Tag Archives: family

The Gifter

I’ve never considered myself any good at giving gifts. The scale for good to bad when it comes to it should probably go Leslie Knope to Me, respectively. For example, my brother always outdid me at Christmas by getting my some article of clothing that I would wear until it was threadbare.

Me, on the other hand, couldn’t think of a thing to get anyone. “Do I even know this person?” I’d ask myself as I wondered through the halls of a mall looking through shop windows in vain.

You can imagine this has gotten me into some trouble on Valentines Day, as well…

The thing is, I love Christmas. As it fast approaches I’m reminded of the feeling I get every year. I love Christmas. I love the snow. I love the cold. I love the smell of winter. I don’t know how to describe the smell, but it lifts such an emotional reaction from within me.

What gift I am capable of gathering up for my loved one, I love giving away. Mostly though, I love what it brings out in people. I guess you’d call it “The Christmas Spirit.” This sort of drive that arises within us to give to those we love, even if it is just in material possessions. Maybe that’s what the smell of winter stirs within me.

So, since it snowed the other day and the holiday commercials are in full swing, I’ve succumbed to the smell. I’ve got it: the Christmas Spirit. So how do I stop my incessant inability to get good gifts?

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There’s a trick I learned from my job as a content marketer to simple ask your audience what they’d like to hear from you, what problems they might be facing and the like. So that’s what I did.

Seems pretty simple, but believe me, when you’re this bad at giving gifts, even the most obvious things pass right over your head. It also helps exponentially that I’m out of college and have a paying job.

So, this newfound ability to buy gifts hasn’t had the greatest impact on my day-to-day life, as you may think. On the contrary, there have been a few weird circumstances I’ve found myself in.

For instance, I asked my step-mom what she wanted. She sent me a plethora of amazon links leading to Barbie dolls. This, you may think, is a bit strange of a request, but hey, I love her and she’s a great seamstress. She makes beautiful dresses for them.

I, on the other hand, have been left with Amazon suggestions akin to a ten-year-old girl’s.

In another instance, my girlfriend and I went up to Boston one day. While we were up there, we stumbled upon a beautiful store filled with handcrafted trinkets. My girlfriend is a sucker for these things. We had to catch a train, unfortunately, so she made me promise to go back up there to get her and her grandmother something.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I love driving and Barbies, I’m sure, are making a huge come back.

Experiencing these two gift-buying opportunities have opened my eyes to gift buying. It’s remarkable to me how simply asking people what they want has actually made me better at guessing gifts for other people.

The other day I went on a buying rampage. Buying gifts for everyone I hadn’t already had gifts for: gifts I knew they’d like.

Problem solved.


 

Chris Largent is currently employed as a Content Marketing Specialist for HMI Performance Incentives, Chris writes copy for various clients in the form of email and print marketing. While employed as an intern at Hudson Valley Public Relations, Chris helped to write blog articles about an assortment of relevant ideas in the Public Relation, Marketing and Advertisement industries. These blogs are all about stimulate business health and growth. In his time at Hudson Valley Public Realtions, Chris wrote an assortment of content for the firm’s clients, ranging from law to finance. He also worked on projects within HVPR to help promote events and articles through social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. In his free time, Chris likes to write, read and hike.

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Family, Duty, Honor. But This Isn’t Game of Thrones.

“Monopoly, anyone?” It was always the game we played up at the lake, when everyone was around. A few times we tried Risk; group Solitaire was always a family favorite. But it was always Monopoly that got everyone going.

Every year we would go up to our cabin on a lake in the Adirondacks and play this game of Monopoly. Before we kids grew up, no one really knew anything about fiscal conservatisms or capitalism. The cousins and I would just kind of bought up properties and sold them at a whim while playing this game of Monopoly. Tempers flew when someone lost but couldn’t figure out that having all four train stations paled in comparison to having a monopoly on the all three red spaces.

Now, however, the strategy was plotted before the game even started. Secret trade deals were made that would make Mr. Moneybags roll over in his grave. It’s the better knowledge of how to play the game and cheat your family members out of their money that makes the game that much more fun and infuriating.

But Monopoly is not the only reason we go to the lake, nor the lake the only place we go. My family likes to uphold an annual schedule of things, so every August my grandmother comes up from Maryland and my surrounding aunts, uncles and cousins all congregate under my roof in Massachusetts. While we are all together we go on the annual trip to Powder Point in Duxbury, make the annual trek to the beach, have the annual ice cream cone at Farfar’s, and feast the annual feast at Red Lobster in Plymouth.

