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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Clouds In My Coffee



When I was about to turn ten years old I begged my parents for Carly Simon’s No Secrets album for my birthday. I thought it was the very height of sophistication, with Carly posed insouciantly on the cover, her nipples exposed beneath her sheer blue blouse. That’s what adults do, I thought. I loved the flirtiness, the cool confidence I saw in the way she was posed, confidence that I wanted more than anything as an extremely shy kid. That my parents barely batted an eye when I asked for this somewhat unconventional birthday gift is either a testament to their advanced parenting or their ability to roll with my very gay punches. Perhaps both. I had heard a few of the songs on the album already, and I was positive owning it was essential to my preadolescent happiness.
I spent hours listening to the album again and again, standing in front of the full-length mirror in my parents’ bedroom trying to imitate Carly’s pose, a canvas tote bag on my shoulder a substitute for her powder blue purse. I loved “You’re So Vain” in particular, mostly for the word “gavotte,” and I wasted no time in trying to use it in sentences, even if I only had a small idea of what the word actually meant. It just sounded so…adult. And I wanted to be an adult desperately.
I had always had trouble interacting and getting along with peers, and I felt far more comfortable being around adults, people whom I was sure truly understood me and my utterly sophisticated ways. When my parents entertained I always made the coffee, and I usually joined them at the table for a cup or two, listening intently for bits of conversation and words and phrases I could commit to memory for future use. I couldn’t use them with friends, certainly, as I really had none growing up. My crippling shyness was my own downfall, but at least with Carly Simon, I got to escape into a world I thought very adult indeed.
I brought the album with me wherever I went, demanding that our hosts put the record on so I could sing along and impress them with my knowledge of sex and relationships and other heady things that surely they could relate to. I was sure they would be moved by my worldly sophistication and invite me to speak at events and be the special guest at parties in my honor. As I danced and sang to the record, my left hand firmly planted on my hip and my right curled in what could kindly be described as my best Mick-Jagger-with-palsy pose, I awkwardly and most likely embarrassingly gavotted across countless family and friends' living rooms in my hometown. My behavior would be tolerated for one or two songs, but after that the record came off and I was encouraged to go outside and play with the others, which inevitably meant my sitting quietly in the corner as my shyness was an obstacle I was unable to overcome. Besides, I rationalized, I would rather contemplate just what the lyrics for “His Friends Are More Than Fond of Robin” meant. If I could unravel their deep meaning I was sure I would take one giant step closer to being a genius.
No Secrets led to more Carly Simon albums, and soon she became the unofficial soundtrack of my life. I asked for and received her earlier albums, then saved up my allowance for her newer ones as they came out, until I started working in my early teens and could use my own hard-earned money to support my favored artist. Certain songs became inextricably linked to life events or specific emotions. If I was down (which, unsurprisingly, happened a lot) I would play “Coming Around Again” or Carly’s beautiful cover of the Hoagy Carmichael standard, “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” As I've mentioned before, my view of love growing up was informed by ache and longing and the brave suffering of feelings that could not yet be indulged. I’d play “Boys in the Trees” and allow myself to indulge feelings and hopes I’d normally keep stuffed down and vigilant of, my undeniable homosexuality something I was nowhere near ready to deal with. But the song allowed me to hope for a day when I could, and it’s still a favorite to this day.
Good moods or my feeling excited for something meant “Anticipation” played over and over. I danced around the house a lot as a kid, leading my father to nickname me "gazelle," and the infectious “Attitude Dancing” could be heard coming from my bedroom many an evening, my dance routine being worked on and perfected with each listen. “Nobody Does it Better” was for playful moods, when I felt like I could open up a bit with people I felt safe with, and “Haven’t Got Time For the Pain” was my anthem of assertiveness, a mantra repeated when I needed to summon whatever confidence I was capable of at the time, even if I had to pretend. There was a Carly Simon song for every mood, a Carly Simon album for every stage of my maturing. They accompanied me on vacations, during quiet times in my room, or at school when I would scribble lyrics in notebooks or inside binder covers as visual touchstones for when interacting with peers threatened to overwhelm me.
As I grew older I revisited songs and understood their meanings better, some even for the first time, and eventually Carly Simon's music became less of a means of social survival and my desperately wanting to be an adult, to songs on albums that I loved and enjoyed and were special just for the feelings of happiness they engendered. She will always be my favorite.
Sometimes I miss the emotional freight I placed behind the songs I listened to as a child, but most of the time I love those songs simply because they are damn good songs. I suppose one could say that that is because I am truly an adult now, but I like to think it’s more the fact that I have finally learned to let myself gavotte with confidence.
(This essay originally appeared in a slightly different form on www.fredhystere.com)

