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nostalgia

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

It’s only the end of the first week of school, and already I feel as though I’ve never left. I’ve only seen my students for a day and a half; the rest of the time has been taken up with preparing my room, meetings with parents, and in-service meetings with fellow staff. We even had an in-service day today, Saturday. Fortunately, our new principal, Dan, had previously checked with us that this was okay. It helped that our presenter was none other than Janet, who is now in her third year of working with the school. While the program she runs has changed a little in that time, the concept is still the same: creating connections between students, teachers, parents, school, and community. A dynamic, engaging speaker, Janet has to be one of my favorite people. Among other concepts, she reminds us that all people act in order to fulfill one of five basic needs, among which are things like Survival, Power, and Love and Belonging. Janet is not fond of people sitting for long periods of time; instead, she intersperses her comments with many activities that make us teachers get up, move around, and talk to one another. During one such activity, she asked us to think of where we are and who is with us when we feel that we are loved and belong somewhere. As soon as she said it, my hand crept into my jeans pockets and found the coin my dear friend Hatter gave to me before I first came up here, and I was pulled back in time….

January of 2014 found me in something of a funk. I’d been working in the labs for longer than I had ever intended, and lately things with my coworkers had been more than a little tense. I’d submitted some of my original fiction to another magazine, but given that I’d already received two rejection slips I wasn’t hopeful. There was a minor family crisis when my cousin ended up in the hospital. Outside of work, I spent a fair amount of time working with the Initiative for Transgender Leadership (ITL) as part of a peer mentorship program for trans-identified youth. I’d helped design the program the year before, and had been flattered to ask to participate in its inaugural year. While initially I greatly enjoyed the work, lately it had been more of a drag. It felt as if we weren’t making progress on any of the several projects we had going. I worked Saturdays, so the Sunday meetings ate into my too-short weekend. When I made a suggestion, it felt as though I was being ignored. In short, I didn’t feel like I belonged. When this happened in the past, I would retreat for some “me” time; in this instance, I decided the best way to do that was to quit my work with ITL. After one meeting, I mentioned to Hatter, the “adult” at the day’s session, that I felt like I needed to do this. She asked that I not make a final decision yet, but instead offered to buy me dinner at a time and place of my choosing in the next couple of weeks so that we could talk one-on-one.

Barely five days later, I found myself seated at a table for two in a small French restaurant a couple of blocks from my apartment. While I don’t remember the actual conversation, I do remember feeling a sense of peace. Hatter listened attentively as I laid out my reasons for wanting to leave the program. She took time to think over what I said. Initially, she offered not advice but observations; among other things, she noted that I often set high standards for myself and others, and that I’m happiest when I have some measure of control over situations. Rather than judgmental or accusatory, her voice merely had the calm, measured tone of one making an objective observation. She then offered me a gift: Her permission and that of the other organizers of ITL that I should consider myself “off-duty”, that is, I didn’t need to constantly worry about how they saw the program and if it was measuring up to their standards. It sounds so silly now, but in that moment it was exactly what I needed. She further offered to help me with my then-on-going job hunt in any way she could. In that moment, and for the rest of our friendship, I could feel the love and warmth rolling off of Hatter, reaching out to envelope me.

To this day, it is a gift that I cherish.