Tag Archive | family

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 was 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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Water for the temple plants

Raindrops and ripples

A Zen master asked a young student to bring him a pail of water to cool his bath.

The student brought the water, and after cooling the bath, threw the remaining water over the ground.

“Think,” said the master to the student. “You could have watered the temple plants with those few drops you have thrown away.”

The young student understood Zen in that exact moment. He changed his name to Tekisui, which means drop of water, and lived to become a wise Zen master himself.

The lesson most learn from the story of the A Drop of Water is that as we struggle with the big problems and seek answers to big questions, that we sometimes forget the importance of small, ordinary moments. I often write on this blog about problems that many people face, or wrestle with questions of how to be a better story teller, or talk about great moments in history or my favorite genre. It is easy to get lost in worrying about some of the injustices in the world or dangers looming over one segment or another of the population. For me it is just as easy to get lost in my routines and personal goals. I have to get to work and finish certain things, and want to make progress on my writing, while putting my thoughts about all of those big things and many of the small things into blog posts.

I’m pretty good at hauling buckets around, but still not great with the drops.

I knew someone who seemed excellent with both the buckets and the drops. Last week she passed away. It wasn’t a surprise, she had been dealing with an illness for some time. But it was still a shock.

Ann was the mother of my good friend Kehf. I met her at Kehf’s wedding (or was it a rehearsal before?). You don’t get to know a person well under those circumstances. Mostly you come away with an impression. It was a few years later that I got to know her as someone other than that nice woman whose eyes sparkled when she smiled.

When I started an earlier version of this blog, she would occasionally comment. We might exchange a couple emails with follow up discussions. And then I started getting comments from people I didn’t know, often with someone saying something along the line of “I’m so glad Ann shared this link.” And the people who commented came from many different parts of the world, and many different backgrounds. I came to realize that Ann seemed to know everyone. Well, not literally everyone—more accurate to say she had friends everywhere.

I started to get a numerical inkling of the vastness of her network of friends when I moved this blog to WordPress. The previous hosts hadn’t given me very good statistics, but with WordPress every time I log in I see a bar graph of the hits on my blog for today and the previous 29 days. Most of the time my blog putters along with a fairly stable number of hits per day. there’s a little variation: days that I don’t publish anything new are lower than new post days, for instance. But every now and then, I will log in and see the bar for either that day or the previous day literally ten times as tall as the usual. And almost every time, it turned out to be because Ann shared that particular post.

I understand why it works. Any time Ann sent me a link (unless I recognized it as a story or blog or whatever that I had just recently looked at) I clicked on it to see what it was, and then had to send her a comment. Because she never sent me something that wasn’t interesting. Not just interesting in a general sense, but usually targeting to some of my particular interests. In the last several days as I’ve read several tributes to her, I notice how many people talk about the news and links and information she shared, with the same observation that it was always interesting or useful to the person receiving it.

She was really good at remembering what was important to every person she knew.

Relationships were her super power.

Ann was an episcopal priest. During her lifetime her church went from refusing to contemplate the ordination of women, to allowing women to be priests, then bishops, and eventually presiding bishop. It was a tough fight, but Ann didn’t back away from fights. She later brought that same cheerful determination as an ally of the queer communities in our fights. There were several times when I wrote about my frustration and fears about our fight for equality, when Ann would send me a message with words of encouragement gleaned from the fight for the ordination of women—it was worth the fight, even if it didn’t seem victory wasn’t getting closer.

I once wrote a post trying to explain my feelings about religion and spirituality, and why my particular journey had taken me away from the religion in which I’d been raised to my own variant of Taoism. I compared spirituality to water: how some people love the ocean, while others prefer rivers and streams, and others are more happy with well-maintained pools. I compared traditional churches (of any religion) to community swimming pools. They are there for those who want them, and they can be wonderful. While I’m more of a run out into the rain kind of guy.

After reading the post, Ann sent me an email: “Just call me your local community pool lifeguard!” Yes, mostly she was saying she understood what I was saying, and that her calling to be a priest was just as viable a spiritual position as my more freewheeling approach. But she was also being a bit modest. Because Ann didn’t limit herself to just ministering to the congregations of the churches she worked in. That way she had of collecting friends near and far, of remembering what was important to each of us, of sending us articles we’d find interesting, and commenting (sometimes debating) things we posted, that was another form of ministry.

And this queer ex-Christian/recovering Baptist felt extremely lucky to be at least occasionally on the receiving end of her vocation.

