half mile further I saw some hazard lights flashing on the side of the road. I expected to see maybe the log truck that had lost the lot, or possibly someone pulled over with a flat. What was there was an ordinary freight truck, with the driver walking along the side with a flashlight looking at his undercarriage.

The car was driving fine, so I kept going, but kept the speed down further than I had before. I pulled over at the first rest stop and walked around the car with a flashlight looking for damage. I didn’t see any. I refilled my coffee mug and got back on the road.

Forty miles later at the next rest stop I pulled over because I’d had a lot of coffee by then, and needed the break. A guy standing outside as if he was waiting for someone in one of the restrooms said, “wild night to be driving, eh?” I asked if he was talking about the debris on the road between Longview and Castle Rock. “That and the fog!”

When he went by, there were state patrol cars and a sheriff’s truck on the scene directly people into one cleared lane, but it was still a bit freaky.

When I got back to the car, I noticed a text message from a friend asking that I call when I had a chance. So I called, and learned that there had been some very bad news8 for this friend. We spent a while talking about it. I hope I was able to be helpful.

I texted my husband to explain the delay, and then I got back on the road.

There was no more fog, and the rest of the trip was a breeze.

When I got home, Michael was still awake. We shared about out days, and found out that he had had a lot of mostly minor annoyances all day long. And that another person of our mutual acquaintance had gotten some bad news not unlike the news of the friend.

I’m always a bit keyed up after driving on the freeway. I seem to be really good at bottling up my anxiety about having an accident until I get home… then it all comes out. It was just a bit worse than usual. So I had to read soothing fanfic for about an hour and a half before I could turn the running hamsters in my head off and go to bed.

Now, it’s Christmas Eve. We have a plan for what we’re cooking tonight and tomorrow. I need to run to the grocery store for a couple of things this morning, but then I should be about to kick back, listen to my Christmas tunes, and be lazy for the rest of the day.

I hope we all have a merry and bright Christmas Eve!

Edited to Add: I gave this post the title I did for two reasons that I then completely forgot to mention: I was running out wearing a Santa hat everywhere I went on Monday, and carried presents into each house in this cool red Santa bag that Michael found somewhere some years ago. And then, during the ride home, there was a point where the shuffle on the iPod full of Christmas music started hitting particular favorites, and I had the sound up singing along to the songs. Even the one song that I used to think was kind of trite, but that always made Ray cry when it came up. Since he died (back in 1997), whenever the song comes up I start sobbing. But after the third or fourth time it happened, I decided to embrace it, so I sing along as loud as I can to it. There I was, driving through south Tacoma, tears streaming down my face, and not always hitting the right notes because it’s hard to control while you’re crying. Even with that song, singing Christmas carols for the last hour was a great way to end the trip.


Notes:

1. Folks have trouble understanding why we don’t come down for the holiday itself. It’s not that my relatives don’t accept my husband, it’s that they do that weird thing where they frequently spout off homophobic pronouncements as if they have forgotten that we are a pair of queer married men2. And if we happen to call them on it, they reply with an affrounted, “You can’t call me homophobic! I’ve told you I love you, right?”4

2. And then there is all the casual racism and mindless parroting of Fox news tropes—accompanied with the attitude that if we disagree we are being rude; or if we say something they disagree with we’re shoving our politics down their throat3 and how dare we compare the evil political thing we said with them simply stating the obvious?

3. As if the constant asserting of all the misogynist, racist, sectarian, anti-science, homophobic, transphobic dogma (along with the insistence that we’re not allowed to disagree) isn’t shoving things down our throats?

4. So to sum up: holidays with the family mean we are required to constantly keep our mouths shut and walk on eggshells, while dodging bullets and accepting the bombs, slings, and arrows with a smile. And that is just a really shitty way to spend a holiday.

5. They are 17 years old, and I am just astounded at the courage they have to come out in that community. I sure as heck was too scared when I lived there and was that age!

6. The weird thing is that if I’m dropping in to visit for a short time and it isn’t the actual holiday, those other topics just never come up. My theory is that because I’m stopping at their house for visit, they just never forget that I’m there. The concept of me, gay son/brother/nephew/uncle never slips into the background of their minds to blend into generic “family.” I think it’s also just a different dynamic when you don’t have the entire family sitting around for several hours7.

7. A very good friend suggested that when it’s more one-on-one they are afraid to bring it up, because they won’t have other people to back them up? And I can certainly see that for a couple of the cousins—but I don’t usually do the one-on-one thing with those particular relatives.

8. I know this is annoyingly vague, but it isn’t my news to share.

Everybody knows some turkey…

For most of the last 20 years I’ve been lucky enough to have the job flexibility (and enough paid-time-off) to take a few long weekends before Christmas and some time off around the holiday itself. The last several years I’ve taken all of the Fridays after Thanksgiving plus the week of Christmas (and usually through New Year’s Day). Now, one of the reasons I do that is because there are always extra tasks to do at this time of year: presents to acquire for those I love; shipping of some of those presents to far away places; food shopping for the get-togethers with friends; decorations to put up; any extra cleaning or repairs around the house that we realize need to happen because we are trying to put up decorations; et cetera. Not to mention that I write a Christmas Ghost Story every year. And then there are family obligations.

For reasons spelled out in some previous blog posts, we’ve been avoiding spending the actual holiday with my relatives. Which means that I pick a day off shortly before the holiday to drive down to my Mom’s house, drop off presents, visit with her, take her to dinner, and stop in briefly to see other family members that live in the same town. Then I come back home to my husband the same day, and we have the actual holiday just to ourselves.

