In Memoriam: For Lillian On Her Birthday (July 9, 1925 – December 31, 2016)

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Prayer card from Lillian’s memorial service

This year I had planned to be in Savannah, Georgia at Bonaventure Cemetery spending today with you and Grandpa, preferably with my parents or one of my siblings.

You convinced me to keep writing when I wanted to give up.

You told me I could succeed.

You would have been 95 today. We celebrated our birthdays together: yours today and mine tomorrow.

At the time I thought it was weird that I didn’t have normal birthday parties. Instead, we had a big family dinner together on July 9th and then we’d do something together on July 10th. Sometimes whatever we did involved whatever children my family could scrounge together.

It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized this was a birthday party, just not the kind of birthday party most American kids have.

What I hadn’t realized was that every year you celebrated me being your birthday gift.

I was your surprise baby. Your impossible baby.


Impossible Baby

The story goes Mama was sick
Mama didn’t know I wasn’t the flu
A five month flu
Impossible flu

Two kids to chase
Two kids to follow

Too Sick, Too Tired
Mama didn’t know I wasn’t the flu

Doctor came in the room
Test Results Read
“Impossible”
She said

Ultrasound
Boy’s Name
Father and Grandfather
Dreams Come True
Finally
The fourth with their name

Grandmother’s Birthday
Too Early
Don’t Be Born
Baby — But
Mama can’t stop me
Born Just After Midnight
July Tenth
Belated Birthday Gift

But
That’s Not A Boy

No One Agrees:
Laraleigh – Laura
No,
Lo


Being born premature in 1989, my mother did not want to take baby pictures of me in an incubator where she could not hold me. She did not want to have pictures reminding her of what I looked like hooked up to a heart monitor and a ventilator with various IV bags flowing into me. She did not want to remember the hours and hours where she wandered around a hospital screaming because the nurses lost track of where they put me and forgot to tell her anything about my condition.

Seriously, you kids born premature after 1990 had way higher survival rates. One of the reasons my mom didn’t take baby pictures was because she was advised not to in case I didn’t live. That’s the sort of stuff women were told would be psychologically better for them in the 1980s. I swear my mother is one of the strongest women on this planet.

Because of this, I didn’t see a baby picture of me until I was 30 years old – this past February/March while visiting my parents. In the picture, I am almost 6 months old and my grandparents are holding me after my christening service at St. Matthews Church.

Christening

I didn’t see the photograph
Until age 30
Grandmother and Grandfather hold me
[The red brick of St. Matthew’s Church]
Smiling-
Laughing so hard
Their faces blur

The only baby picture

Mama didn’t want to remember:
Wires, tubes, monitors, screens

I don’t remember them either.


In my early twenties, I asked my grandmother for a picture of her and my grandfather for my birthday. I’m terrible at asking for anything, especially if it is something the logical part of my brain has deemed superfluous. What I didn’t expect was this.

It’s a picture of my grandmother and grandfather at Armstrong College in Savannah, Georgia. At the time, my grandfather, having just returned from World War II, was finishing up a Bachelors of Science in Meteorology. My grandmother taught chemistry. They fell in love with teaching, scientific progress, and each other.

They were the types of people that had trouble sitting still.

My grandmother was academically fascinated by her heritage. She honored her connection to the Douglas clan, but I would not call her proud. Often, she focused more on the deep connection it provided her to faith. Her expressions of spirituality changed so much even over the 27 and half years I knew her that it’s hard to say what she believed. What I can say is that she believed in showing endless love, patience, and understanding. We selected her favorite prayers and passages to include on the prayer cards.

Prayer cards from the memorial service for Lillian

What I want every person reading this to know is that though I have only spoken of a few moments, 91.5 years is a long time on this planet. Lillian danced through those years with a love of music, chemistry, objectivity, compassion, education, and love.

The last two gifts she gave me were her engagement ring and her last words.

My grandmother wanted to experience everything there was to experience on this planet. She liked to say, “Heaven Is Here On Earth.” She did not live an easy life – in fact, quite the opposite. Her life was by far full of emotional hardship.


