Archive

nostalgia

April 2018

I spend Easter like any other Sunday: Several hours at school to prepare for the coming week, grocery shopping, and relaxing. This is my last day of relative calm, so I make the most of it.

It’s the first day of our abbreviated “tech week”, the rehearsals where sets, sound, and lights are added in to the mix. We’ve already been using the first two, but tonight is the first night with the new lights. Kevin, our light guy, has things mostly set up when I arrive for rehearsal, and finishes up while the rest of the cast filters in and George takes care of announcements. We change into costumes and get started. Tech rehearsals take a long time: While the lighting has been thought about before, this is the first time it gets used, so there’s a lot of stopping and starting as cues are finalized and programmed into the computer that controls the system. In our case, the actors also have to get used to dodging the lighting equipment as we enter and exit the stage area; a couple of things have to be reworked to accomodate the new layout. Tonight’s also the first night with nearly-complete costumes, and with the brothers that need it passing the third mic around. All in all, it’s a long night, and I’m more than ready to fall into bed when it’s done.

My students keep asking questions about the show, including where and when it’s happening. A couple of weeks ago, I printed out the flyer George created and hung it on the wall outside my classroom door. Now, with opening night approaching fast, several students are happily telling me when they’re coming to see the show.

Our official opening night is two days away. Tonight is our one and only dress rehearsal; tomorrow night will be, in George’s words, “dress rehearsal with an audience”, as he’s invited the local clergy and their family members to attend. Tonight we finally have all of costumes and props. Things run relatively smoothly, although a few entrances and exits have to be reworked. We also discover that, at least for this weekend, intermission will run closer to 20 minutes than the traditional 15, as “Levi” needs time to complete his transformation into “Pharaoh” (patterned after Elvis Presley).

While we know it won’t be a large crowd, tonight is still the first time we’ll perform for an audience. I’ve been fighting nerves all day, and it looks like I’m not the only one; the kids, especially, are more keyed-up than usual. Once we’re all in costumes and sound check has been taken care of, George and Dr. T gather us in the greenroom for group warm-ups. Then we wait. I pace restlessly around the green room, mind racing, wondering and worrying about how tonight will go and what it will mean for the rest of the run. Finally, it’s time for our “curtain”. We hear the overture start, and quietly begin moving in to position for our entrances. As Elena begins singing the Prologue, I check my mic one more time to make sure it’s ready. My heart stops when I see a red light: The batteries have died! No time to fix it now, so I enter and sing “Any Dream Will Do” without it. (Thank goodness we practiced for so long without the mic; I know I can make myself heard.) The song finishes, the audience applauds. I exit a little faster than normal and make a beeline for the booth (the area where Dr. T, Kevin, and Bea are sitting to run lights, sound, and supervise the show). In whispers, I ask for fresh batteries and quickly swap them out, all while singing along with the next song. I finish just in time to make my entrance back on to the stage. And the show goes on.

The first thing George does on opening night is sit us down for notes from last night’s performance. Some props and costumes weren’t where they should have been, some entrances and exits weren’t as smooth as they could have been. Starting tonight, we’ll put fresh batteries in the mics before every performance, so that we don’t have another situation like last night. After notes, we run a couple of spots to check things over before adjourning to the greenroom to finish getting ready and wait. Rather than pacing restlessly, I pull out my phone, plug in my headphones, and start the pre-show playlist I made this morning. When I did theatre in high school, we always had music playing in the dressing room, and it also dominated a very specific set of pre-show traditions passed down from year to year. I neither want to nor can recreate all of those, but one in particular is easy enough to keep going on my own: Listening and dancing to the full version of Don McLean’s “American Pie”. Between that and the other songs on the playlist, I am able to burn off enough of the pre-show jitters that I am substantially calmer and more focused when the overture begins.

As opening nights go, it could go better. While I have no issues with my mic, Elena’s headset mic snaps, crackles, and pops so much during the first act that she switches to a handheld after intermission. Costumes and props are in their correct places, and entrances and exits go more smoothly than last night. As the show goes on, though, we’re not sure how we’re doing, because the audience is very quiet. They’ve applauded a couple of times, but not always where we expect, and a lot of our jokes and gags are met by silence or quiet giggles. But the applause at the end is nice and loud, and when we meet-and-greet in the lobby afterwards everyone says how much they enjoyed it.