So, even though technically I have been on vacation for several days, I haven’t had a single day that feels like a vacation. The first day I had to do final grocery shopping for the party, wrap presents, drop off Christmas stuff with a friend who was leaving town, do some of the cooking, and finish the ghost story. The next day we both had to finish cleaning the house, cook everything for the party, host the party (including my performance of the ghost story). And then do some of the cleaning before going to bed. The next day I needed to do more cleaning, turn some of the leftovers into soup for us to eat, watch my favorite football team lose a game they should have won handily, and wrap all the presents I’m taking to family. Then the next day I have to get up, pack the car, drive a couple hours down the freeway, do all the errands down there, drive a couple hours back.

And then it will be Christmas Eve. And at a minimum, there will be some cooking for us (and I’ll likely have to run to the store for something). And then on Christmas Day there will at a minimum be more cooking.

Please note: none of the above is meant to be a complaint or venting. These are all things I am choosing to do because I want to spend time with people that I love and so on. But, I have had more than one friend or acquaintance who has heard that I’m on vacation ping me to find out if we could do some fun activity on one of the aforementioned busy days. All four of them have been perfectly understanding of the fact that I’m all booked up for those days, so I am also not complaining about them.

What I am complaining about are the dang brain weasels in my own head that start trying to make me feel guilty and admit I am a total failure because I don’t have time for unplanned things for a few days.

And those weasels usually manifest as either the voice of my late nice grandmother or the voice of my late evil grandmother, each in their own way twisting the screws of guilt to the maximum.

I had a blast at the party. It is wonderful to see these friends, some of whom I have known and loved and been celebrating with for 34 years. I love seeing people enjoy food I have made. I love even more getting to eat wonderful things those friends bring to the party. I love chatting with and hearing those friends. I love the various performances some of them bring to answer the Ghost Story Challenge. I love seeing friend unwrap presents and express delight at their gifts.

I know there are going to be many fun moments while I’m doing my one-day zoom through with family. I know I will enjoy hanging out with my husband on Christmas Eve and whatever we decide to do that night (likely watch some Christmas movies). I know I will enjoy whatever I find in my stocking from Santa on Christmas morning. I will have fun as my husband and I open the presents from under the tree. I will enjoy whatever meals we make on those day.

All of this busyness isn’t without purpose or meaning. But sometimes at least some slices of my brain gets whiney about it. And I know I’m not the only one.

And yes, there will be some more busy days. I skipped our usual laundry day because we were prepping for the party, so one one of these coming vacation days there will be a reckoning for that. There will be more cleaning. There will be attempts to meet up with some of the friends we haven’t gotten to hang out with. There will be at least one trip to a movie theatre.

But there will also be at least a few mornings where I get to sleep in and be lazy for part of the day. I just don’t know exactly which ones, yet.

When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly face…

Some years ago I found myself in a weird conversation, trying to explain what it was about a certain kind of holiday movie that my Mom loves—she records dozens of them off of certain cable channels and likes to re-watch them. They make my skin crawl, and when I was trying to explain why, the friend kept pointing to a lot of Christmas movies I love that, to them, induced the same sort of eye-rolling they experienced when I described the ones I don’t like.

There were a couple of reasons for the communication mismatch, but I’ve since realized that the biggest one was that I hadn’t correctly identified what was fundamentally common to all these movies that bugged me: most of them are built around some variation of the premise that the only place where people who truly love and understand you is the community in which you grew up.

And for a whole lot of us—especially queer people—that is the absolute opposite of truth.

The real truth is that, here in the big city far away from any of the small towns I grew up in, I am far less likely to have a stranger react with obvious disgust if I introduce my husband as my husband—let alone have them immediately correct me that Michael is my friend. But that’s the reaction I often get not from strangers, but from people who claim to be friends back home.

So, I want to be clear: I have a lot of fond memories of my childhood. There are many people I knew back that that I genuinely loved and admired at the time, and many for which I still feel fondness. But for too many of them it is at best a bittersweet fondness. Because when a person who formed a big part of my life refuses to accept that the person I love and have committed my life to is my spouse—when they claim to still love me yett disapprove of the person I love (not because of who he is, but because of his gender), when they vote for politicians who want to take away what legal rights I have, when they openly talk about how legalizing my relationship is going to result in hellfire raining down on the land—it’s more than a little difficult to believe in their love.

I love my mother. I love my sister. I love my aunts and many other relatives. But I also know that to varying degrees they don’t support my right to live my life openly as a queer person. When I visit the small town where many of them live—the place where I graduated from high school and attended the first part of college—I feel on edge and defensive. And it’s not me being paranoid. From the anti-gay bumperstickers to the casual political comments, it is very clear that some of them only tolerate my presence so long as they don’t realize what I am.

For many of us, our families of origin remain what we might generously call a demilitarized zone—a place where a kind of cease-fire is enforced, though a cold war continues, and unmarked minefields abound.

So that’s why certain holiday movies and songs don’t quite resonate with me the way they do to some. The towns where I grew up aren’t where I’m most likely to find the sunshine of a friendly face. Our blood relatives are not where the light of unconditional love gleams.

So for many of us, the home sweet home is the place we went to when we escaped those communities. The people with whom we are happy in a million ways are the friends and found family we have assembled since growing up and leaving behind the narrow-minded denizens of our communities of origin.

I can get as sentimental and schmaltzy as can be about the family I have found and built since learning to be my true self and live openly. And that might induce eye-rolling for some, but it is not, by any means, something that makes one’s skin crawl.

