Coming in from the cold: a family holiday story
When I was a young teenager, maybe 14 or 15 years old, the winter holidays started becoming particularly explosive around my family’s house. I had fully left the Mormon church a year or so previously, and that, combined with my typical teenage volatility and my father’s pointed slut-shaming and everyone’s collective food- and fat-shaming, meant that I was constantly at loggerheads with my father, and seething with frustration about almost everyone else around me. I felt the family fabric not as a safety net or a blanket of warmth, but as a web of chains that was holding me down, and I lashed out at it with all the wordless frenzy of a trapped animal. I needed to get AWAY.
I remember one time during those winters when I did get away; I tore out of the house with no coat on, the day before Christmas. There was snow on the ground and in frozen ruts on the street, and I ran and stumbled and slipped on the ice and ran some more, all the while crying hot, desperate tears of rage that froze on my cheeks, but I couldn’t feel it. My whole body had gone numb with the intensity of my emotions.
And then somehow a voice cut through the red buzzing haze. It was Oma (my Dutch father’s mother). I turned around and there she was, walking quickly down the same frozen street, carrying her shawl.
“You can’t be out here like this,” she said. “You’ll freeze.”
I can’t be in there anymore, I said as she wrapped me in the wool shawl that smelled like her.
“I know,” she said. “I know it’s really hard. You’re different. It’s going to keep being hard for a while. But you’re strong. You’re like me.”
And then she hugged me there in the empty street. There were no cars out, so we could stand there for a while, right there in the middle of the street, me just huddled up and sniffling into her hair.
This is the time of year when that moment comes back around, a memory of when things started to become clear, that I would never be my family’s daughterâ€”not a good one, at leastâ€”but that I would always be my Oma’s special one. Yes, she had her own axe to grind, she had been hurt by the Mormon church too, but I didn’t know that then, and I don’t care now. At that moment, it was just important for me to know that someone knew, that someone would come after me, that my anger and grief were not only forgivable, but understandable.
It is almost enough to make me wonder if I should not put more time in with my family, not for the people of my generation and older, but for the young ones, at least a few of whom will have their own real crises of faith and family, and will need the equivalent of an eccentric grandmother. They may need a weird aunt, someone who exists beyond the familiar bonds of blood and belief, who can hear and not judge, whatever the wildness that storms within. Of all the children that my siblings have popped out, odds are good that someone will be queer. Someone will be atheist. Someone will be feminist. Someone will have a secret to tell. Someone will run out into the bitter cold, unthinking. These could all be the same person.
Should I go back to be there, just in case? I don’t know. That’s asking a lot of myself. I’m sure my brothers and sisters wouldn’t thank me, but then, they don’t know. They don’t know how my soul ached, lo these thirty years ago. No, it wasn’t a fatal moment, and I would have gone back eventually; I wouldn’t have frozen out there. But my heart might have.
Thank you, Oma.
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There is a real gift that you bring in being able to write not just of the events but of the emotions, the feelings, the way you are able to connect back into those feelings you had at the time but without the need to lash out at them — and of that special woman that showed you that she understood, and loved you, because she knew… she knew who you were and who you were becoming in spite of your circumstances. Thanks for that moving story for this Christmas season.