From the beginning, this second official show is better than our previous two. Elena has a mic that doesn’t add its own sound effects. The audience applauds after “Any Dream Will Do”, and at the end of nearly every other song. When I walk through the audience to show off my coat, several of my students are very eager to see it. Laughter can be heard frequently. The audience fawns over Pharaoh almost as much as his retinue. We get a standing ovation at the end. Meet-and-greet for me starts when one of my students runs into the lobby and barrels into me for a hug, gushing over how much she loved it. Several other students also come to say hi. One says, “Mr. CJ, Pharaoh is a GIANT.” (Phil is 6′ 6″.)
I laugh and agree. “Do you want to meet him?”
“No!” the student quickly ducks behind his mom. She and I laugh.

The high from last night’s show makes it a little easier to deal with the fact that we don’t have much of an audience for our matinee today. (Blame the absolutely gorgeous weather for that.) More seats are filled for the evening performance. Regardless, both audiences enjoy the show, and we continue to get many compliments after our bows. We can’t meet as long with people after the evening show, because we have to strike, that is, pack up all of our sets, costumes, and lights. We talked about what goes in whose vehicles already, so organized chaos descends as we change and pack up while the Barn’s pastor and members of his congregation get things set up for services tomorrow morning.

For the most part, I’ve gotten over my nerves about changing in the green room with everyone. But there’s a moment on Saturday… Someone says something to me as I’m getting dressed, and I don’t pull a shirt on right away. When I turn back around, I catch one of the “brothers” looking at me. She turns away when we make eye contact, and never brings it up, but I have to wonder if she saw my scars, and what she’s thinking if she did….

Another Sunday morning at school. I succeed in getting in and out quickly, and have a few hours to unwind at my place before I head over to Stage A, our home for the coming week, for load in. It’s exactly what it sounds like: We need to bring in and set up everything we just took out of the Barn. The priority is helping Kevin unload and set up the lights, but I also unload the two trunks of costumes from my car, help black out windows, get the new greenroom ready, and help George and Kira unload their vehicles. By the time we leave, our crew of seven has everything ready for our next rehearsal.

For a variety of reasons, we have tonight off from everything show-related. Instead, I spend the evening getting things done around the apartment and crossing my fingers that the tickle I feel at the back of my throat isn’t a sign of impending sickness. Just in case, I manage to fit in two doses of Zicam before bedtime.

Glad I started the meds last night; I definitely have a cold. I make it through school and crash on my couch for an hour or so before heading to round two of tech week. It’s not quite a disaster, but it’s not far off. Cues are missed, lyrics forgotten, we have issues with sets and lights…. By the end of the night, we’re all ready to go home.

Thankfully, last night’s issues appear to have sorted themselves out. Good thing, too; tonight’s dress rehearsal is being recorded. I’m excited to have something to show friends and family who can’t come to see the show in person, I just wish I felt and sounded better. Oh well.

I hate colds. The Zicam definitely helps, but my current schedule doesn’t allow me to get as much rest as I should. Thankfully, my students and I have come up with ways to make sure I don’t have to raise my voice too much during the day, and they’ve gotten a lot better at asking one another for help so I don’t have to run around the room as much. Several kids have spent the week talking about the show, asking questions and saying how much fun they had. Others tell me that they’ll be at a performance this weekend. One of the kids asks why I seem extra nervous today; after all, didn’t the show go well this last week? I explain that, yes, that’s true, but I still have to focus on doing a good job each and every night. I also mention that this weekend I have a lot of friends and family coming from out of town to see the show, and I don’t want to disappoint them. Another student overhears this and says, “You won’t!”

Opening night at Stage A is probably our smoothest show to date. When I check my phone at intermission, I find a message from Dad: He’s arrived! I call him after the show so that we can finalize plans for tomorrow.