Let’s think about what we’re putting on the holiday menu, metaphorical or otherwise

For several years while blogging on LiveJournal I would post a survey asking about food people were making for Thanksgiving dinner. Half the fun in these polls were the conversations that would happen in the comments about the differences in what we thought of as traditional holiday foods. The first few Thanksgivings after this became my primary blog I constructed similar polls… but no one responded (there were occasionally be a couple of comments, but not many votes). So it hasn’t seemed worth it to construct a poll here.

I do think talking about the foods we loved as kids can be a great way to share memories and get to know each other better. But sometimes I have to remember that not everyone has great memories of holidays spent with family. And even some of us who do cherish a lot of those memories have a lot of bad memories associated with the holidays.

Because my dad insisted that, if at all possible, we spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with his parents, that meant that for most of the Thanksgivings and Christmases I experienced before the age of 15 he was on his best behavior. It was like being in a magical zone where bad things couldn’t happen to you. He would transform into the Good Son™ his mother expected, and therefore none of us got slapped, beaten, or yelled at. On the other hand, my paternal grandmother was a different sort of abuser, tending toward emotional manipulation and gaslighting. So it wasn’t that the holidays were perfect.

And then, when one is queer and closetted, whether family members are abusive or not, the holidays are an opportunity to be reminded that one is different. I preferred to hang out in the kitchen and help with the cooking, for instance—but if certain extended family members were there I would be scolded for not playing with my male cousins or at least hanging out with the adult men watching football. One particular a-hole uncle loved pointing out every one of my behaviors that he saw as being a sissy, for instance.

And then there are the questions about whether I had a girlfriend. Which got worse once puberty hit. Because no matter what your answer was, there were always those self-assured declarations, “Just you wait! When you meet the right girl…” and so forth.

And then there were the political conversations. In a sense, I’m sort of thankful that gay rights didn’t start being in the news with any regularity until my twenties.

What got me thinking about all of this was this amazingly horrible story: Junior’s Contest: Ruin Thanksgiving To Own The Libs. That’s right, Donald Trump, Jr, is daring his followers to intentionally goad your liberal relatives into having an argument. And of course all the trump voters are sharing it as if this is a great new idea.

I have a few responses to this:

First, once again we must thank the Republicans for demonstrating that they firmly belief hatred is a family value. While arguing at the holidays is a tradition in lots of families, it isn’t a good tradition. Taking delight in ruining to day of someone you claim to love? On a holiday that Republicans insist is a religious holiday, to boot. Way to show how will you understand the teachings of Jesus, guys.

Second, conservative relatives, in both my experience and according to a few studies on the matter, have never been shy about spouting off their controversial/racist/homophobic beliefs especially at holiday dinners. They don’t need any encouragement in that matter.

Third, those of us on the progressive end of the spectrum already have a lot of practice at biting our tongues and avoiding arguments at the holidays. See my second point. Now, it has been argued that disasters like the election of Trump might have been avoided if more of us had confronted our racist relatives more often at previous holidays, but I have my serious doubts in this reasoning. At least in my personal experience, arguing at family gatherings has never changed anyone’s mind. It was the one-on-one conversations outside the group situation that has been more successful.

Fourth, the libs in most families are far more likely to bite our tongues and roll our eyes with stuff we disagree with come up. The meltdowns are almost always from the racist uncle going off on an angry rant because of some fairly innocuous thing someone says.

It’s true that the last few years I’ve just been avoiding the awkward/angry conversations by simply not spending time with the trump-voting relatives at Thanksgiving, and limiting my Christmas visit to a day before the actual holiday. There is something about the gathering together that seems to bring out both the dysfunctional behavior and the need to assert their xenophobic-dominionist-racist-homophobic opinions. It took 23 years after I came out of the closet for some of the family members to stop saying some of those homophobic things to my face. Once again this year I don’t get to eat Mom’s Mistake Salad for Thanksgiving, but my husband and I are doing just fine with our pear and ginger pie, turkey, savory sweet potatoes (like Great-grandma S.J. used to make), green bean casserole, scalloped corn, and my Insane Relish Tray. And the downside for them—I’ll probably get comments as I have the last few years from several of the extended family because the variety and quantity of olives and pickled things on their relish trays never match what I used to bring down every year.

I much prefer our Peaceful Queer Thanksgiving to anyone else’s HaHa Trigger the Libs Holidays.

How we react to the world is both human and political, but I repeat myself

“Fox News: Liz Warren wants to take money from the rich and give it to the poor! Me: Cool, cool. Mark Zuckerberg: Liz Warren is an existential threat to my business! Me: Guys, I already like her, ok. You don't have to sell her this hard.”

Despite the graphic, this post is not about what most people think of as politics. (Click to embiggen)

So, I’ve written a few times about social media, with the observation that a lot of the dysfunction that people like to attribute to the technology is really just human nature. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a problem, it’s just that neither tweaking the technology nor abandoning it altogether is going to solve those problems. But, the technology does have problems; sometimes one of those problems is that it is simply amplifying some of our less-functional traits, and sometimes it’s something much more complicated.

I’ve also previously mentioned that I’m one of those people who has found that if I don’t check Facebook from time to time I absolutely will get no news whatsoever from some branches of the family that I would like to stay in contact with. Muting and carefully unfollowing/blocking some people has decreased some of the previous annoyance—I don’t need to be reminded that Cousin Windbag thinks god will destroy America because I was legally allowed to marry my husband by seeing all the hateful memes and such that he posts constantly to his wall, for instance. And no one needs to see all the racists, xenophobic, anti-semetic nonsense Uncle Blowhard shares. But no matter how carefully I curate the feed, things get through that are a bit more than an annoyance.

Such as the friend request from an ex-step-cousin who (when he was a young adult and I was still a child) constantly referred to me as “that faggot” to other family members. I didn’t really want a reminder of that particular bit of childhood bullying, thank you very much. I don’t know why he decided to send me a friend request, but the particular political leanings displayed on his public wall makes it seem very unlikely his intention is to apologize.