This past summer, however, we had an addition to the crew: my brother’s girlfriend, Claire. Claire is by no means a new addition; she was there at our last Monopoly game, she went down with my brother to visit my grandmother just this month, and she was there the day we spread my grandfather’s ashes up at the lake.
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This was her first experience of the annuals, and she was starting to fit in, until the last night everyone was here, when everything got a bit out of hand.

It should be noted that my grandmother is a news junky, or rather a politics junky. Now, without diving too deeply into politics (this isn’t Game of Thrones or one of those articles), politics are all she talks about. It can be a bit overbearing, and, along with most of my family, she is on the exact opposite side of the spectrum from Claire.

A conversation started during hors d’oeuvres. A comment was made about how the media had focused in on an Olympian woman who had won a fencing match while wearing a hijab. While my uncles and mother claimed that the feat itself, a Muslim woman winning the gold metal, was the real accomplishment, Claire argued that the symbol of the hijab was just as important. Words of oppressive religious practices were thrown around and the conversation got a little heated. Claire got backed into a wall, being the only one who had her own separate view.

Seeing my brother’s girlfriend sit there and squirm under the pressure to support her views made me cringe. It was like Monopoly up at the lake, but this wasn’t a game and we weren’t dealing with paper money. I spoke up in her defense.

I said that while writing, an author or journalist often times wants something to pull from, a symbol that ties it together and makes the point clearer. Metaphor is one of the greatest tools of the human language and allows for easier flow of understanding. The use of the hijab was a metaphorical crutch for the article’s message.

My family just went on arguing, but Claire shot me a thankful look.

***

Later, after my aunts and uncles had gone back to their respective homes and we had seen my grandma off back to Maryland, my mom expressed a concern to me. She said, “I don’t like being at odds with my family.” She went on to describe the scene after the confrontation, when everyone had left the room and only her and my brother remained. My brother had approached my mom about her views and how much they differed from his own, a shock to her.

“Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, mom.”

“Yes, but I’m afraid that your brother feels challenged by us. I did not mean for that to come up with Claire. I was relieved when Uncle Mark changed the topic to sports. I just don’t want you two to feel distant from all of us because we have differing political views.”

“Mother, you wound me. You know how much we love our family.”

To prove our loyalty, a month later my brother and I went and got matching tattoos: a combination of our family crest and the shield of the Blue Angels, the group in which my grandfather had flown in during Korea.


Chris Largent is currently employed as a Content Marketing Specialist for HMI Performance Incentives, Chris writes copy for various clients in the form of email and print marketing. While employed as an intern at Hudson Valley Public Relations, Chris helped to write blog articles about an assortment of relevant ideas in the Public Relation, Marketing and Advertisement industries. These blogs are all about stimulate business health and growth. In his time at Hudson Valley Public Realtions, Chris wrote an assortment of content for the firm’s clients, ranging from law to finance. He also worked on projects within HVPR to help promote events and articles through social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. In his free time, Chris likes to write, read and hike.

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How to Take the Headaches Out of Holiday Travel

In the coming days weary holiday travelers are sure to see their fair share of busy highways, crowded airports, and packed buses and flights. It’s no big surprise that the sheer number of people on the roads and in the skies creates a headache-inducing experience for many – both literally and figuratively. The good news is there are a few things you can do to take the headaches out of holiday travel.

Make Use of Helpful Apps

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There are many apps that aim to make traveling a bit less stressful. My TSA, for instance, offers 24/7 access to the critical information passengers need to know, such as wait times, details on what items are permitted in checked and carry-on baggage, and other information.

If you’re traveling by car, the Waze App is a handy tool that offers real-time traffic and road information to help you plan the best route to grandma’s house while avoiding construction, congested highways, and other delays.

Start Early and Allow Plenty of Time for Unexpected Delays

Whether you’re traveling by air, car, or bus, plan to arrive early and allow ample time to cope with unexpected delays. Both the roads and skies are busier in the days leading up to the holidays, so flight delays and slow traffic patterns should be expected. If you’ve given yourself plenty of leeway, a delay or two won’t end up making you late for your mom’s famous pumpkin pie.