All week, I’ve been keeping a close eye on the weather forecast for Nunap and the surrounding area. Lucas, Andy, and Kelly are supposed to fly out this morning. If they can get as far as the Hub, they’ll likely make it to Seward with no problem. (Flights between the Hub and Anchorage are more likely to be on schedule.) As I well know, however, getting out of the village can sometimes be problematic. Thankfully, I get a text from Lucas around lunchtime: a picture of the three of them sitting in the Alaska Airlines terminal at the Hub, waiting for the flight to Anchorage. They’ll be here!

As we discussed last night, Dad meets me at school this afternoon just before dismissal. I show him around, introducing him to a fair number of the staff and a couple of students. I’ve got several errands to run, so we agree to meet back at my apartment. We spend the next couple of hours catching up before I have to head for the church. The cast does sound check and group warm ups and are gathered back in the green room when we hear the amazing news: Tonight’s show is sold out! Our performance tonight is on par with last Friday’s, and the audience responds accordingly. Several students rush me again in the lobby afterwards. I finally get a chance to talk to Dad on the ride back to my apartment. He has a great story for me: When act 2 started, he overheard a student say, “Mr. CJ got left in jail!” (Joseph ends act 1 and starts act 2 in prison.) We discuss the show (he loves it) and plans for meeting up with the gang from Nunap tomorrow morning.

I’m a little nervous as Dad and I head for the restaurant this morning. This will be the first time a person from home has met people from my Alaska life. I have no reason to think this won’t go well, but… As soon as we enter the building and I see four smiling faces (Lucas, Andy, Kelly, and Geri, my mentor during my second year) my happiness overpowers the nerves. I get hugs from everyone, introduce Dad, and we settle in for our meal. I worried over nothing, as Dad fits right in. Laughter frequently punctuates our conversation. Afterwards, we wander around town, enjoying the beautiful day. Eventually, I have to leave for the church; Dad agrees to get everyone there in time for the show. My nerves resurface as I get changed and do sound check, staying as quiet as possible to save my voice. I’ve been making jokes for the last week that today’s show will be the “CJ Fan Club performance”. Not only are Dad and the gang from Nunap here, but another friend is coming from across the peninsula, and D and her family are going to be here, too. I have a sudden vision of these people being the only audience members for this afternoon; I know they wouldn’t mind, but I find the idea mildly terrifying.
The show starts, and I see my prediction sort of came true: Aside from all of my friends and family, there’s only a handful of other people scattered among the pews. Fortunately, everyone seems to be having a good time. After bows, I do a quick meet-and-greet in the lobby before meeting with my huge group in front of the stage. Everyone loved it! Hugs are exchanged, photos are taken, and then (sadly) most of these people have to hit the road.

The evening show has a bigger audience than this afternoon, although not as big as last night. By the end, I’m running on fumes, and I know my voice doesn’t sound its best. Once more, the organized chaos of strike descends once the show ends. Dad and several other family members pitch in. Before long, the church looks like it normally does. Costumes, set pieces, and lights are in the appropriate vehicles; the foot locker I loaned to the production has been loaded in to Dad’s car for the ride back to my place. Just like that, the show is done.

This Sunday, I don’t go to school. Instead, Dad and I hang out for a few hours before he heads to Alyeska for a mini ski vacation. I collapse for the afternoon, but go to a cast party in the evening. Not everyone’s there, but it’s still nice to get together with folks and talk about the show.

I spend today as a lump on the couch, congratulating myself for my foresight in scheduling this day off from work.

Between shows on Saturday, we received our DVDs of the recorded dress rehearsal. I watched mine the other night; amazingly, I don’t sound ill at all. As a special treat for my students, I bring the DVD to school and play it this afternoon. Surprisingly, even those that saw the show in person (about half) are still riveted. They enjoy pointing things out to their classmates. Everyone loves asking me questions about what it was like. About halfway through, one student runs up to me and proudly hands me a piece of notebook paper. On it, she’s drawn a portrait of me as Joseph. Later, when the show is done and its time to go home, all of the kids tell me how much they loved the show.
When I get home that night, I hang the portrait on my fridge. I still can’t believe the show is done. I can hardly wait to see what we’re doing next year.