Or the relative that, so far as I can remember, hasn’t contacted me in several years (to be fair, I also have not made an effort to reach out to them) who decided to send me a private message to offer condolences for the death of my father nearly three years after the fact. Now, offering condolences is fine—and there are many reasonable explanations for why someone hadn’t been able to offer them sooner.vBut here’s the thing: my dad was an emotionally and physically abusive man and it wasn’t at all a sense of loss that I felt when he died. Heck, one of my best friends made me practice saying, “We weren’t that close. We’d hardly spoken in forty years,” when my father was lying in hospice so I wouldn’t instead blurt out something inappropriate if an acquaintance or co-worker offered condolences.

This is also one of the relatives that I’m muting on my timeline because of all the anti-gay, anti-immigrant, et cetera stuff they post. In other words, all the same sort of things that Dad would rant about if you gave him a chance.

Sometimes people drift out of your life because of circumstance. But sometimes it’s a choice. Our different worldviews and values are a far bigger barrier to any relationship I’d have with this relative than the 1200 miles distance between our homes.

And please don’t tell me that it’s just politics and that family is more important than a mere opinion. Politics isn’t like be a sports fan. I can be friends with people who root for football teams I dislike, just as I am friends with people who don’t like my Seahawks. But politics is about policies that all of us have to live under. And politics is also about values. Unfortunately, a lot of politics is about which people are treated as people under the law, and which are treated as things.

For example: the way our society is structured, you have to work to survive. If you aren’t willing to say that queer people, trans people, people of various ethnicities, and so should protected from job discrimination, then you are saying that you don’t care if those categories of people die. Similarly, if your reaction to finding out our government has been seizing children at the border and packing them into cages is to try to blame the parents rather than being incandescently outraged at the abuse of children, I am more than justified in judging you for that.

I’m allowed to decide I don’t want to be friends with people whose values are monstrous.

Many times when critiquing social media, people focus on the impersonalization—it is easy to forget that it is another person on the other side of the screen and say things we would never say in person. But there is also the inverse problem, particularly with the way some social platforms work so hard to connect you with people you used to know, mutual friends, an so on: over-personalization. I and the second relative mentioned above haven’t seen each other in person in decades, nor talked in years. But thanks to the social media, an illusion can exist of continued contact because they can see my posts.

In my mind, I’ve been giving this person the cold shoulder for years—but in a completely non-confrontational way. And admittedly, I’ve been happy about being able to mute some people and so forth without them ever knowing that I have. I’ve let the technology aid and abet my passive-aggressive method of cutting them out of my life. Which means I’m at least partly responsible for these awkward moments that do more to remind me of bad things from the past than cheer or console.

I don’t have a pat answer of how to go forward. I think it is okay to let yourself drift away from people who have more negative impact on you than positive. But I think it is also important to ask yourself whether you’re making an effort to be a positive in the lives of those around you.

Three Considerations On the Third Day of Christmas Vacation (or the Eve of Christmas Eve)

Don we now…. (click to embiggen)

One: Different families have different Christmas traditions. Some of the traditions are really strict. My ex-wife’s family, for instance, was really really really invested in Christmas Eve. You simply must attend the Christmas Eve thing, or you might as well just skip Christmas. This caused a little bit of an issue, since attending my then Mother-in-law’s Christmas Eve in Oregon meant missing my Nice Grandma’s Christmas Eve in southwest Washington. And that’s symbolic of a conflict many couples have: there are at least two family traditions and sets of extended relatives that you want to try to accommodate at major holidays. And it just gets worse if there has been divorces and re-marrying and children now have to contend with even more sets of grandparents and step-grandparents and cousins and step-cousins and so on.

My childhood Christmas memories are divided into several sections. There were about six years where Christmas consisted of Dad, Mom, my sister, and I cramming into either the four-wheel-drive pickup (because the roads would be icy at some point of the journey) either early morning Christmas Eve or sometimes at the end of Dad’s work-shift, and drive hundreds of miles from wherever we were living at the time to my paternal Grandparents’ house. My maternal grandmother (aka Nice Grandma) and one set of great-grandparents on that side happened to live in the same small town as my paternal grandparents (aka Grandpa and Evil Grandma), so we would get to see them at least briefly during the trip, but it was always clear that we were there to spend Christmas with Evil Grandma, and everyone else was secondary.

I was aware, during this time, that Mom’s side of the family liked to get together on Christmas Eve, and again for Christmas dinner the next afternoon, but Christmas morning was generally for each family unit at home. Because we often were arriving at Evil Grandma’s house late in the evening, I very seldom got to attend the other family Christmas Eve.

Then there was a period of three Christmases in a row where we lived just an hour’s drive from Evil Grandma, which meant getting to see everyone for a bit longer at the holiday. That is, until Nice Grandma re-married my Mom’s adoptive father, and she moved out to Washington state to live with him.

Then there were three Christmases we lived in the same small town as my paternal grandparents and my maternal great-grandparents (and only a couple hours drive from a bunch of other relatives). The tradition then became that we would spent a chunk of Christmas Eve with my Great-grandparents, then Christmas morning and Christmas dinner at Evil Grandma’s.

Then after my parents divorced, Mom, my full sister, and I moved up to the same town in Washington state where Grandpa and Nice Grandma lived, and that first Christmas Eve was a revelation. When Grandma lived in Colorado, Christmas Eve involved my Great-grandparents and a few of Grandma’s friends, because there weren’t many of her non-in-law relatives there. In Washington, there were Grandpa’s siblings and their children and grandchildren, my Mom’s six half-brothers (and for some of them wives and children), plus a bewildering number of cousins, demi-cousins, shirt-tail relatives of many other sorts, plus the people that Nice Grandma always seemed to adopt.