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Importance of Being Earnest

"He flung down all the barriers—not at once, for he did not live in a house that can be destroyed in a day.” - E.M. Forster, Maurice

I never not knew I was gay, I just didn't quite know what to do with the fact that I was. From earliest memory I had always felt different, but it took me years to realize what that different thing was, and then a few more years to accept it. I knew I had something that made me separate from everyone else, and I knew I had to keep it a secret. To my mind there was no other option. However, it was apparent to anyone who met me what my secret was, even if I was convinced otherwise. The person I was really trying to keep it a secret from was myself.

For me being different meant being an outsider, and being an outsider meant that acceptance was not possible. I also knew that being different in the way I was different put everything on the line. If I acknowledged what I was it would involve too much of the unknown, and that was too frightening at such a young age. What if no one would love me?  What if no one accepted me? Worse, I felt that I could not love or accept myself because I was different. 

Even though I tried to hide my sexuality, I did not succeed, as I could behave no other way than myself. I hid in plain sight, and it was apparent to everyone who met me that I was gay. But it wasn't talked about, wasn't addressed. And I worked overtime at not addressing it as well. It was too large and overwhelming a thing to tackle at that point.

It didn't start out that way. As a very young boy I behaved how I wanted to, said what I wanted to, and felt what I wanted to. It was others who made me feel this was wrong, who told me to act another way, avoid talking a certain way, avoid saying certain things. I learned that while I was different, my kind of different wasn't good. I learned to fear who and what I was, and then I believed I had no choice but to hide it and hope it would go away. But it didn't. It couldn't.

I was picked on daily in elementary school. Emotionally, mentally, physically. I was teased mercilessly, assaulted and met with outright hated for who and what I was. I was picked up and thrown down hills. I was punched, slapped, pushed, tripped, and poked. I was called "faggot," "fag," "homo," "queer," and "pussy," all with so much venom and animosity I was left frozen in place. Speechless with shock and fear, unable to defend myself or attack back. My school uniform was once urinated on when we changed for gym class, and my teacher made me put it back on after it dried. When I returned to class smelling like urine and was laughed at, I felt like shriveling up until I just ceased to exist. I felt less than human. A particularly persistent bully approached me at recess one afternoon and called me a faggot, then backhanded me so hard my glasses went flying. And I said and did nothing. 

I never told teachers or my parents about what was going on. I was too afraid to. I was told that if I did that things would get even worse. What was currently going on was so bad I buckled at the thought of what constituted worse. I believed my tormentors and took them at their word. It would have been hard not to when you were told almost daily, "You're dead after school." By the time the school day was over I had already worked myself up into such a state of fear and panic that those that picked on me didn't have to do a thing. I had crippled myself, and I spent my school day trying to be safe as well as trying to learn. I would dread being dropped off in the mornings and rejoice when I was picked up in the afternoons. It was a brutal, wearing, and stressful existence, but it was the only one I knew. 

Worst of all, I was mad at myself more than anyone else. Because I took it and never fought back, because I let them treat me this way. Because I was gay and different. I didn't have the courage or self-confidence to fight back or to extricate myself from this bad situation, but I punished myself anyway. This would not happen if I was the same as everyone else. I couldn't deal with being gay. I could do nothing but steel myself and wait for my time at that school to end. 