If Possible, Stay with Your Luggage

Before your trip the first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you’re up to date on the latest luggage size requirements and checked bag allowances for airlines. This will help you avoid any unforeseen delays and fees when it’s time for you to fly the friendly skies.

Then, on your travel date, try to stay with your suitcase and other luggage if possible. With so many travelers making their way through airports, bus stations, and the like, even attendants doing their very best to funnel everyone’s luggage to the right location can sometimes make mistakes. If you have to check your bags, attach a bright tag, scarf, or some other easily identifiable object so that you can quickly pick your bags out of the crowd. It’s also helpful to take a photo of your luggage so that you have a record in the event that your bags end up misrouted halfway across the country.

Sign Up for the U.S. Registered Traveler Program

Delays going through airport security are among the most common headache-inducing challenges of holiday travel. Trusted Traveler Programs offered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection can make getting through airport security for international travel a bit easier. Likewise, the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program is a service that allows people traveling abroad to register their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate, providing updates about the conditions in your destination country and allowing the U.S. Embassy to get in touch with you quickly during an emergency.

Use Your Smartphone to Your Advantage

In addition to the many helpful apps that can help you travel more easily this holiday season, your smartphone can also be a valuable tool for backing up identification and documentation. If you have health conditions, for instance, you can take photos of any letters from your physician, prescriptions, and other health-related info that you might need in case of emergency. Do the same for your driver’s license, passports, and other travel-related documents. Should you lose your carry-on bag or luggage, you can still verify your identify and access critical health information if needed.

Create a Travel Emergency Kit

There are a multitude of issues that can create travel delays over the holidays. A holiday travel kit can save the day should you find yourself stuck in the airport for several hours or even overnight. Your travel kit should include things to help pass the time, like books and magazines, some snacks and beverages, backup batteries for your tech, a neck or back pillow, and anything else that will help keep you (and your family or travel companions) comfortable during the unexpected.

Holiday travel doesn’t have to be a drag. While it’s wise to expect the unexpected, a bit of strategic planning and a flexible approach will help you roll with the punches and cope with whatever obstacles the holiday travel madness happens to throw your way.

**PHOTO CREDIT: Image via Flickr by Jason**


Jennifer McGregor co-created the site PublicHealthLibrary.org to help people find reputable information on health topics. Her mission is to push reputable health information to the forefront and make it easier to find.

 

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Family Gatherings of a New Kind

Well, it’s getting to be that time of year again. Mom’s already worrying about where we’ll find room for Auntie Sue and Cousin Bill when they fly in for Thanksgiving, commercials are beginning to boast Black Friday deals for gifts to make Junior light up with joy, and you are busy wracking your brain for the best (and in my case as a broke recent college graduate, the cheapest) holiday presents for all the loved ones on your list. Each landmark of the season emphasizes the same message: the holidays are a time for family. Yet in spite of these same old indicators, this holiday season isn’t going to be quite the same for mine. These past few months I’ve lost some of the most pivotal and, to be fair, completely kooky figures in my life: my headstrong grandma, her kleptomaniac sister, and a fiery aunt. It has been a disturbingly unbalanced year of grief-stricken moments, with the loss of one family member hitting right after the other like a terrible game of dominoes. So at first, this impending family-focused season seemed like nothing but a looming reminder of those I had lost; of how our holidays, our traditions, and our whole family had changed forever

Growing up, I was never much a fan of change, and so the holidays each year were my heyday; it was a time of year I could always count on, with the same old traditions repeating in their perfect pattern. Every Thanksgiving I could expect loads of mashed potatoes prepared by my all Irish-blooded grandma, a plea from my dad to get a potato pot that wasn’t missing a handle (and threatening to topple boiling water all over him), and the mandatory pumpkin pies that no one ever touched. I knew there would be secret-family-recipe-stuffing made by my aunt, which we only discovered years later was taken straight from the back of the Pepperidge Farm box, and a bowl of it prepared for both the “kid table” and the “adult table.” I knew my grandma would grumble when she realized we’d forgotten to put the cranberry sauce out yet again this year and that there would be the frenzied drawing of the Secret Santa before relatives began to depart. I knew my cousins would leave before dinner to make it back home in time to greet their opposite side of the family, and that my uncle wouldn’t pay the pricey airline fees to attend Thanksgiving but would sure as hell be up for Christmas. And all of these nuances—the loving, the nit-picky, the bizarre—they were all A-Okay by me because I knew them. They all made up a collective signature, signing off on another successful family Thanksgiving.