Not every single one of that vast constellation of Grandma’s “folks” made it every year, but a lot of them managed to drop in for at least a little bit. As my Aunt Theresa (who was the ex-wife of one of my Mom’s brothers) was fond of saying, “You never knew who you would see at Gert’s Christmas Eve!”

Aunt Theresa was a great example. She had only been married to my Uncle Randy for three years. They divorced when I was about 14 years old. Theresa and Grandma had got along really well from the first time they met, so she was the one who came to Grandma the tell her thag she was divorcing Randy. Theresa told the story later that, “Gert looked me right in the eye and said, ‘You can divorce my son, if that’s what you have to do, but you are not divorcing me! You’re part of my family forever, you understand?’”

And for the next 30-some years of Grandma’s life, Aunt Theresa came by frequently to visit, check on Grandma, and keep her up-to-date on the well-being of Theresa’s relatives—because Grandma still considered them all in-laws.


Two: I only got to see another one of my Mom’s half-brothers at a couple of those Christmas Eves, once I was living nearby and able to attend. Uncle Brad never quite got his life together. He spent a lot of time in jail. He was never convicted of anything serious—I think the longest sentence he ever got was six months—but, between being addicted to a couple of illegal substances, and having to sell said substances to support himself at times, he just couldn’t stay out of trouble. So sometimes Uncle Brad missed Christmas Eve because he was in jail, and sometimes because he was in some other trouble.

And then he got sick. Everytime Grandma called him, he said he hadn’t been coming to visit because he was sick again, and figured he was contagious with whichever illness he thought he had.

Christmas Eve 1982 was the first time we had seen him in months, and he looked awful. Of Mom’s brothers, Brad had been the shortest, and he had never been what anyone would call fat, but that night, he looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. Grandma thought that he was using more serious drugs, and confronted him a few times. He insisted that he wasn’t, that he’d just kept catching things that he couldn’t seem to shake.

Then one day a few months later, Aunt Theresa showed up at Grandma’s and said, “I have some very bad news. Have you heard of this new disease they call AIDS? Well, Brad has it. He thinks he got in it one of the times he was in jail…”

My Uncle Brad wasn’t a really early case, but when he was diagnosed in early 1983 it was only months after the Center for Disease Control gave the illness that name, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Uncle Brad didn’t live to see Christmas Eve of 1983.

My Uncle Brad was hardly the only person that I knew that would be taken by AIDS. I’ve written before of the winter when so many friends and acquaintances of Ray and I died in the same six-week period that we couldn’t attend some of the memorial services because they were happening at the same time.

The disease didn’t get its name until September of 1982, but it had been recognized as an epidemic that ought to be taken seriously since 1981. Unfortunately, no one in either party on the national level was willing to even talk about it, let alone allocate funds to the CDC and other agencies to address it properly. The very first politician at a national level to call for the government to address the crisis was a woman from California who was elected to Congress in a special election in June of 1987 to fill a seat that was vacated with the previous Congresswoman died due to cancer.

That new Congresswoman, after being sworn in, was allowed to make a short introductory address to Congress as was traditional. Usually these comments are a brief thank you to family and supporters. And the new Congresswoman did that, but she ended her remarks with this statement that surprised her colleagues, “Now we must take leadership, of course, in the crisis of AIDS. And I look forward to working with you on that.”

The Congresswoman was Nancy Pelosi. And Pelosi became a tireless campaigner on the issue, bucking both her own party’s leadership, as well as taking on the Reagan administration’s (and subsequent Bush admin’s) bigoted opposition. During those early years, reporters and others kept asking how could she, as a Catholic, support what was perceived as a gay cause. Her answer was simple and consistent: “We are all God’s children, and that includes gay people.”

While people think of her as part of the establishment and middle-of-the-road, that is a gross mischaracterization. Not just then, but now. So in case it isn’t clear: I frequently describe myself as being far more liberal and progressive (radically so on many topics) than the Democratic Party, but this is one queer man who considers Minority Leader Pelosi’s current trajectory to become Speaker of the House as a big Christmas present to the forces of justice, mercy, and compassion.


Third: My Nice Grandma didn’t always live up to my idealized vision of her. Because of how negatively she (and other relatives) reacted to my coming out of the closet in 1991, I had to boycott all family events for six years. Not just Christmas Eve: everything. If my husband wasn’t welcome as my husband, then I wasn’t. It was years later that I would first read Dan Savage’s version of the same epiphany I’d had which led to the boycott: “The only leverage adult queer people have over parents and other family members is our presence in their lives. We shouldn’t fear losing them, they should fear losing us.” Because of the many times over a couple of months I had been told by multiple relatives that I was going to hell and deserved it, that sure I could live my life as I chose but any time I was in there home… I had had to tell them I would not visit them, ever, but if they liked they could come visit me. Though, any time they were in my home…

(Those ellipses can imply so much, no?)

After six years, it was Grandma who reached out shortly before my birthday in 1997 and asked if she and my step-grandpa could drive Mom (who doesn’t do freeways) to see me on my birthday. I said of course. It was awkward for about an hour, but the ice finally melted, and the next thing we know they were inviting us to come down to a picnic and the meet my sister’s new daughter (my sister and her now-fifth-ex-husband were coming for a visit), and suddenly they started treating Ray like a person, instead of a symbol of whatever their feelings about my queerness were.

The change in attitude (including apologies) was topped off by a request that we come visit for Christmas, where, yes, Ray was welcome, and none of the weird conditions previously alluded to were expected.