By high school things had gotten better. I was still picked on and taunted, but it was only a fraction of what I had endured in years past. And I still did not acknowledge my sexuality, to myself or anyone else. High school was still not a safe or thriving place for a young gay kid to be in the early Nineties. There were no LGBT groups or clubs, and those of us that were different kept to ourselves, desperately wanting to acknowledge each other but not willing to risk our safety or break out of our little shells. Guilt by association. I kept my head down and got through.

College was better in turn, but I was still not ready to deal with my sexuality, although there were cracks in the facade that grew and spread, quicker and quicker. I harbored secret crushes and yearned for love, but the amount of courage and bravery it would take to come out to myself and others was something I did not possess yet. 

During a trip to England the winter before my last semester Senior year I finally acted on my homosexual impulses, and it was scary and liberating and wonderful and awful, and I returned home more determined than ever not to acknowledge my sexuality. I had gotten a look at the real me, had finally acknowledged an intrinsic and vast part of who I was, and it frightened me. It was too risky, and while I really wanted nothing more than to be fully myself, I just couldn't do it yet. I knew I would be completely changed by it.

But I had changed already, I had acknowledged things, and it was only a matter of time before I could not deny or ignore what was the truth any longer. I moved to England the year after I graduated college to pursue my Master's Degree, and it was there that the facade not only cracked but was destroyed. It happened steadily and gradually. A look here, a feeling there. A desire. A thought. A realization. A want.

One afternoon I went to see the film Maurice, an adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel, and I emerged shaken to my core. The movie itself was a look into my being, into what I believed and wanted, and my heart would not stop pounding and I could not stop crying. I cried because I wanted to be who I was, I wanted to stop living half a life. To stop hiding from myself. On the way out I saw a gay couple holding hands, and looking at this simple act of love, of what was one of the wonderful possibilities that life could hold for me if I let it, I began crying harder. I cried all the way back to my dorm room, and once in my room, I closed the door behind me. I looked in the small mirror that hung above my bookshelf and said out loud, "I am gay." I said it again, then a third time. And it felt true. I had finally acknowledged it. I lay on the floor of my room, exhausted, and cried myself to sleep. The next morning I looked in the mirror and knew my truth and believed it. It had not killed me. It had not made me unlovable or unacceptable. It had changed me by making me who I was. By making me face the truth and love the truth. And from that moment on I started living the truth.

I have been living the truth for so long now that the "old" me seems like someone else. Another person in another life. Sometimes I mourn for what once was, for the lost opportunities and for how much I held myself back. For what I went through as a kid. But there is no use in dwelling there too long. That was part of who I once was, but who I became and who I am now is what counts and what is genuine. I may have lived part of my life halfway, but there is still so much of life left to live as fully and as honestly as I can. And I intend to live it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Anglophilia, Part I


“One is certain of nothing but the truth of one's own emotions.” - E.M. Forster

I have been obsessed by and in love with almost all things English from an early age. I don't remember when it started, but I cannot think of a time when I was not enamored by literature, films, music, or even food from "across the pond." My mother is European, which probably accounts for some of my natural attraction to foreign cultures, but the English obsession is something that by this point has become uniquely my own in both my family and social circles, and something of an identifier to those that know me for longer than a few hours.

I've been asked often and for many years why I am such an Anglophile and what it is exactly that appeals to me, and it's almost always impossible for me to give what I feel is a satisfactory answer. It's hard to articulate something that is such a primal, driving force. It's hard to condense the incondensable. And I don't feel that I particularly want to. How can you possibly do it justice so that both parties are satisfied? This post is an attempt to scratch the surface, to at least share a little bit of why and what I love about England in terms of some of its literature, which is where it all springs from anyway. In future posts I'll focus on other reasons and specific times in my life that all reflect or enhance this love of England. Because it is absolutely a real and true love.