Advertisements

Prior to moving to Alaska, I spent almost every Thanksgiving with my family. Some years, we’d travel to visit relatives in other cities. Other years, we’d host dinner at our place or go to my grandparents’ apartment. The only time I did not celebrate with my family was during my sophomore year of high school, when the marching band traveled to Los Angeles during the long weekend to march in a few parades.

Of course, moving three thousand miles away meant that holidays would be a little different. Thanks to a three-week break at the semester, I’ve been able to make it home for Christmas and New Year’s, but making the same trip for Thanksgiving is just not worth the effort and cost. My first year, my friend Michael invited me to spend Thanksgiving with him in Anchorage. Last year, I returned to Anchorage for the same holiday, this time spending the long weekend with some fellow teachers from my district. When I thought originally thought about this Thanksgiving, I figured I’d be spending it once more in Anchorage, hopefully with D, the girl I met earlier this year. Or I’d see if Michael would host me again.

Of course, life often has a way of changing your plans. Between a new girlfriend for D and roommate drama for Michael, by September a trip to Anchorage sounded a lot less appealing. My mind also chimed in with memories of how each year previously I’ve gotten stuck overnight in the Hub on the way back to Nunap. So I figured, why not just stay in Nunap?

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one with this idea. Lucas and Andy have always spent the holiday in the village. So does Leigh, our second grade teacher. As for all of the new teachers, well, they make their own decisions. Somehow or other, by October it became clear that, with the exception of Jenny, all of us teachers had decided to spend the break in the village. Talk turned to how we’d celebrate the holiday. Lucas and Andy have always invited some of the other staff from our school to their holiday meal, and they wanted to continue this tradition. We all agreed that sounded great, but where could we gather? With teachers, staff, and family members, we were looking at about 25-30 people, too many for most of the teacher apartments. Then somebody suggested using the hallway at the building where Lucas and Andy and I live. We could put tables out there for both food and seating, and Lucas and Andy and I would also open up our apartments.

Thanksgiving morning brought the sounds of moving furniture as the three of us began setting things up. We maneuvered our dining room tables into the hall and added the table that lives out there to create one long surface. The couple of desks that normally sit at the end of the hallway (around here, any place can be used as storage) were pressed into duty as buffet tables. Vacuums ran, stoves and ovens heated up, and it wasn’t long before the whole building began to smell of cooking turkey and other goodies. As the morning went on, other staff members came by to drop off food and drinks, help with setting up, and even make use of oven space.

In all, we had probably close to 40 people at the meal. The buffet held not only things like turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie, but also things like pasta, dried fish, akutaq (sometimes referred to as Eskimo ice cream), and berry pies. Not enough chairs at the table meant some of us had a picnic on the floor, while others ate in Lucas and Andy’s apartment. Conversation flowed easily among most of us present. Topics ranged from the day’s football scores to the various Thanksgiving traditions from our families. (I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when I didn’t hear anyone start in on politics.) I spent quite a bit of time playing games with the kids, as well as visiting with my coworkers. I think one of my favorite memories from the day is when we decided to take a group picture: More than a few of us made goofy faces or put moose antlers on people, resulting in much laughter.

After the main meal was over, most of us headed up to the school to start preparations for the basketball tournament. Hosted as a fundraiser for the senior class, the tournament took place Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons. I spent five or six hours working the concession stand Thursday evening before returning home and collapsing into bed. Friday found me once more at the school, where I spent the morning entering grades and the afternoon and evening once again found me in the concession stand and taking a turn as hall monitor for the basketball tournament.

Saturday was spent reading, writing, and relaxing. Today I’m up at the school for my usual Sunday of writing lesson plans. Then it’s off to Lucas and Andy’s for the weekly pancake brunch. It doesn’t match the Thanksgiving holidays of past years, but I at least had the good fortune to spend it with good people.