I really wish I could end this by talking about Ray’s first Christmas Eve at Grandma’s. The problem was, Ray was very sick (he did not, by the way, have AIDS; that picnic had been a bit difficult for us to juggle because Ray’s second round of chemotherapy was underway, but we managed). In November he had a seizure, went into a coma for several days, and then died.

Michael’s first Christmas Eve with Grandma happened in 1999. It wasn’t the first time he and Grandma met. That had been at a different trip, where I decided it would be better not to have the first meeting tied to a major holiday. We had been on our way to Mom’s (she lived an hour south of Grandma back then), and we stopped in for what was supposed to be a short visit (just in case). Michael had hardly spoken a couple of sentences when Grandma gave him a look and asked, “Is that a Missouri accent I hear?”

Soon the two of them were talking about all these places in Missouri and Oklahoma where Michael had grown up, and where coincidentally Grandma had lived for a number of years. You want to talk about coincidences? The hospital listed on Michael’s birth certificate, is the same hospital listed on Mom’s birth certificate.

Anyway, they just kept talking. At one point, my step-grandpa leaned over and said quietly to me, “If you wanna get a burger or something, I think the two of us could slip out and they wouldn’t even notice.”

I was very happy. Grandma liked Michael. That meant if anyone else in the family didn’t, well, they have to keep it to themselves.

Despite the warm fuzzies of that encounter, all of the things I said yesterday about why we avoid the big family gathering apply. This Christmas Eve, it will just be Michael and I. We usually cook a sort of romantic dinner. I’ll watch some Christmas movies. We’ll probably stay up until midnight to say “Merry Christmas” and have a kiss under the mistletoe. But we have to get to bed soon after, because first thing in the morning, we always check our stockings to see what Santa brought.

On the first day of Christmas Vacation, I drove into Trump Country…

After being up way too late finishing work for our latest impossible deadline, I slept in a little, then began packing up the car for a drive to my Mom’s. It’s always been a little awkward visiting the family, because as much as they think they are open-minded and accepting of my queer self and my bi husband, it is precisely the kind of acceptance where the person has to tell you that they are open-minded and not homophobic at all… and then proceed to make references to various queer stereotypes and so forth.

Things got a bit worse on some topics during the eight years that Obama was in office. Now things have gotten really bad since Trump was elected. So after the awkward Thanksgiving Day of 2016, we’ve contrived to not visit on the actual holiday. I drive down for a one day thing once or twice during December to say Merry Christmas, drop off presents, admire Christmas trees, hold one of the babies, take a few pictures, and that sort of thing. I also drive down for one-day visits several times outside of the holiday season.

Anyway, Friday was the present-delivering run. I also needed to help Mom with two computer issues: bring her the replacement/upgrade iPad Michael had put together for her (and bring back her apparently dead one to see of Michael can resuscitate it) and fix a couple of things on her computer. The computer was, fortunately, remarkably easy to fix.

“How come people who don't believe in racism always believe in reverse racisim? How does that work? That's like believing in Santa but not in your parents.”The day went fairly well for the most part. There were some odd rants that came up with two different family members about a topic that I learned long ago that it is best to just bite my tongue and let them go. They will always believe everything they see on Fox News and whatever “Christian” news network they watch—regardless of how illogical or contradictory of other things they believe.

It’s not just that what they spout off is nonsense. It’s not just knowing that they vote for people who are actively trying to take my rights away. It’s not just that it hurts to hear people who taught me to love my neighbor say hateful hurtful things about whole swaths of humanity (including categories that I fall in). It’s also that I don’t feel safe in that community. It’s been a few years (but less than ten) since a random person in that community has felt the urge to call me fag out of the blue, but I see the looks. I can read the bumper stickers. I overhear the conversations at other tables in the restaurant.

If I brought that up, they would dismiss it. I know, because they did when I tried to explain years ago some of the reasons I am much happier staying in “the big city” as they say. It’s an amazing blind spot: they dismiss any racist or homophobe and so on as a single anomaly that I should just ignore, at the same time they are convinced that every single person who talks about racism or gay bashing or sexual assault is part of a vast satanic conspiracy that must be fought and defeated lest the world literally go down in flames.

And they don’t understand that they just said that I need to be exterminated in order to save their world.

So, yeah, I’m going to keep limiting my exposure to all that hate. I much prefer holidays with my chosen family.

What are you serving, what are you talking about, and what are you avoiding during the holidays?

"Hello, member of my extended ! Good to see you, it's been too long. No, I'm not in med school anymore. I'm an opthalmologist. No, that's not an optometrist. I do eye surgery. I know, sounds kind of gross doesn't it? Sorry to hear about your vague eye ailment. You should see an eye doctor. Sorry to hear about your vague medical ailment. You should see your doctor. Sorry to hear about your friend's vague physical ailment. They should see their doctor. Yes, I go a flu shot. You should get one, too."

Being shared on Twitter with the explanation, “Instead of having the same conversation over and over this Thanksgiving, I’ll be handing this out.” (click to embiggen)

Back when I was blogging on LiveJournal, about this time every year I would post a survey about what sorts of side dishes and pies and so forth that people like to serve at Thanksgiving, if they celebrated. And I used to get lots of respondents. I’ve tried it a few times on this blog but got far fewer participants, so it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort of constructing a new survey. This image of a printed list of answers to all the questions that come up again and again at one person’s family meals gave me a chuckle, and reminded me of certain topics and questions that come up at my family gatherings any time that there is more than just Mom there.