My mother had a lot of books about the kings and queens of England on our bookshelves growing up, and as a young child I would stare at them for hours, fascinated by a civilization so different and glamorous and ancient from what I knew and was exposed to. It ignited a deep interest and fascination in England and its workings, its changing power, and its part in the fabric of history. When I got older I read lots of English classics in school and even more so at home, especially Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, The Brontes, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and my favorite, E.M. Forster. Worlds were opening up to me through these books, and I felt connected to all this material in ways I could not articulate. I was discovering a larger existence, and I wanted to step into it that existence and tap into its collective consciousness. I wanted to be shaped and changed by it, to feel its life force.

Literature was - and still is - the most powerful way this love of England manifests. Shakespeare was one of the first examples of real literature I was exposed to. I read Macbeth in eight grade and fell in love with language and words and the world it suddenly opened up to me. Then I read Hamlet and Henry V and quickly I became passionate about Shakespeare and read most of his major works by the time I got to college. Once in college I took many Shakespearean courses, along with those focusing on his contemporaries, and later got my Masters Degree in Renaissance Literature. Shakespeare still remains a great passion, and I still marvel at the language and storytelling. 

I loved Charles Dickens and the robust, dense, and richly populated Victorian England he made come alive and breathe for me. The integrity and compassion of his heroes and the pure calumny of his villains. I loved Jane Austen and her deft and wise handling of love and the human spirit, and D.H. Lawrence and the emotional, tortured souls that drove home the changing face of England more vividly than any textbook could. 

But it is perhaps E.M. Forster who resonates with me most, who has left his indelible mark on me. I had read A Room With a View first in high school, and its beauty and intelligence stayed with me permanently after that. When I was a sophomore in college my English professor gave me Howards End to read, telling me she had a feeling it would have a powerful effect on me. And it did. It was transformative; it opened my mind to life and beauty and language and cemented my love for this author whose books seemed to mirror something fundamental about my own search for truth and meaning. When I read Maurice I wept, as no other book had expressed what was in my soul, and no other author had captured so well for me what it meant to love and be loved as a gay man. A Passage to India and The Longest Journey soon found themselves added to my essential reading list as well, and they all remain there still. I don't see them ever not being there. They are woven too much into my DNA now. They are a part of me.

I first visited England in my senior year of college, and it changed my life. I felt like I had come home, even though I had never set foot in the country before that trip. I had - and have - never felt as connected to a place as England, and every time I go back it is a joyous homecoming, just as profound and intensely personal as it was that first time. When I lived there for a year while getting my MA at Queen Mary College (part of the University of London) it was among the most special times of my life. I discovered who I was in England, and I became connected to the country in a way that I never felt in any other place. I don't know if it is, as Margaret Schlegel says in Howards End, "ancestral voices calling to [me]," but I do not question this connection and trust in its truth and validity. It is not to question or doubt, it just is

We all know when we are home in some way or another, and England may not be my physical home, but it is certainly my home in every other sense. I miss it every day, and I am determined to eventually live and work there permanently. It may take some time, but it is a goal that has not waned or changed for many years, nor do I suspect it ever will. I look forward to the day I can return to the home I love. To do what I want most and heed those ancestral calls.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

54.7 Seconds of Fame

During the summer after both seventh and eight grades, my parents sent me to a theatre day camp in Pelham, NY called (appropriately enough), Theatreworks. It was run by a Pelham High School teacher named John Orefice (His real name, I swear!), a wonderful, exuberant, and cheerful man, and those two summers were among the best of my life.

Knowing I was shy and sensitive, my parents thought sending me to theatre camp would get me out of my shell and allow me to mix with like-minded people. And they were right. It was glorious, full of kids like me who struggled in the everyday world of bullies, fears, and doubts and suddenly got to be free and safe and themselves. It was a joyous, creative, and incredibly fun space. Suddenly my twelve- and thirteen-year-old love of musicals, Barbra Streisand, and Masterpiece Theatre was not out of place. I got to perfect my shtick and be the little Boar's Head ham I always knew I was. I went from introvert to extrovert in a matter of days, but this particular magic would only last as long as camp did. Then it was back to being quiet and insular and invisible.

