Friday: We flew to Colorado for a Celebration of Life reunion for my late grandparents. My grandmother passed in the summer, just before her 90th birthday. Back then, I was fortunate enough to be able to say goodbye in her more lucid, yet silent moments. This trip was actually pre-planned by my grandmother, with funds set aside to pay for the entire trip for our family and even included a day at the Spa. My grandmother lived by the saying, “Go big or go home.” The travel inbound wasn’t terrible, but I should clarify by mentioning that, as a rule, I expect travel to be terrible, so anything less than terrible is acceptable to me. Our flight was initially delayed by an hour, but our drive into the mountains from Denver was serene, my professional driver brother our chauffeur, and the weather humid and brisk, but not rainy. Mesmerized by the scenery, I would switch off between losing myself through the window, and taking blurry pictures of trees framed by mountains as we zoomed past, inspiring my brother to joke throughout the trip “Where are you, Katrina?” and “Earth to Katrina….”
Earth to Katrina, indeed.
Saturday: A day at the Spa awaited us courtesy of my grandmother. And, thank God it did. The morning started off by being greeted by my miffed aunt, and older cousin, gossiping about my mother while waiting for breakfast in the restaurant portion of the resort. A little background: The plan for this trip was not just a reunion, it was to spread the ashes of my grandparents together on their favorite ski slope, where they spent their golden, and arguably happiest, years together. And, like her mother, my aunt has a hard time going small. She had planned for a helicopter to fly herself, my two uncles, and my mother out to the top of the mountain to spread a share of ashes. The plan was poetic, dramatic, and no longer happening. The weather conditions were not conducive to flying and spreading ashes in this way, so the ‘copter opted out. This left my aunt understandably disappointed, yet undefeated. She insisted on repeating this trip next year, saving the leftover ashes for another trip to this same location in the fall. My mother took unpaid time off from three of her jobs (which is not uncommon for the state of our economy), and is already less than at ease with travel, though it was most-expenses paid, the trip was trying on her physically and emotionally. She wanted the grieving to end. She needed closure. She needed this to be the only trip. And, she said so.
Not surprisingly, my aunt was miffed, and baffled by my mom’s steadfast refusal of her new plans. So miffed, in fact, that she made the complacent mistake to speak in dramatically hushed tones about my mom’s obdurateness to her first cousin. In front of my brother and myself. As we waited for breakfast. My head got hot, and I took a breath. I couldn’t let this fly. I interrupted her hushed tirade mid-sentence. “I need to remind you that my mother is taking unpaid time off from three jobs to be here this weekend,” my tone eerily stern. (I’ve been told I’m scary when I’m angry, which leads me to expect that my eyes must have been wide, my brow severe, and my cheeks gray with anger). My cousin responded nervously, “Oh, we understand. We do.” And the conversation dropped like a stone.
Growing up, it wasn’t a secret that my mom was different. She was and still is a dreamer, a poet, a humanitarian. She became a counselor, and made far less money than my non-social working relatives, who went on regular trips to countries they’d never been to before, golfed, and took up Scotch tasting as a hobby. As a child, I didn’t want to see the reality of how my aunt and uncles treated her. I had heard stories from my dad, but wanting to see the good in people, especially in my relatives, I tried to reason it away, and play dumb. As I got older, I noticed the cliquishness, and naively tried to befriend the clique, hoping that my acceptance would promote hers. On this trip, I learned the pathetic truth. My relatives are relentlessly elitist, and will find any excuse to criticize, exclude, and belittle my family, especially my mom. Little did I know that speaking my truth wouldn’t stop at breakfast.
After a tense breakfast, the timing perfect, I was spoiled by luxury I’d never known, and a massage including a cranial sacral treatment. Afterwards, the cares of breakfast seemed as far away as my day-job, and I recouped my patience for dinner with the family, catered at the hotel. As though planned, my aunt’s son proved that no matter how old and accomplished you get, you can still choose to remain a child. Married, with his wife at his side, he sat not a foot away from the makeshift bar my aunt had prepared. I walked past him to refill my water, when he lifted his empty scotch glass to my shoulder. Without a word, he gestured for me to take it. “Scotch,” he said, and specified the brand. I took it, unimpressed. He was unkind to me as a child. And, when I was about four, made a point to emphasize that we weren’t really family, as his mother is a stepchild to my maternal grandfather. A true and bonafide ass on a number of occasions, this gesture was unsurprising. What surprised him, however, is that I am no longer four years old, timid, and pining for his worthless approval. I looked down at him, his petite wife staring, “Hmmm,” I paused, “I’m looking for a word….” He stared down at the floor where he sat, wordless. “Starts with a P….” I waited. “Ends with an E….” I waited. His wife’s eyes widened. “Okay, I’ll give you a hint. Second letter is L….” He continued to stare. I did not waver. Finally, he relented “You can have a sip.” Knowing I’d made my point, I cheerily quipped, “Why, thank you!” filled the glass with two fingers, and took a polite sip. I’m beginning to notice a trend.