The Last Memory

Restless loblolly pines
We sit
Dry docked green aluminum jon boat
He laughs with goofy faces
Old spice arms envelope me
Binocular eyes

“That’s the Hale Bopp Comet”
His voice is shimmering moonlight on bay water
His presence is my father’s smile

He still wears that 1970s brown and tan puffer jacket
A flare orange dog whistle on a braided leather cord
I taste fried fish tails
Bay water drains off the hull

My fathers hold me together
The child meant to be the fourth with their names
For that moment I belong

Together they point to stardust
Teach me constellations
How to find my way home
If I am ever lost at sea


My grandfather died in 1997 in the doctor’s office while getting dressed after a physical. He wasn’t feeling well and in between classes he managed to get seen. He didn’t make it to his afternoon lecture. In October, he would have been 100 years old.

She never remarried, but she was not broken. She mourned the loss of her best friend and celebrated his memory every chance she got. My grandfather loved fill-in-the-blank style Hallmark cards and writing her love poems. What I didn’t realize until I was a teenager was that she kept all of them and read his words every time she missed him.

Now, I find myself doing the same thing, even with her final words. My birthday buddy can never be replaced. I will celebrate her 150th birthday in 2075 just as I celebrate her 95th.

Terminal Lucidity

They said she’d never play piano again
Hematoma
Right side
CAT scan looks bad

We came to visit at the wrong moment
Right moment
The nurses couldn’t find the cell phone number
They wouldn’t let us in the room

We’d spoken to her that morning
We said we’d see her soon

You were out on the boat
Knee high in male bonding
Falling in love the only way
Our family knows how

We finally got you on the phone
But you never hung up

At 91 and a half
You and I argued
You insisted she was clear

We moved her to hospice
We prayed she’d tell us that we were wrong

Later that night
I sat alone with my other mother
She squeezed my hand
“I’m not ready”

She never spoke again.


As I conclude this memorial, I thank you for taking the time to be here with me. I recognize that it is not easy to be with someone in mourning. I recognize that it is increasingly unusual in America for people to grow up in a multi-generational child rearing situations where they and their siblings form these close bonds. Because of this, real family, the family that sticks by you and unconditionally loves you, will be my first priority in life for as long as I live. That’s what we were taught by our grandparents and our parents. I hope that this is a legacy my siblings and I can carry on.

With that, I close this with love to all members of my family.

“A good name is to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold” – Family Motto / Proverbs 22:1

February 2020: “Trillium” by Margaret Lindsay Holton

Summary (Caution – Mild Spoilers):

Margaret Holton’s “Trillium” is a story of how three families settle in the Beamsville, Ontario area. The first family begins with Colonel Thomas Hartford and his land grant after the end of the North American Theater of the Seven Years War. These original colonizers eventually chase the native population away, bringing their European culture and farming techniques. With this, they also bring European plants, and with each new wave of immigrants, the crops change ever so slightly.

Skip ahead 80 years. The next immigrant introduced is 15-year-old Francesco “Franco” Di Angelo. He is a hard-working Italian that comes to the region with the dream of working the land and buying a piece of his own. He is passionate about agriculture and family. It takes some time to build up his fortune, and the reader watches through the eyes of a laborer as the Niagara region experiences the earliest stages of its infrastructural revolution. Eventually, Franco joins forces with Thomas Hartford’s descendent (also named Thomas Hartford), and their families become intertwined.

Skip ahead another 50 years, and our third immigrant is introduced. Paddy O’Sullivan is an Irish immigrant looking for his big break, and he gets it. He manages to purchase unused land and other properties and leases adjacent land to the Hartford Farm on a 99-year lease.

This book follows the Hartford family’s farm through the generations starting in 1759 and closing in 2001. The Hartfords, Di Angelos, and O’Sullivans cross-pollinate through trials and tribulations of agricultural life. “Trillium” follows the constant battle between Capitalism and Traditionalism, with the secret ingredient of remembering your roots.

Overall Reaction:

I find the story of a multigenerational farm and its growth fascinating. I think the book has potential. There’s murder, intrigue, incest, affairs, and mystery. There are very human characters that make mistakes and ignore the faults of others. There is an alluring family vendetta that is so vile and gross it makes the reader feel soiled.

One of the recurring themes I enjoyed was that of building renovation and redecorating overtime. The additions of indoor plumbing to a farmhouse or new double pane windows to keep drafts out involve the reader over time. Additionally, this is where I noticed the struggle between capitalism and traditionalism the carried out in the changing of home furnishings and preservation of heirlooms. Additional details, such as the effects of the passage of time on buildings, molding statues, and chipping paint, provided an elegant backdrop to the impact of neglect in home life. How the home evolved over 250 years never left me wanting for detail.