But while camp was on, life was a song - literally. From Broadway musicals, from pop songs, from whatever the hell we wanted to sing and were told to sing. Some of the other kids got to showcase their own numbers, but I stuck to being part of the ensemble. Even my theatre camp bravery had its limits, sadly. Had I had a little more confidence and chutzpah I could have easily belted out a few choruses of something from Company or A Chorus Line, but I was just not there yet. Still, my days were filled with vocal exercises, improv, dialogue memorization, and rehearsing songs and working on numbers for the talent show that always ended each summer season. This was theatre camp, after all. A show MUST go on! The show was held, like most of the camp, in the auditorium of Pelham High School, but we treated it like it was Carnegie Hall. To us, at least, it was. And probably as close as most of us were going to get to Carnegie Hall.

I danced well and shook my (then non-existent) ass, and l happily belted out each song we rehearsed, and when I got to show off my comedic skills I was happier than anything else. Getting a laugh was just about the best thing there was, and it filled me with something that felt like confidence. Between those two summer-end shows I got to be, for the length of one musical number each, Oliver Twist from Oliver!, Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors, a Jet from West Side Story, and a T-Bird from Grease. I milked my stage time for every laugh I could, and when I was not on stage I waited impatiently for my turn to go back out there and be visible. I was 104 lbs. of untapped star power. At least, that's how I felt.

And it was heaven.

That second summer a talent scout came to the school to pick extras for an ABC After-School Special that was going to be filming at another local high school, and I was one of two campers selected. I was sort of thrilled and sort of confused. I had to miss camp for a day to film what now? I was nonplussed by the idea of being on TV, and while I was excited to have been picked for something out of a crowd of many (I was special!), I was also dreading missing my camp friends. 

The day arrived and my dad dropped me off at the high school at the designated time and location (I don't even remember where and when, that's how little I paid attention), and I got herded into a little pen of other pre-teen hams and hopefuls while we waited one by one for Hair, Makeup, and Wardrobe. I remember wearing a long-sleeved polo with the collar popped, ill-fitting jeans, and tan Capezios, which were soft leather dance shoes worn - and still worn - by most Broadway dancers. Because who didn't own a pair of tan Capezios in 1986? My hair was gelled, my round (Harry Potter-like) glasses cleaned, and I was given a backpack stuffed with brown paper so that it looked like it was filled with school paraphernalia. They also gave me a binder and a notebook, which I insisted on carrying pressed to my chest with my arms crossed in an earnest (and what I was sure was a totally sophisticated) imitation of Stockard Channing in Grease. We then lined up and headed to the first filming location, a hallway where expository dialogue was to take place in the foreground and "regular high school activity" was to take place in the background. 

My role was simple: I was to get caught cheating on a test by the principal as she walked by. That's it. I had to glance over my shoulder and then turn around quickly, hiding my notebook and binder behind me, all the while looking like I was just busted doing something I knew I shouldn't have been doing. Being completely naive about how filming works, I didn't know we had to do take after take. After take after take after take after take. I started to get bored, and I started to change my performance. Subtly at first, then blatantly. Rolling my eyes here, tossing my binder over my shoulder there, looking at my nails in faux over-it-allness. It got more and more exagerrated until my performance started to resemble Kabuki theatre. And then I got yelled at. Do what you were told to do exactly as you were told to do it, was the gist. I was sufficiently cowed and followed orders exactly from that moment on. 

My only other scene consisted of walking down the stairs in the background as the stars of the episode discussed something of great high school importance in the foreground. We had to mouth fake dialogue, not say anything out loud, otherwise the microphone would pick it up. I still held my notebook and binder like Stockard Channing's Rizzo, and god only knows what I mouthed to whomever was next to me. And then that was it. I went back to Wardrobe and returned the backpack, notebook, and binder, and they thanked me for my time. I called my dad and told him he could come and pick me up. I never asked when the episode was going to air, or even if I was going to get a credit. I just waited outside for my dad to arrive, and the next day I returned to camp with a fun story and then continued rehearsing the number from Dreamgirls we were going to end that year's show with.

I never got to see my ABC After-School Special. My total screen time could not have been more than 60 seconds. I am hoping one of these days, between the Internet and DVDs, I will find it and finally get to see it.