Rise in Glory, Ann.

Unnamed faces in old (and not-so-old) family pictures

One of dad's cousins and family came to visit Great-grandma, and everyone eventually ended up at my Grandparents' house.

One of dad’s cousins and family came to visit Great-grandma, and everyone eventually ended up at my Grandparents’ house.

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…

Holidays are stressful enough, don’t make it worse than you have to

“Don't get your tinsel in a tangle.”

“Don’t get your tinsel in a tangle.”

For many years, each holiday season, we would run down to spend time with a bunch of my in-state relatives for either Thanksgiving or Christmas. When my mom was still working, we would pick which one to come down based on when she had to work. Being a lifelong retail employee, she was used to the stores being open on those holidays, and generally if she had to work one, she got the other one off. This followed about seven years of me not visiting at all because most of the family reacted very badly1 when I came out of the closet, leading me inform them that until they accepted my then-husband as my husband, I wouldn’t visit6.

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.


Footnotes:

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…

Queer Thanksgiving

“Some of the most poisonous people come disguised as family.” (click to embiggen)

“Some of the most poisonous people come disguised as family.” (click to embiggen)

Not everyone has family to be thankful for. Or should I say, not every family is thanks-worthy? The video I’m linking below focuses particularly on queer people of color, and I don’t want to detract from that message at all—but many of us pale queers have families of origin that are less than welcoming to the point of toxicity. There are reasons that I have severely limited the amount of contact I have with some branches of the family.

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!

Queer Thanksgiving:

“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.)

Real family…

“Family isn't always blood. It's the people in your live who want you in theirs; the ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile & who love you no matter what.”

“Family isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your live who want you in theirs; the ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile & who love you no matter what.”

I won’t try to sugar coat it. Right now it’s difficult to feel thankful. We have spokespeople for our soon-to-be president saying on national news channels that they aren’t certain whether Jewish people are actually people, for goodness sake! Anyone who thinks that this is all just something that will blow over, or that “both sides” are somehow just as bad is being delusional. And don’t get me started on the relatives that I have had to block recently!

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.

Powerless, again

@CuteCatPictures

@CuteCatPictures

I was asleep when I heard the buzzing. It took a while for me to realize that it was a phone. Specifically my husband’s phone. My phone usually spends the night in the computer room, plugged into my Mac Pro tower to recharge and sync and so forth. Michael’s phone usually in on a charger on a shelf in one of the bookcases in another room. Anyway, by the time I woke up enough to realize it was my husband’s phone, it had stopped.

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.

Not Yet Christmas

Alistair Sim meets the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come in the 1951 "Scrooge."

Alistair Sim meets the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come in the 1951 “Scrooge.”

Today is the first day of my husband’s Christmas vacation, while for me it’s the eighth vacation day. As luck would have it, he woke up with a slight fever and other cold symptoms this morning. If it isn’t the same bug I had a couple of weeks ago, then I’ll probably come down with it right about the time I’m suppose to go back to work. Fun, no?

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.

Grandma with myself and my almost-twin cousin.

Grandma with myself and my almost-twin cousin as babies.

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!

Christmas Presence

Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present and George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge from the 1984 CBS "A Christmas Carol."

Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present and George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge from the 1984 CBS “A Christmas Carol.”

We’re having Christmas at home for just the two of us, this year. And like last year I have the entire week off while my husband has to work for most of the week, so I drove down to Mom’s yesterday to drop off her presents and take her to lunch. I also dropped off presents for one of my sisters, my nieces, my grandniece, an aunt, and a friend that all live in the same town. So there was lots of chatting. It was nice to spend some time with everyone.

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.

Great-aunt Noriko's Santa pin.

Great-aunt Noriko’s Santa pin. (Click to embiggen)

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!

Past Christmas or Christmas Past?

Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Patrick Stewart as Ebenezer Scrooge from the 1999 TNT adaptation of "A Christmas Carol."

Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Patrick Stewart as Ebenezer Scrooge from the 1999 TNT adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”

Once again we hosted a Holiday Party on the third Saturday in December. And for the third year Michael and I reserved a suite at a hotel about four miles from our place for the purpose. We had a smaller crowd than last year, but it was still a lot of fun.

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.

Me trying the costume before the Halloween Party. For Christmas I had a black belt and wore my round gold-rimmed glasses.

Me trying the costume before the Halloween Party. For Christmas I had a black belt and wore my round gold-rimmed glasses.

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!

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