As a child, my parents made a point of taking me with them to the polls on Election Day. In the lobby of an empty school, three or four gigantic voting machines would be set up. Mom or Dad would greet the person working the front table, sign the book, and receive a piece of paper in return. The person at the table would always ask if I’d be accompanying them into the voting booth and remind them that I had to stand on their right side and not touch anything. Sometimes we’d have to wait for a booth to be available. Other times, we’d be led right away to an open booth. One of the volunteers would pull the curtain (I always thought those curtains were silly because they only went halfway to the floor) around us, and Mom or Dad would begin to vote. They’d look at the list, then reach up and pull one of the many little levers that covered the top half of the voting booth. Each lever made a distinctive mechanical click, which I thought sounded a bit like a typewriter. After double-checking their responses, they reach to their left and push the big button on that side (in my mind, I remember it as red, but I don’t know if that’s accurate). The whole machine would then make a series of clicks and then a much louder clunk, and that was it. Mom or Dad would pull back the curtain and pass their sheet of paper back to the person at the front table as we left.

As I got older, I stopped accompanying my parents to the polls. They still voted of course, and made a point of talking to my sister and I about the importance of this duty. It wasn’t until I was in high school, when George W. Bush was running for a second term, that their words began to really make sense. Yes, I was in high school, but I knew a lot of people who hoped Bush would not be successful in his campaign.

I voted for the first time via absentee ballot. I was a freshman at college, two hours away from home. Since it wasn’t a presidential election year, I didn’t do a whole lot of research prior to filling out the ballot. But fill it out I did, sitting in the campus center lobby so that I could mail it as soon as I finished.

Absentee voting continued to be a feature of my college years, both for the primaries and the main event. I remember filling out the ballots for the primaries and the election in 2008, and feeling amazed and proud when Obama was elected. I helped do that!

The first time I voted after college was a bit of a shock. I’d moved back home, but the old school that I remembered from my childhood was gone. Instead, the polls had moved to a local community building. Not only that, but the old mechanical voting booths had been replaced by sleek, small electronic voting machines. I was a little nervous that first time, because I’d only recently had my name changed, and my driver’s license still said “F”, and what if someone decided to cause problems for me? Fortunately, my fears proved unfounded.

About this time, I also made a concerted effort to become more politically aware. The legal hoops I’d begun jumping through as part of my Transition had opened my eyes in a big way to just how much the laws and policies of my community, state, and country affected me, and I finally fully grasped the lesson my parents had first started teaching me so long ago: You have a say in those laws and policies because you elect the people that make them.

Two years ago, I moved to Alaska, to a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. I voted by absentee ballot that first year, as I hadn’t yet succeeded in changing my registration. Since my second year, I’ve voted in person. Currently, the community uses the bingo hall as the polling place. I can literally walk there in about two minutes, as opposed to driving somewhere. In contrast to voting machines (electronic or mechanical), here we use paper ballots. No booths, just cardboard dividers set up on folding tables to offer a modicum of privacy. When you’re done, the ballot gets folded up and put in a cardboard box. I haven’t ever needed my ID because by the time I started voting here folks already knew me. As for voting while trans? None of the locals know my background, and all of my paperwork now reads “M”. No issues.

I’ve tried to continue my efforts to be a well-informed voter, but I do get lulled by the sense of isolation into thinking that things don’t affect me as much. Case in point: This year, I discovered the day before said events that Alaska uses caucuses to nominate Presidential candidates. These events take place in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Here’s the catch: I live 400 miles WEST of Anchorage, and the only way to get there from here is via plane. If I’d known about things far enough in advance, I’d’ve made plans for a sub, bought my ticket, and been on my way. Sadly, this was not the case.

Woken up by that misstep, I worked extra hard in the run up to Election Day to remain informed on the candidates. Fortunately, in big election years such as this, all Alaska-registered voters get a booklet in the mail with information on most of the candidates running for the various offices, particularly their platforms. I studied the booklet, looked up information on-line, and knew exactly who I’d vote for when I went to the polls yesterday afternoon. Five minutes later, I was back outside with a shiny new “I Voted” sticker.

Okay, so this likely was not my last visit to Athens. Yet because of the circumstances, this trip carried a certain finality.

It’s been three months since Yiayia passed. The whole reason these trips started was so that my sister and I could see our grandparents. When Grandpa died almost 10 years ago, I suddenly realized just how important that connection was.