I did not get to return to camp the next year as I was considered too old at fourteen. The cut-off age was thirteen, so I mourned the loss of my time in the spotlight and returned to my everyday life. Despite the experiences I had in theatre camp, I was never bitten by the acting bug enough to pursue a career in it. I was also too shy and insecure to have lasted very long even if I did. It is only now, once I got older and more confident, that I think of doing some more acting or comedy for fun and to flex muscles that have not been used for some time. I feel the need to, and I want to honor that.

This past January, while living in Portland, I got asked to participate in a live storytelling series called "Back Fence PDX." I was incredibly nervous and hesitant, but I did it anyway and I am so glad I did. There is nothing like putting your neck on the line in front of a room filled with hundreds of people to really make you feel alive. We were picked at random and assigned a topic based on audience voting. Mine was (simply) "a high school story." We all had five minutes to cobble something together, then five minutes to tell the story. It was improvised and raw and off the cuff. It was exhilarating, and when I heard the laughter of the crowd and landed my story, I felt like that thirteen-year-old again. 

And it was heaven.



Sunday, July 7, 2013

Rosa's Song (Because She Could Not Sing It)


My maternal grandmother was a complex, difficult, and unique woman. Partly because of overall temperament, but also because she suffered from cripplingly low self-esteem and held herself back from ever fully engaging in life. Of my two grandmothers she was the more mercurial, and her moods shifted as easily and as often as the wind. She was almost always lonely, almost always melancholy, and while her love and affection were abundant (at least toward me), it was almost always colored by guilt. It was the currency she traded in, even if you didn't want to buy.

We called her Omi, which is German for grandmother, although not quite. Technically it was Oma, but my great-grandmother was already called that, so Omi was, well, Omi. It was how everyone knew her and what everyone called her, and those three letters will always be uniquely hers.

When I think of her or remember her in a social context, she always remained on the periphery. It was partly due to her shyness, partly due to the fact she was deaf in one ear due to a childhood bout of diphtheria. She preferred her own family and familiar situations where she could feel safe and comfortable, and if she did have to spend time with extended family, she always looked uncomfortable. In later years I would make sure to sit next to her and reassure her. I was her filter and protector, a role she never asked me to take on but one I fulfilled because I could not not do it. She never learned how to truly relax or be happy, and she never learned to enjoy life. She had been too damaged and scarred by it, but she also became her own worst enemy when there were opportunities to change it. 

Omi could be magical when she wanted to be, however. She had an incredible sense of humor that manifested at unexpected times. When she was happy, and allowed herself to be, she was fun to be around. She was quick-witted, mischievous, playful, and creative. She had talents that she only used sparingly, some not at all. She passed on these talents to her children, and in turn some were passed down to me. Her love for me was tangible and steadfast, and she and I formed a close bond. I was her gutes kind, or "good child." 

I was the only one of her grandchildren to spend large amounts of time with her. I wanted to, and I liked to. She was full of untapped talents and resources and abilities, and being shy and insecure myself, I understood her well. When we watched movies or TV together we always held hands; my own in hers when I was smaller, hers in mine when I got older. It was easy to feel loved and appreciated and special during these times. Over the years she became more than my grandmother. She became my friend. I loved her deeply. 

Her name was Rosa Mohr, and she was born in Prague in 1924. She was one of ten children, although not all survived birth or World War II. They were not a wealthy or educated family, nor were they a particularly loving and emotional one. My grandmother had rickets as a baby, and instead of being properly cared for, my great grandmother ignored medical advice and treated my grandmother just the same as her other children. Which was not well. My grandmother became physically altered by her illness; she was shorter, stunted, her internal organs crushed against each other and rearranged, and her health always precarious. She was called "the cripple" by her mother, and when she came down with diphtheria she was hospitalized and had to have surgery. Her mother's support consisted solely of informing her daughter that the surgeons must have tinkered with her brain because she was "clearly stupid." My grandmother grew up with no self-esteem, typical of hardscrabble lives like the one her family led, and she knew very little love. If any at all. That she could give so much later on in life was a testament to her specialness.