Christmas was always packed full of sacred traditions in much the same way. Each Christmas I could bet there would be buttery sugar cookies baked to perfection by my mom and topped off with festive red and green sugar. I knew my brother would guess at each present before he opened it Christmas morning until my parents decided to start placing rocks inside the packages so he couldn’t decipher the gifts with a simple shake. I knew my grandma would protest if we didn’t save the wrapping paper or blacklist you if you dared throw away leftovers from Christmas dinner (she was not one to waste anything, even the watery remnants of an old Caesar salad). I knew we’d pass around the phone taking turns saying “Merry Christmas” to distant relatives who couldn’t join us, and that my dad would offer me a taste of the Christmas ham before it was served to anyone else. These were the facts of my life.

Even the get-togethers that didn’t go quite according to plan still somehow squeezed themselves into the label of a forevermore family tradition. One year, for instance, my dad chopped his finger nearly clean off while grinding coffee beans for Christmas dessert; now, each Christmas is not complete until someone calls out “And don’t let Glenn make the coffee!” and the room breaks out in laughter as we retell the story yet again.

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You get the picture: the traditions of our annual family gatherings are essential to me. But I’ve been scared about how these get-togethers will change. Will all the grandchildren still go to the movies on Christmas Eve now that our grandma is gone? Will the rest of my aunts and uncles still come to Thanksgiving now that we have lost one of their siblings?

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But in all my worrying and pondering and plotting about how to preserve our traditions, I’ve realized something: our traditions were always in flux. They’ve always had to morph to fit new circumstances as our family has grown and changed. When my great aunt became too frail to leave her nursing home to join us for Christmas, a new tradition emerged of a small group of us going to visit her each year. When my grandma’s arthritis got too bad for her to peel and mash potatoes anymore, she taught me how. When my brother went off to college, we rescheduled our Christmas tree picking for Thanksgiving weekend so he could be home for the event. And when he got married, his wife joined us in the tradition. When my cousin had kids of her own, we added new stockings with their names on them to the wall and readjusted the Secret Santa accordingly. When cousins grew older and had to work through Christmas Eve, we set aside a plate of food for them and saved present opening until they got there. When the grandkids got too old to be amused by Christmas caroling for grandma, we developed a new tradition of taking grandma to play laser tag. And when she got too old to run around the course with us, we put a chair in the arena so she could play from the sidelines.

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You might rail against the change like me and struggle when those kooky traditions you count on one year are gone the next. But change isn’t all bad. It’s inevitable. And it leaves room to create new traditions. Cherish those long-held family traditions while they’re still around, and when they have to change—because now you’ve got to split time between the in-laws, or divide holidays over a set of divorced parents, or account for new grandchildren in your Secret Santa, or even recalibrate after a death in the family—cherish those new traditions too. They’ll be the ones you’re looking forward to at next year’s family Thanksgiving.


 

**Erin Kane is a graduate of Marist College where she studied English, creative writing, theatre, and social work as well as a recent graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course. Published in both the academic and creative writing fields, she is thrilled to now be pursuing a career in the publishing profession.

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Mama’s Boy

As a first generation Italian American, it should come as no surprise that family is an integral part of my culture. And that’s to put it lightly. When I was younger and I had to set the table every weekend for 20+ guests, I would whine to my parents and say things like: Why do I have to do this every weekend? Why can’t we just order pizza like all the other kids do? Why do we always have to have cousins and uncles and aunts over!? Why can’t I go hang out with my friends on Sundays? My parents would always have me repeat a mantra of sorts when I would do this repetitive cycle of whining. They would say: What’s most important in life? And I would begrudgingly answer family and then they would ask: What’s second most important? I would answer family. And what’s third? Family. Sometimes if I was feeling extra rebellious I would say, money or friends or soccer and they would laugh and tell me to be quiet and set the table anyway.