I say “one last time” but this trip still brought several firsts, not least of which was the fact that I didn’t see Yiayia. We (I traveled with Mom and Dad) didn’t have to call her in the mornings to see if she was ready for us to come visit. In the evenings, we didn’t go over to the flat for dinner or to share the events of our day. In fact, I didn’t even approach the flat until our second-to-last night in the city. Of course, since no one lives there anymore I couldn’t get inside, but I could go to the building’s front door and stare for a moment at Yiayia’s name on the panel of doorbells.

This year’s visit to the Acropolis brought another first: waiting in line for our tickets. Normally we arrive as soon as the site opens and so avoid lines and too much of a crowd. Not so this year. I can’t help but think that Yiayia and Grandpa would’ve gotten a chuckle out of that fact. Still, I made one last trip around the top of the hill. I took photos of all of my favorite pieces and places, and Dad got a snap of me in the “traditional” spot at the east end of the plateau with the Parthenon in the background.

I had similar experiences at most every other place we went: the Benaki Museum, the Numismatic Museum, the shopping districts of Monastiraki and Plaka, hiking up Mount Lykavittos. Even swimming at the hotel pool felt different, because I didn’t have to get dressed again to go see the grandparents afterwards. As Mom stated several times, it seemed like ghosts were following us around.

The only place the ghosts didn’t follow was on our overnight trip to Delphi. I’d been to the site 2 or 3 times previously, the last of which occurred when I was in high school. I suggested it again because, if this was to be my last trip for the time being, I wanted to go someplace outside the city for a little bit. I remembered bits and pieces from our previous visits. On this trip, we did everything we’d done previously, such as visiting the Temple of Apollo where his Oracle held forth, and tried some new things, like hiking further down the road to the Temple of Athena.

We returned to Athens with one full day left before returning States-side. That morning, we visited the cemetery to pay our respects to Yiayia. D, her nephew, met up with us to show us where the grave was. My first impression on entering the cemetery was, “This place is HUGE!” (According to Google Maps, it occupies an area of roughly 640,000 square feet.) Thankfully, Yiayia’s grave is located relatively near the entrance. I had expected to start crying when I saw the tombstone; surprisingly, I stayed dry-eyed throughout our brief visit. D related stories of the funeral and the 40 day ceremony, noting that Yiayia was very well loved by many people.

We spent our final afternoon and evening in Athens shopping, swimming, and visiting the National Archaeological Museum. I got one more picture with my favorite statue, the Jockey, and took more photos of other favorite pieces. Back at the hotel, memories of the many trips over the years kept running through my head: Seeing things for the first time when I was ten, learning more with each successive trip; getting to know my grandparents; adventures outside the city to places like Delphi; how hard that first trip was after Grandpa died; getting to know Yiayia even more; coming out to her; her continued love and support. I may be done traveling to Greece for now, but the memories of the places and people I love will always be with me.

 

I woke up this morning to another text message from Mom: “Please call when you can.” Even though I’d just woken up, I knew immediately what she would say. Sure enough: “Yiayia passed away yesterday.”

Y’assou Yiayia!

I’m struggling with getting my thoughts in order to write this letter. Can it really be the last one?

I don’t remember the first time we met, because I was barely 6 months old. But Mom sent a picture the other day from that meeting: You’re holding me, and we both are smiling.

Remember some of our later meetings, when you and Grandpa would come to Boston? I think those were some of your favorite stories: How I’d hide behind Dad’s legs at first before gradually coming out to say hi. I remember feeling very shy towards you. You were this person I called “Grandma”, but you weren’t like my other Grandma, who took me to the library and swimming lessons and spent weekends with us at the Lake. You spoke with an accent and lived far away and I talked on the phone with you maybe once a year and saw you even less.

I remember our first trip to Athens to visit you and Grandpa, and how you met us at the airport even though Mom told you not to. I got shy all over again, because it had been two years since I’d last seen you and now I was ten and meeting you again in a brand new place. But you and Grandpa both smiled, gave L and I the presents you’d brought for us and took our hands, and I realized that this could be fun.