In historical fiction, great liberties can be taken with many things, but not dates and facts. Many historical fiction books have bibliographies at the end of them from the fact-checking process. With both of these factors in mind, the structure of a historical fiction book should not necessitate a separate written timeline to be made and math to be done on the part of the reader to place when different events are occurring. This is particularly troublesome when there are inconsistencies in the dates of events.

The majority of the action occurs late in the book and focuses on a very privileged set of characters. I connected most with this famiglia that seemed to get left behind even though they did a lot of the work. The decreasing focus resolves to include a few of the family members in the privileged characters’ shenanigans. By far, this jovial, mostly virtue driven family, brought a smile to my face more often than not.

I had a hard time suspending disbelief. This difficulty was due to historical inaccuracies, changing the referred names of characters without context as to why a character would use that name for someone, and misnaming of characters present in a scene. Additionally, I experienced cognitive dissonance with my own life experiences, having grown up and worked in and around agricultural communities for the majority of my life.

Let me explain the cognitive dissonance: I grew up in small-town semi-rural America. My exposure to wineries came in my late 20s in rural California and Montana. Rustic and modest is how I’d describe the ones I’ve seen, but I’ve never been to Napa Valley. I spent the earliest part of my life fresh out of undergrad in the agriculture and land surveying industries in different parts of the United States. I never saw the opulence described in this book. Even the best-managed multigenerational farms of the American side of the Great Lakes are scrappy as hell trying to keep everything together. To me, the money from material objects over time mentioned in the book didn’t add up to buying in to social clubs or status. To check other inconsistencies, my mom worked on an “organic” by the 1970s definition co-op farm, so I gave her a call and ran my dissonance by her. While this helped by explaining how definitions changed, it did bring a lot of my conflict back to the fact-checking concern.

I recognize that this is different from rural Canada, though the Niagara region seems to have moderate pockets of rural life. [Addendum for clarification: the following is from my own life and is not from the book – this is part of my own cognitive dissonance and is part of me explaining why I do not connect with the characters] I don’t know how often in rural Canada when over at the neighbor’s house they’ll tell you the name of the cow you’re eating at a barbecue. Perhaps I don’t possess the frame of mind to connect with the privilege these characters have with their multi-million dollar lifestyles.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed the premise of the story and some of the characters, but found myself unable to be involved in the story as I was constantly jarred away and unable to suspend disbelief. That said, other readers may not share this experience.

LGBTQA+

While there are major characters that are LGBTQA+, I would not recommend this book for booklists looking for positive, accurate representation as these characters perpetuate what the Advocate’s Tracy E. Gilchrist and Daniel Reynolds describe as “17 LGBT Tropes Hollywood Needs to Retire“. For further explanation, GLAAD has been fighting statistically inaccurate misrepresentation in storytelling for some time. As a member of this community it is my duty to include a content warning. This book contains the following potentially harmful tropes:

  • pedophilia & predation tropes related to repression
  • sex, drugs & hedonism
  • “bury your queers”
  • “the depraved homosexual”
  • “the sissy villain”
  • “the bi-erasing bisexual”
  • “the promiscuous queer”

Grammar & Punctuation

There were issues with grammar and punctuation that, while interrupting to the reading experience, could easily be corrected with editing software such as Grammarly, Hemingway, or Fictionary.

Twilight Zone Moments

The structure of the book jumps around without specifying dates, while using highly specific details lending themselves to dates leading to inconsistencies and confusion. The examples I’m going to use is regarding a car that a character buys and a disappearing character.

The Mazda RX7 came out in 1978 and someone could get one in Canada if you knew a guy who knew a guy, if you drove across the border into the United States. This purchase is mentioned without the year. Then the story changes to a different scene years before this car was available without mentioning the year, causing disorientation.

A character disappears and is never heard from again after her brother returns from WWII and takes over the family farm. It is unknown if she outlives her brother, but I would have imagined that she would have received some part of his will. Right? Perhaps I have a better relationship with my siblings.

Want To Read More About The Author?
You can read my interview with Margaret Lindsay Holton here. You can purchase the book here. Follow the book on Twitter here.