I don’t have to deal with that sort of thing this week because we’re staying home again this year. And I had a lot less of it to deal with last year because we stayed home for both holidays. I drove down twice during the season to see folks and drop off Christmas presents, so I did see a lot of the extended family, but it’s different when you aren’t sitting in one place for a long time either waiting for food to cook, or more people to arrive, or whatever.

Anyway, if I were to do something like this letter, it might go something like this:

Hello, cousin/aunt/cousin-in-law I only see at holiday gatherings! It’s been too long!

As a matter of fact, no, I don’t technically live in Seattle any more, I’ve moved to a small suburb called Shoreline.

No, I still take the bus to work. It’s only four miles further from the office than my old place. I would love to talk about our new neighborhood and all the things I’m growing in my–

Yes, I am still working in the same part of the telecommunications industry that I have been for the past 31 years.

Yes, you actually use the stuff we do every day. Our products are the servers that figure out where you phone is anytime you use maps, or need to call 9-1-1, and so forth.

I’m sorry to hear about your vague problem with your very cheap Android so-called smart phone that is almost certainly running a very outdated version of Android and is loading with bloatwear. I don’t do Android. At all. I’m an Apple user.

No, that is not an iPhone. It has the name of another company printed right there in very large type. I’m sorry the salesperson at the place you went to get a cheaper phone than you could buy from your carrier (after two other cheap phones died on you this year) lied to you. You should probably go somewhere else next time.

I’m sorry to hear about your vague computer problem on your super cheap very old Windows machine that is probably infested with more malware than actual software. Can’t really help you, as I said, I’m a Mac user. You should probably stop taking it to that guy who runs the combination Pawn Shop/Smoke Shop/Computer Repair Shop and go to the place my husband recommended last year.

Yes, I voted. No, I really don’t think we should talk about it.

Yes, as a matter of fact, I do still believe that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, just like his birth certificate said. And no, I’m not at all glad he’s gone. I’m really sad that voter suppression and Russian interference put a person who lost the popular vote into office.

Yes, yes, I completely agree we should change the topic. Did you see the Seahawks game two weeks ago?

Since the form of this thing is a flier you could hand out to people, I decided to leave out the many times that I wind up sitting very tight-lipped awkwardly listening to someone try to explain away some real world news with very very mangled Bible references. Or the latest quack medicine/magical Bible cure someone is trying for their vague physical ailments.

At least for the last five or six years everyone has realized that talking about anything related to their opposition to gay rights or transgender people isn’t a good idea. Please note that I have been out of the closet for over 26 years and they have all met (and all seem to really like) my husband who has been coming down with me to these things for 20 years, but it took this long to decide that maybe telling us some of those things to our faces isn’t polite dinner conversation.

I am going to miss not getting a taste of Mom’s Mistake Salad (it’s a concoction of pistachio pudding and pineapple and whipped cream and I don’t remember what, that seems to contain about a million grams of sugar per spoonful, so I can literally only have a few bites, but dang it is so, so, so good!) or share and compare anyone’s attempt at making Grandma’s Frozen Cranberry Salad—for a long time we thought the recipe was lost, so several of us came up with versions of our own; Mom found an index card with the official recipe hiding in one of Grandma’s photo albums. And then when she made it, it wasn’t quite what any of us remembered, confirming our suspicion that she did never made it the same way twice.

Since it is just the two of us, Michael and I are cooking a small turkey. We’ll have stuffing, gravy, green bean casserole, my Great-grandma’s creamy savory sweet potatoes, sweet potato pie, cranberry sauce, and a relish tray that will have enough pickled foods and olives to feed about 30 people.

Oh! And I plan to make the Fiery Thanksgiving Manhattan again: Rye bourbon, sweet vermouth, orange bitters, and Tillen Farms’ Fire and Spice Maraschino Cherries. It will be divine!

Believability isn’t just about fiction, or Let me tell you about my Evil Grandmother

Sometimes the difference isn’t this obvious. (click to embiggen)

This post meanders a bit before I get to the point. Sorry.

Over the years people have reacted with everything from amusement to confusion to disbelief to my references to my Evil Grandmother. I had two grandmothers, a Nice Grandma and an Evil Grandma. Sometimes when I would comment about something going on with one of my grandmothers, a friend who had heard me use the phrase “Evil Grandma” would ask if this grandmother who had done this annoying thing was her, and I would say, “Oh, no! This is my Nice Grandma!” And they would freak out, “What do you mean, this is the Nice Grandma? That doesn’t sound nice at all!” To which I would reply, “Let me tell you about my Evil Grandmother…”

Here is a mild example. My Evil Grandmother (who was my paternal grandma, i.e., my dad’s mother) believed that all mental illness was just the person selfishly vying for attention. There are a surprising number of people out there with a belief very close to this. Any person who responds to someone else struggling with depression or recovering from trauma by telling them to get over it, for instance. They don’t see it as a real illness that requires treatment or recovery, right? But my Evil Grandmother was even worse than that. My Evil Grandmother believed that epilepsy was the same. So when one of my sisters started having seizures, my Evil Grandmother was constantly undermining the doctors. She would scold my sister for having a seizure after the fact, for example.

Oddly enough, she also believed that mental illness was hereditary and a sign of poor moral character. Which she also believed was hereditary. When my parents finally were getting a divorce, after my Evil Grandmother found out I had told the judge that I definitely did not want my (alcoholic, physically abusive) father to have custody, she sat me down and gave me a long litany of all of the mental health issues that plagued many of my mom’s distant relatives. One example was a great-uncle who we would now say was suffering from severe PTSD because of his experiences during World War II.

Now, if I wrote a novel in which a woman who had a college degree and worked as the City Treasurer for many years and was a respected member of her community, who punished her nine-year-old grandchild for having a seizure on a day where said grandmother had prevented the grandchild from taking her prescribed medication, I would get irrate messages from people telling me that this was completely unbelievable.