Even on future visits, it always took the two of us a couple of days to find our footing, both of us working against the lack of interaction during the rest of the year. Thanks to Mom’s weekly letters, you always seemed to know what was going on in my life, while I felt like I didn’t really know what was happening with you. The only comparison I could make was to my other Grandma, but since none of your grandkids lived near you how did you spend your time? And yet every time we visited you took the time to get to know me all over again, to ask questions about school and friends and music. By the fourth or fifth trip, we no longer had to re-introduce ourselves; we’d just pick up where we left off.

You and Grandpa both were such good sports on those trips. You’d ooh and ahh over report cards and drawings and books and toys. When you’d insist on going out for coffee or dinner or to Yannis’s shop, you or Grandpa always walked with a grandkid and pointed out anything you thought we’d find interesting. As L and I got older, you’d look through yearbooks and listen to endless stories of marching band, musical, and, in my case, work at the zoo or the museum.

Prior to college, I only wrote letters when prodded by Mom, usually to accompany the latest report card. But when I left for college I started writing on a weekly basis. I wanted you to hear about how my life was going from me, rather than second-hand through Mom. I’d also gotten a bit of a wake up call to the fact that you wouldn’t be around forever; Grandpa was already in hospital when I started my freshman year and left us not long thereafter.

Several times over the years, you apologized for not writing back to me, explaining that holding a pen was too difficult. As I said many times, I didn’t need replies. Just knowing you got the letters and were part of my life was enough.

After Grandpa passed, I made a point of getting to know you better. I loved listening to your stories of growing up in Alexandria, hearing about your mother and sister. Your stories of working in Libya, where you met Mom and her sisters and their mother and Grandpa, have always held a special place in my heart. I’ve always known that you are technically my step-grandmother, but that distinction never meant much, especially when you, too, had stories of Mom and her sisters as children.

It seems so strange to say this now, but coming out to you scared me. I didn’t know how you viewed the LGBT community, because it was something we never really talked about. I also hoped to initially talk to you in person. But then I started hormones, and knew that I’d look and sound different the next time you saw me. So I wrote you a special letter, one solely dedicated to my coming out. You took the time and effort to write me back, saying that what mattered most to you was that I was happy, and that you couldn’t wait to see me that summer. The hug I received when I arrived still means so much to me.

Every month since 2009, I’ve made sure to write. Sometimes I’d get so busy I’d miss a month, but the next letter would always cover the lost time. Any time we talked on the phone, you’d remind me how proud you were of me. While it was never the same after Grandpa left, I still looked forward to my visits because I got to spend time with you. I loved hearing more of your stories, like how you felt about living in England when you and Grandpa first got married.You loved hearing about my life, even if I talked about things I’d previously covered in my letters. I think one of my favorite memories is from the trip in 2014, when I got to tell you immediately and in person that I’d had a job offer.

I remember during visits when I’d call you from the hotel to let you know I was on my way over. In the early years, I spoke only English during those calls. I remember how excited you were when I started speaking Greek.

I remember last year’s visit, when you asked so many questions about living in Alaska. And I remember you happily looking at the hundreds of photos on my computer, even the ones of the seal I helped skin.

When we talked this past Christmas, I assured you that I would be coming to visit you this summer. Even after Mom called in January to say you were in hospital, I kept telling myself you’d get better and that I’d see you in a few short months. Mom’s phone call this morning, however, proved me wrong.

I’m still going to Athens this summer. Mom, Dad, and I have already bought the tickets. Just thinking about being in the city and not seeing you feels strange. Knowing that we won’t call you to visit after breakfast, or to see about joining you for dinner, leaves a hole in my thoughts, because I’ve literally never gone to Athens without seeing you.

Do you remember my first or second trip to Athens, when you and Grandpa gave me my coin? It’s a replica Athenian drachma from 300 BCE, showing Athena’s face on one side and an owl and olive branch on the other, with a loop so it can be put on a necklace. I started wearing it in junior high, and have worn it daily since then. It’s always been my way of keeping you close, and it will continue to be so.