Sunday: The day of the Celebration of Life. Now, it was my brother’s turn to be on the receiving end of my cousin’s favorite pastime. My brother was very close to my grandmother. More so than I was. They’d do everything together once they moved back to Illinois. He’d go swimming with her the most often at the neighborhood pool, and spent nights watching movies with her when he was little. They shared many memories, and were a lot alike. This was not an easy occasion. A grown man with a career, and not a man with a physique you’d want to cross, I was his life-vest. Embarrassed at the likeliness of overt emotion, he asked me to sit with him at the far back of the banquet hall of the ski resort, next to an unfortunately placed trash can. We sat in silence, watching the friends and family pour into the room, with golden aspen leaves flickering in the wind outside the picture windows. We were silent, together, in a moment, starting to grieve. This was until I saw the jarring display my cousin put on. Gesturing loudly, eyes wide with a jeering smile, he pointed his long and bony finger at the two of us, laughing. He motioned to his mother to come over to us to correct our antisocial behavior. She patronizingly grinned at the two of us, and came over to the table, insisting that we relocate closer to the front. My brother tried to explain he was emotional, and as she started on didactically about how everyone’s emotional, I told her that I agreed we’d need to move forward eventually. We sat down towards the front, and soon were joined by my uncle’s wife, an artist, and in a friendly disposition. She started to chat with my brother, which presented a fortunate opportunity for me to get up and make a beeline for my ridiculous cousin and his enabler wife. They were giggling inwards to each other. Once I reached his back, I spoke into his neck, “Excuse me.” He turned around, their eyes wide. Sternly, and clearly enough to spook him, “This is a difficult day for my brother. Go easy on him.” I didn’t wait for agreement. His eyes were enough for me to know I’d made my point. With a beat, I turned around and walked back to our new table.
The Celebration was cathartic, and bittersweet. I even managed to speak through my tears, mostly in grief at what I didn’t get to experience with my grandparents, and gratefulness for the poignant little that I had. I was proud to be a legacy of theirs, living my life on my own terms, carrying on their most important legacy: the resistance to conformity, something some of their own children could hardly understand.
One of my elder cousins and my uncle split the ashes among plain white dixie cups so that everyone who wanted a hand in spreading the ashes could. We all walked onto the slope, some of us pursuing spots under the ski lift, others finding spots overlooking the aspens, and mountains in the distance. I took the moment to lose myself in the view, learning that my grandparents and I had more in common than I ever realized, with the same appreciation for the Earth, mesmerized by the same interminable beauty.
The event concluded with a formal dinner that included the whole family, which was lovely, and even my less than amicable family seemed happy and friendly. I even had a fantastic talk with my grandfather’s closest friend, who even gifted me a copy of the book he wrote, hand-writing in the front page a dedication to me. I felt my grandfather would be pleased at our connection. I slept well that night.
The following day, in spite of the unifying experience, my family reverted back to their old ways. Right before boarding the plane home, my aunt posted a status about the experience with the entire family, thanking everyone who came out, with an accompanying photograph of the mountains featuring the family. Pictured were my aunt, her husband, my two uncles, and their wives. My mother was nowhere to be seen.
Sick to my stomach, I commented, unable to stop myself, “Nice…. Look at the whole family….”
The plane ride was uncharacteristically intolerable emotionally, and in reality. We were stuck on the tarmac after landing for an hour. Without hesitation, I made the most of the extra time. I checked in to Facebook. No acknowledgement of my comment had been made, but more pictures had been added, again, none featuring my mom, or my brother, or me. I felt the need to clarify. I began typing in a private text to my aunt:
“Did you take any pictures with my Mom?” Sent. A pause. “I hope you post them.”
She replied instantly, “You mean her and i”
What a question, I thought. I replied monotonously, “Or any with the fam. I’d like to see them.”
She replied skillfully, “I have lots of pictures of the weekend and I am going to get people to send me theirs and share as soon as I can. Are you home yet”
Confident that I had my answer, I replied, “We’ve landed. Looking forward to seeing them.”
To which she replied, “Ok”
It has been a week since that conversation. No such pictures have been uploaded. No existing posts have been edited. Fortunately, my mother took pictures for herself, and my brother had one of our cousins take a lovely picture of us on the slope.
My Mother is a noble woman. Who loves fearlessly, and is the most forgiving person I know. She has transcended a lifetime of hurt, and still made sure my aunt made it home safely.
My Mother may not be accepted by her family, but with family like hers, this rejection is an honor.
We did right by my grandparents. And my Mother did right by herself. She did not let a single emotional or social infraction stop her from finding her peace on this trip.
My Mother taught me to live in my truth. On this trip, I finally did.