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Understanding that this wasn’t the “norm” for other families made me feel isolated. I was always over protected. I couldn’t stay out late with friends. I could only ride my bike in between the two mailboxes in front of my house because “what if something happened?”, as my mom would say. I couldn’t go to my town’s carnival without my mom following me and my friends a few paces behind us because “what if something happened?” So yes, I was very sheltered as a child and the only thing I was not sheltered from was family time. Growing up like this it’s difficult to create an identity for yourself. It’s sort of like your identity becomes interwoven with those around you, since well, they’re always around. I never really had the rebellious teenage phase because rebellion just isn’t something my siblings and I do very well. As soon as a hint, a scent of rebellion is wafted; my parents were quick to notice and quicker to act. They usually used embarrassment as a form of rebellion control. Like bringing up at the dinner table in front of everyone that Jamie wants to dye his hair blue which was met with the ridicule of judgmental eyes and the adult-like smirk that always manages to say “oh you silly kid” without even uttering a word. It’s hard to explore yourself when it’s up for family debate.

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As a kid I was always furious with them and their over-protective tendencies. I wanted to be like all the other kids in my class who were allowed to do whatever they pleased. But as I’ve grown, I’ve learned more about my parents and their upbringings and although they seemed unreasonable in my youth; I have come to appreciate their behavior as weird symptoms of over-loving, as I like to think of it. But, as the baby of the family by 16 years, I have always been smothered by not only my parents but by my three older siblings as well. I sometimes think of them as my three extra parents as they have never truly been my peers. So trying to decipher my identity all the while dealing with constant bombardment of company was not easy and it still isn’t. Even my older siblings who are all married now still struggle to find the line between family and personal space and self-discovery.

As I maneuver into adulthood I still do not know what it means to be independent from one’s family. Does it mean monetarily or emotionally or spatially? I don’t know the answer to that. If I one day move far away I still think I’ll repeat that mantra to my kids when I get older. If I am a product of my environment then I am my family. Yes, I am different from them in my own way but I am ultimately a compilation of my experiences and those experiences, well a lot of them, included my family and that’s perfectly okay with me. I think they’re pretty rad anyway. Cultural relativism is important to understand before we burden others from different cultural backgrounds with uniquely American conceptions of independence. I’m a proud Italian mama’s boy and that’s totally okay with me. They support and love me for me and what else can you really ask for as a queer transgender son? I’d say I hit the jackpot being born into this family.

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Just a Chance

As a recent graduate, for the past four years I have had the privilege of learning the ins-and-outs of gender studies and women’s history. Many have asked me, “why would you study that?” “How is that practical?” “What will you do with that?” and, “why would a guy major in women’s studies?” The emphasis is always sarcastically placed on the word women with a snide slither of the tongue, as if the word itself is poison. As if a man daring to take an interest in women other than to objectify and sexualize them was blasphemous.

But the truth is, I did not study women’s and gender studies simply because I wanted to understand the plight of 51% of the world’s population. It was for quite selfish reasons in fact. I started studying it because I wanted to understand how my mother, one of the brightest, most imaginative and creative minds I’ve ever met, could be silenced into a seemingly ordinary suburban life. How can someone like that wind up like this? By no means am I saying that my mother has a bad life; she has a relatively good life. She lives comfortably. Materially, she wants for nothing. She has beautiful children, beautiful grandkids—but I sometimes wonder, what would my mother have been if she hadn’t spent almost all of her adult life caring for my siblings, my father and me? What could she have done? What mark would she have left on the world and not just on the hearts of her children and grandchildren? Could her influence have been so much grander than what it currently is?

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Picture of my mother, Rita DiNicola at the age of 18. 1972, Jersey City, New Jersey.

I suppose I will never know the answers to these questions. I suppose they shouldn’t even be asked. However, if you take a look at my mother’s life, you would see that she was systematically blocked from reaching her potential. From childhood to adolescence to adulthood, she was stunted.

She emigrated here from Italy with her parents at the age of 12. She was their oldest daughter in a family of seven children. She would tell me that every time her mother announced a new pregnancy she and her closest sister, Rosa, would cry because they knew what that meant: more cooking, more cleaning, more babysitting. At the age of 17, she met my father and she always says she was enthralled by his mind, by his curiosity and by his level of education—15 years her elder, she saw him as a life guide, as someone who could show her the way. She said she didn’t know if she loved him but she loved what he represented, and for her that was an education, an education that was never viable for her. She was forced to stop attending high school because she had to start working full-time to help her parents with the bills. My father “offered her a way out” as she puts it. She recounts these years in her quintessential soft-spoken tone, which I see as a symptom of something more. Soft-spoken maybe because she doesn’t think she deserves to be heard. She recounts these years by always ending with, “I wish I would have just given myself a chance.”