It feels odd to know that you’ll never see this letter. I won’t be printing it out, nor will I need to address an envelope. For that matter, I guess I’ll have to find another use for my leftover airmail stamps.

Please know that, no matter where you are, you will continue to be in my thoughts. Thank you for being such an amazing yiayia.

Love always,

CJ

I’m in Anchorage for a conference this weekend. At 1:45 this morning, I awoke to a shaking hotel room. Earthquake. The shaking disconcerted me, but I couldn’t hear anything beyond the rattling of the window blinds and other assorted objects in the room; no evacuation signals or footsteps in the hall. Five minutes later, the shaking finally stopped. It took a little longer to get my heart rate back under control and stop my brain spinning worst-case scenarios, but I soon fell back asleep. Even though the event now has a dream-like quality, I later learned that the shaking was caused by a quake with a magnitude of 7.1, about 130 miles south of Anchorage, 50 miles down in Cook Inlet.

A few hours later, I woke to a text message from Mom: “Call ASAP. Yiayia is in hospital.” My world shook again. I called immediately. Mom answered right away. Apparently, Yiayia fell down yesterday, Saturday. When they got her to the hospital, she started going downhill. While she’s currently in the ICU, the doctors don’t know what caused the fall or her downturn. Of course, the woman is in her 90s; it could be anything. Her nephew called Mom about 5 AM EST this morning.

Thoughts flew through my head as I talked with Mom. We’re planning our visit for this summer. I’m working on a letter to her right now! How is this possible? Will I ever get to hug Yiayia again? This isn’t happening. I need to go home. What difference would that make? This can’t be happening. I just spoke to her at Christmas. This CAN’T be happening.

I’ve gone through the motions this morning of getting ready for the day, but I feel like a zombie. My thoughts are 6,000 miles away. I’ve been very fortunate in my life: I had five living grandparents until I was almost 19. I know it can’t last forever, but that doesn’t make this any easier. I’m already planning to find a seat near the door when I’m at the conference today, just in case I need to answer the phone in a hurry. My world is still shaking, and I wish it would stop.

I’ve barely taken out my homework for the day when I notice Dad standing at the door to the cafeteria. Miss Velma is equally startled, but allows Dad to sign me out as I hurriedly cram things back into my backpack. I’m excited; normally I have to stay at the after-school program for a couple of hours, sometimes longer. Then we get into the hallway. “Uncle J died today.” And I’m crying harder than I can ever remember, because now I know what death means.

I blink

School started two weeks ago, but today is my first day in Mrs. R’s classroom. With so many kids in fourth grade, the district hired a new teacher and pulled kids from all of the other rooms to make a new class. Until today, I always walked to the end of the hallway once I got off of the bus. Today, I turn down the same hallway and walk all of ten feet into Room 23. I remember a fleeting glimpse of the space as I left on Friday; I saw the person I now know as Mrs. R standing on a chair to hang things above the rear chalkboard. The room is bright and a lot less crowded than I’m used to, which is nice. Mrs. R stands at the front of the room to greet each student as we come in. She’s short; at the age of 9 the top of my head is already past her shoulders. But she has a huge smile and kind brown eyes. I know I’m going to like it here.

I blink

I’m standing in the dining room. The sheet music is in front of me and my flute is in my hands. I adjust my fingers on the keys and lift the instrument to my face, settling it against my lower lip. As instructed, I’ve read the music, a simple exercise in the book, through twice, fingering and counting the beats out loud. Now I get to try to play it. All I’ve produced since I began learning a month ago is a faint whistle, but Miss V, my teacher, says I’m making good progress. I take a nice deep breath, set my lips, and blow. Surprisingly, delightfully, a beautiful B-flat rings out. I did it!

I blink

Prior to fifth grade, I thought that crutches looked like a lot of fun. As I struggle down off of the school bus, I snort at the thought. After a week of using the things, I’ll be glad to be rid of them. It’s not like I even got a cool story to go with why I need the things; in the space of twelve hours, I smacked my knee off both a doorway and my desk at school. That led to my first set of x-rays and the crutches. Hopefully, there won’t be a repeat of this experience anytime soon.

I blink