Rosa and her family lived in what was then Czechoslovakia, in the Sudetenland. When her brother George was drafted into the German army after Hitler rose to power and mobilized his forces, he defected and was hidden by his family in their basement. He was eventually discovered and turned into the authorities by his German girlfriend, and the police promptly arrested my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and her sisters until they revealed his whereabouts. They were jailed, beaten, and tortured. When George was found, he was shot and killed in front of them.

Years later, after the Russians liberated part of Czechoslovakia, they occupied houses and pushed aside families to make room for their own forces. They occupied my grandmother and her family's home. They also raped her and her sisters. All three women became pregnant. My Russian heritage is a violent and cloudy one.

When my grandmother and her family immigrated to America in the 1950s, her youngest daughter was sick and could not leave Czechoslovakia. My grandmother made her own version of Sophie's Choice and left my aunt there. It devastated her, and, wracked with guilt, she sent for her daughter two years later. But by then the damage was done and mother and daughter never became close.

Years later she would survive a car accident, cancer, her youngest daughter's death, and quitting smoking after 60 years, cold turkey. But life had taken its toll on her, and while she survived, she could not take joy in what was finally good and stable in her life. She never learned the tools to overcome trauma and enjoy life, nor did she feel confident or love herself enough to really try. Trying meant possible failure, and life had already embedded its grim realities deep into her DNA.

My grandmother was close with my own mother, but it was a fraught, emotional, and often hard relationship. She parented my mother and her two siblings as best she could, but she gave her own children a childhood not much happier than her own. She was not able to transcend her own brutal upbringing and transferred it to her children. It would have taken too much change to change. She and my mother loved each other as best as each could, but too much freight stood in the way of their ever having an ideal relationship. Despite this, my mother always made sure my grandmother was a regular and vital part of our lives. 

We took Omi to the movies, to lunches, to the mall, to museums. When my mother was working or couldn't I did all those things with Omi myself, and she was wonderful company. She told me things I don't think she told anyone else aside from my mother, and I saw a side of her that was rare and reserved. I taught her the card game Skip-Bo, and for years that was our game. We played it for hours, and when anyone joined in, Omi soon taught them who was boss.

A few years ago, my grandmother was diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's disease, and she grew angrier, more paranoid, and distrustful of almost everyone. What little enjoyment she got out of life started to fade, and her world grew smaller and dimmer. I still spent lots of time with her, and for as long as we could we enjoyed each other's company. We still held hands when we watched movies, and she still managed to be mischievous once in a while. I was still her gutes kind, and she was still my Omi.

And then she started acting out in anger and self-harm, and my mother was eventually forced to put her into a home as my grandmother could no longer take care of herself. It was devastating to see her deteriorate so rapidly, and I felt powerless. After she was admitted I helped my mother sort through her belongings, and I kept pictures and mementos that reminded me of her, of better times, of the Omi I knew and loved. I visited her in the home every chance I could and held her close when I could think of nothing else to do. She often cried in my arms and my heart broke over and over again. By this point she was speaking almost only in German, and I was the only man she let near her. I was one of the only people left she trusted. During one of my last visits with her, I put flowers in her hair, a gesture to let her know I still thought she was beautiful, that she was still my Omi. That she was still loved.

A year later she was no longer recognizing those she once did, myself included. I went to see her one last time and she had no idea who I was. When I moved to hug her she pulled away, angry and confused I had violated her space. I tried to explain who I was, hoping she would understand, hoping there would be a spark of recognition, but there was none. My Omi was gone. It was the last time I would see her before she died. 

She passed away December 23rd of last year, and with her went a piece of my heart. I kept her ashes when she was cremated, and they sit on my bookshelf next to her photograph. I hope she knew how deeply she was loved by me, and how much she meant to me. This essay only scratches the surface of our relationship and the woman she was. She did not think she was anyone special, but she was. She could not sing her own song, so I will sing it for her, always. In a voice that is strong and clear and full of love.