Through the classes I have taken I have learned that this is the story of many strong young women. They have been systematically stifled. Stifled by expectations, by confining roles and by internalized inferiority. My mother’s words echo for me every time I hear someone say, “Isn’t women’s and gender studies so impractical?” And I always say, “No, because I think everyone should be given a chance.” Just imagine if my mother had.

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Nannie Lou: Matriarch, Adventurer, Woman.

Yaiyai 1940sMy Yiayia (Grandmother in Greek) was a phenomenal woman with the personality of a firecracker and a simplistic approach to problem solving, reflective of her old Southern rearing.  Nannie Lou (center) was born in the latter 19-teens during the height of the Jim Crow black spot on contemporary history.  A family of farmers, the Satterwhites were literally a southern dynasty of military men and strong women dating back all the way to the 1650s; I didn’t truly understand how this made my Yiayia the woman she was, but I knew that it played a significant role in her migration north.

Welcomed by family members who had moved to Harlem years before, she left Silver Street (which is about the length of five long avenues), South Carolina for better opportunities and personal freedoms Black women could claim and own in New York City.  It was the start of World War II and they needed women in the country to aid the war effort, so she signed up at one of the factories and began building munitions for the troops abroad.  Until recently this is all I had known about my Yiayia before she’d gotten married and started expanding her family.

One of my first memories (besides my sisters birth) is when my mother definitively made clear her name was not in fact mom; the high pitched inflection of outright frustration and exhaustion from two little human beings pulling on her all day contributed highly to her voice-crackling reaction of identification.  From that moment on I knew for a fact that my mother’s name was not mom, but even as an adult it didn’t strike me that Yiayia was a woman before she was a mother, before she was a grandmother, and certainly before she was a great-grandmother.

Ever since she passed in August I’d been searching dramatically to reclaim her soul in this living world; a minor case of denial that ultimately led me on a personal quest to discover who this woman was.  Yiayia had lived and I wanted to know how far she’d come before her timely end at the age of 98, so I started in her birthplace: Silver Street, South Carolina.  A tiny rural town in the South Carolina Midlands, leading to the North Carolina Highlands, whose town-center is literally a half hour to forty-five minute drive; this was the country.

The tingling on the back of your biceps, as if a cat has grazed your arm, the eerily still trees in the distance that seem to watch you, and the slight lightheaded nausea that consumes your lungs when you’re staring at old photos of long-gone ancestors; this is how you know you are back from whence your bloodline came.  It was as if I was being watched by all of my ancestors and they knew the blood pumping through my veins was theirs as well.  There is something truly mystifying about being in the middle of dense forest as a city girl, enveloped by nature and literally walking on the same ground that your ancestors called home.

Yiayia’s strength was born in segregated snake country where few education opportunities beyond primary school existed, even as a light skinned woman with red hair, it was a dangerous place to be.  Yiayia was not an educated woman but she was intelligent and able bodied; and now understood are her tears when I shaved my sister’s head.  I truly love Silver Street and the isolation from the rest of the world, it is also a different place now, but still one where it is safe for no one (regardless of ethnicity or sex/gender) to go walking down the road.

Moving north in order to provide for her family and herself, Yiayia craved more opportunities than farm work and opting out of having to sleep with a shotgun behind the front door.  Her and my Aunt Maudie took the town by storm too, enjoying life and having new experiences that had previously not been accessible.  WWII really was a revolutionary time for women, particularly in the United States, but the backlash to women’s empowerment and employment came after the return of the veterans.  Women left the factories and shops, returning home and allowing the men to reclaim their ‘place’ in the workplace: the precursor to repressive 1950s rhetoric and Cold War hysteria.

My Yiayia being the enigmatic spirit she was found many suitors on her heels and wound up in not a happy marriage, but a marriage that contained happiness.  Propaganda for the white picket fence lifestyle reigned supreme, a symptom of not only communist fear but an attempt at recapturing a time reminiscent of pre-war sustainability.  Not wanting to return to the domesticated existence she fled in the south, they decided to remain in New York City; moving to one of the many housing developments that were originally built for WWII veterans and later converted to housing projects, in the Eastchester section of The Bronx.

A delightful suburb of urban flair, the entire neighborhood was a thriving community of Italians, Jews, and African-Americans all recovering from the effects of WWII.  The wives shared recipes, husbands worked government jobs, and the children played together.  It was a Cold War poster board that had manifested in real life and despite its benefits, it came along with its negatives: restlessness, alcoholism, and eventually abuse.  This was a time when PTSD was not discussed and the post-war methodology unfortunately trapped a lot of women in the virtual schemas they’d been released from for six years.