But I would also get comments from people who would tell even more horrific stories from their own childhood.

This is just one example of why having a bunch of editors tell you a story is too far-fetched is not indicative that the story is, in fact, too far fetched.

The editors or critics may have a valid point that you, as an author, hadn’t done a proper job of laying the groundwork to help the reader suspend their disbelief, but it doesn’t mean the notion is objectively and universally unbelievable. Even if they focus on the groundwork aspect, they still may be letting their personal perspective override things.

For example, there’s the tale of the male writing professor who once gave a woman in his class the advice that merely showing that one character had raped a young woman was not enough to justify the young woman killing him later in the story. “You haven’t convinced me he’s truly evil. Show him being cruel to a dog or something to make this evil real.”

Being cruel to a dog is worse than raping a woman? Irrational disconnect much?

Preception isn’t just a matter of taking in the information offered. It is heavily influenced by our prejudices, past experiences, expectations, fears, and hope. This doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as objective reality, it just means that it takes a lot of work to sort through all that subjectivity…

And it means that there will always be some things no one will agree on. Likewise, there will always be some people who will refuse to see something, no matter how much evidence we provide.

This doesn’t mean they are hopeless, it just may mean that we have to walk away and expend our energy elsewhere.

I have two codas to the saga of my Evil Grandmother. First, 20 years after my parents’ divorce and the subseqeunt exodus of myself, Mom, and one sister to the west coast, Mom, Nice Grandma, and my step-grandpa took a road trip back to the town where my parents met to attend the christening of my oldest sister’s first child. At one point in the visit, Mom found herself alone with my paternal grandparents, her ex-in-laws. Mom told them that she was sorry that my parents’ marriage had ended the way it had. Grandpa admitted that saying goodbye to Mom, myself, and my sister when we left was the hardest and most painful thing he had ever done.

Evil Grandmother muttered something, and she had tears in her eyes. She cleared her throat a couple of times and eventually said something about the time for blame being past. Now, I should mention that long before my parents divorced, Evil Grandma, on two occassions, set up appointments for Dad with a divorce attorney without consulting him first, and tricked Dad into meeting her at the law office on pretexts to do with her business. When I say that Evil Grandma had wanted my parents to split, that’s an understatement. So, Mom took this “time for blame” as a way to change the topic and avoid taking any blame.

But then some more extended family members arrived, and as people were picking places to sit and talk, my Evil Grandma moved from the seat next to Grandpa, to sit next to Mom. And she grabbed Mom’s hand and in Mom’s words, “squeezed it like she was afraid to let go.” She didn’t say anything, and didn’t really join in with the rest of the conversation for the next couple of hours, but she refused to let go of Mom’s hand. And later, when Mom needed to leave, Evil Grandma gave her a hug. Her eyes were full of tears again, and she murmured, “I’ve missed you all.”

Mom said that she decided that that was the closest Evil Grandma could come to saying she was sorry.

Second coda: About ten years after that I was out with friends at a bowling party when my phone rang. It was a call from one of my aunts. She was at a hospital with Evil Grandma. Evil Grandma had had both a stroke and some sort of heart issue. She’d been revived and was on a resporator, but she was alert and had demanded the my aunt call me. I need to add here that when I came out of the closet in 1991, other than one handwritten note that said, “I hope you’re happy now,” Evil Grandmother had stopped talking to me (and I would later learn she had forbidden other family members from mentioning my name in her presence). My aunt handed the phone over Evil Grandma. Because of the resporator, she had to speak in short bursts. She could speak on the exhale then wait for the machine to push in the next breath. She said my name. I replied, “Yes, Grandma it’s me.” She repeated my name on the next two exhales, and each time I told her it was me and I could hear her.

I, meanwhile, was moving to try to find a quiet place thinking the noise of the bowling alley was confusing her.

Finally she said, “I love you.” And I replied that I loved her. She repeated it a couple more times, and each time I replied. I was sobbing at this point. How could I not be? No matter what had happened between us, here she was, possibly on her death bed, using perhaps her dying breaths to reach out?

After about the fourth ‘I love you’ exchange, she said. “I know you…. I know you do… but do you know…. do you know… I love you?”

I said, “Yes.” She repeated my name and said “I love you” again, and then my aunt was back on the phone.

That turned out not to be her deathbed, but she had at least one more stroke before being released from the hospital, and her ability to talk was severely impaired for her remaining years.

But, Christmas cards started arriving every year. The outside of the envelopes were clearly addressed by the aunt who was caring for Grandma by then, but the inside always had very jittery writing that was clearly Grandma’s. Some years Christmas presents (usually ornaments) would also arrive, sometimes with Grandma’s writing on the tag. There would sometimes be a note from my aunt saying that Grandma had seen it in the store and wanted to get it for me because it reminded her of something I had once talked to her about as a child.

One is left wondering, which her was the real her? Is it simply that years of regret and an acute awareness of her mortality caused a change of heart? Is such a deathbed conversion, as it were, believable? Or as much a product of our hopes and wishes?

I know she had always been extremely concerned with keeping up appearances and not doing things that would make the right sort of people look down on you. So had she been suppressing inconvenient feelings for years–feelings that went counter to her hopes and aspirations–and only later in life as neurological changes occurred she started letting them out?

Wrestling with these questions have not led me to stop referring to her as my Evil Grandmother. She just did too much too many times to hurt people–often people she should have been protecting. But I am reminded of an observation which I once put into the mouth of one of the characters in one of my fantasy novels: “Evil isn’t something you are, it’s something you do.”

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