My Yiayia was one of those women but she loved her children fiercely and loved her husband as well; it was that love which pushed through trying periods of emotional duress and strengthened her self-reliance.  In the search to discover the woman behind grandma, I found an embedded resilience and determination for life and survival; she was an amazing woman with the golden touch.  Her summer houseplants bloomed in the winter and she even had a five inch goldfish that lived a decade (true story…Turquoise is infamously known in my family).  She raised well-read, beautiful daughters and provided a safe and loving environment even for those who were not her children.

In a journey that literally took me to the bowels of South Carolinian midlands, dust-filled library archives, and late night wine-fueled reminiscing with my aunts I was able to find out how truly amazing Nannie Lou was.

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Carmen Morales: A Story of Survival

March is Women’s History Month, so in that spirit I wanted to explore my own family history, or more specifically, the history of my mother’s family.

My mother was raised in Texas, the youngest of nine children. She grew up in an area that was predominately white, which made it difficult for a Mexican family in the middle of the 20th century. My mom tried her best to assimilate and fit in with the other white “All-American” children in her neighborhood, and was constantly embarrassed by a mother who didn’t speak English and didn’t act like the other housewives.

But what she could not appreciate as a child and teenager growing up in Fort Worth, was that Carmen Gonzales Morales (her mother, my grandmother) was an amazing woman who had defied incredible, unlikely odds, living an impossibly difficult unhappy life and coming out the other end stronger and wiser.

I was always told that my grandmother’s life was similar to Cinderella’s story, but without the happily ever after or the charming Prince. Born in Mexico in 1910, Carmen was the oldest girl of five: three older brothers and one younger sister. After her mother’s death at the age of three, her father remarried and a stepmother brought along two other young siblings. Her stepmother was jealous of my grandmother’s relationship with her father (she was the favorite), and though she was still quite young she was made to cook, clean, and watch over the younger children. If she was unable to do as she was told or didn’t do a good enough job, her stepmother would complain and then her father would punish her. Her new stepmother was incredibly cruel and did her best to turn her husband against his own daughter, making him believe that Carmen was “no good” and a disobedient, disrespectful child. Despite his love for his eldest daughter, he always took his new wife’s side, and Carmen was left with no one in her corner, no one to believe in her or stand up for her.

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From left to right: Carmen and the godmother of her first born, Thomas – Texas, 1927

After suffering years of emotional and physical abuse, Carmen was finally propositioned by one of the family’s ranch hands—a man nearly twenty years Carmen’s senior named Juan Morales (my grandfather). He told her that they could run away together if she married him, that he would take her far away from her difficult life with her family. Believing him, she eloped with Juan and was married at 16. He lied about their ages (making Carmen older and lowering his own age) so she wouldn’t need parental consent and there wouldn’t be such a large difference in years between them. Together, they traveled across the Mexican border into Texas, but life was not fated to be a bed of roses—out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they say.

Carmen immediately started having children. She gave birth to her first son, Thomas, shortly after they were married, and then another son followed not even a year after. Juan worked for the railroad and was often away from home, leaving Carmen alone in a small house in the middle of the dusty Texan desert with two small children and no one to help her. Juan was also a drinker, and was rowdy and violent when he’d had too many. On many weekends he would disappear on booze-filled binges, spending the money he earned on liquor, women, and God only knows what else, then coming home and scaring the life out of his poor young wife. I was told there were times she feared for the safety of her young children and would have to sneak them out of the house, hiding outside while her husband raged through their shared rooms, screaming and tossing things around.

She was incredibly unhappy, but she had no way to get out of her situation. Despite her wishes, she continued to have children—one after another, all the way up until her 40th year when she gave birth to my mom.

She’d had no formal education, she’d never really learned English, and yet she raised nine healthy children (the tenth child, who would have been my mom’s closest older brother, was stillborn after Carmen fell down the stairs on her 8 month pregnant belly). Despite her hardships, despite her misery and difficult life, my grandmother survived. As my mother grew older and learned more about her family history, she developed a new-found respect for her mother, respect that the young embarrassed teenager could never have grasped or understood. Carmen Morales was a survivor—a female warrior who fought one of the only ways a poor woman at the beginning of the 20th century could: she carried on. Though she was oppressed from an early age simply because she was born a girl, she lived 96 years and was the head of what is nearly a dynasty (nine children led to 21 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren, and even great-great grandchildren in her lifetime).

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Her story has fascinated me since I was a young girl. Though the time and place is so different from my own life experience, there are important lessons to be learned: it is possible to live even amongst the unhappiest of situations—where there is a will, there is always a way.

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Children Should Be Seen, Not Heard

AlexandriaCMother was religious. As a child she, herself, would be sent every Sunday along with her younger brother and elder sister to church. Unfortunately, over time we moved around too much, so dedicating our Sunday to a congregation, in addition to God, was a bit much. My faith was as strong as the voices of the choir.

Determined.

In reference to me, it left a young girl with only her mother to look to, although the world seemed to rely on her as well. I became selfish, wanting her attention and her conversation as I had seen on Disney channel shows or more directly, the Cosby Show. This was what I wanted more than anything.

During my teenage years I frequently I voiced my opinions, although they were blocked out as if I were still a toddler mumbling fragments of words. I obtained responses on the lines of, “Get out of my face, I don’t have to be your friend–I’m your mother.”

The constant drilling of this concept influenced my very disruptive rebellion. If it was not punishment enough that I had no family outside of my mother and the families of her childhood friends, I somehow felt that I couldn’t fully claim her either. You can say I followed my mother’s lead and adopted my own external family through friends, teachers, and mentors.

She didn’t like that either.

Realizing that I had finally released my grasp of normality, she clinched her role of seennotheard-2authority. In finding my own views of the world I was no longer obedient to the commands my mother barked at me. I questioned her, asking for explanations, but would only receive a “because I said so.” This was the root of my frustration. Is it better to discipline without acknowledging the reason?

I absolutely did not think it was fair, but somehow I had forgotten where that had developed. I had forgotten that we did not have the same opportunities to challenge and question the world that surrounded us. I had forgotten she had grown up in a worse environment than the one I was unsatisfied with. It was from the tradition of “children should be seen not heard,” that I was rooted.

It took me a while to understand the relationships that my mom nurtured and the truth behind her cloak. Throughout the duration of my adolescence, I wanted her to be someone else, but she was damaged the entire time. She hid behind fear and disciplined hard because I was her constant variable. Her universe was unbalanced and shaken up easily, but I would always be her child.

I learned to love my mother’s imperfections and admire her strength. Although her words were harsh, I now understand the “method to her madness.” She would always say, “Sometimes, there is insight behind an insult.”

I am forever wise.

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It’s Peculiar, Isn’t It? How We Hide From Our Self

I was rather unaware of my peculiarity at a young age and I guess that’s why it’s peculiar.It’s one of those adjectives that you don’t understand about yourself until you’re able to see your youth from a different lens. Back then I was just the boy who played a rough game of football during recess and who, for some odd reason, was always asked to walk in the line with the girls. I didn’t think much of it–sure I thought it was peculiar but I didn’t understand exactly why I was the peculiar one, it was more so the practice of putting a boy into line with the girls that I found odd.

I went about being and growing and experiencing until the subtle oppressive nature of the sly remarks and the stares got the best of me. Maybe I wasn’t who I thought I was all along. Maybe they were right. Maybe I am the peculiar one, the odd one, the weird one, the “girl who looks like a boy.” But that just couldn’t be. I mean how could I be so wrong about my own self-identity?

But those doubts weren’t finalized until my older brother, aka my childhood hero and best friend, came home one day and sat me down and said, “when do you think you’re gonna, ya know, start acting like a girl?” I shrugged on my shirt a little, propped myself up on the couch, and said, “I don’t know really, I think it’ll just happen.” What I really meant was, “I’m going to make it happen, don’t worry brother, I won’t let you down.”

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And so I did. I took a look through my sister’s wardrobe and decided this is what it meant to be a girl. So I watched closely, I examined every movement of femininity and I mimicked it, until I became it. Then from that point on, it did just sort of happen naturally.

And that’s the story of how a little boy was convinced he was a girl even though the little boy was right all along. It wasn’t until the age of 21 that he had rebuilt the courage of his youth to proclaim himself. That is the story of how I became Jamie; an outspoken transgender man still trying to find the incomparable courage of his youth.

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Watch my story.

 

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