Sunday, December 12, 2010

MTV Cribs

It's unclear from how I wrote last year when my cousin, Jenn, died. I think it was on the 11th. Our grandmother died on the 10th, ten years ago yesterday, and I like to think I would have recognized the symmetry if they'd died 9 years apart on the same day.

Unsurprisingly, I've been thinking a bit about Jenn lately. As I've said before, we weren't close. What I've realized, though, is that we shared experiences that no one in the world has had.

A decade ago on a very snowy day in Maine I stood up in front of a congregation of people I didn't much know and talked about Grammy Fern. Too fresh off my paternal grandfather's death I was running mostly on autopilot. The piece I spoke at Robbie's funeral came to me immediately, or rather had probably been with me for years. There was nothing so clear cut about my grandmother's funeral. I knew, though, that for the sake of my mother and for my own sense of balance I ought to say...something. Eventually I was able to write a piece and was glad to have the job to do considering how unbearable sitting around in Grammy Fern's house for a week waiting for the funeral was. I have the text of it somewhere but I'm not going to look it up. I know I could have done better. I talked about how she taught me to dry silverware without getting fingerprints on it and how to make beds so the pillows were separated from rest of the bed perfectly. There was a third thing, too, I'm sure. Even when half assing a eulogy I wouldn't disregard the power of three. Maybe it had to do with grapefruit spoons, utensils I've only ever used in mid-scale British hotels and my grandmother's kitchen.

As I read these stories out, finding it much harder than Robbie's service, not because I loved her more but because, perhaps, I felt even then how inadequate it was and how little she would have cared, I could see Jenn. She was sitting about four rows back, just to the left of Aunt Rena in my line of sight. She was crying. At the first example I cited she began to nod and at the second she even spoke out, "I remember that!" In other circumstances I would have accused her of trying to steal my thunder. In this case, though, I couldn't have been more grateful.When I'd allowed my mother to pre-read my speech she hadn't understood at all. "How do you dry silverware without getting fingerprints on it?" Grammy hadn't imparted that wisdom on her. Probably because Grammy hadn't been trying to fill long school vacation weeks with TV-obsessed tweens when my mom was young. She taught these lessons to me and to Jenn.

Even before she died I thought of Jenn around Christmas a lot. Away In A Manger has never been one of my favorite carols. It's sort of middling fast and singsongy and melodramatically weepy for a kid who wound up being the Son of God. One summer at Grammy Fern and Grampa John's camp, though, Jenn declared it her favorite hymn. She loved it and she loved to sing it over and over and, in my memory at least, she cradled an imaginary baby while she did it. I went along because I was that kid. I sang that song until I couldn't stop singing it because that's what ear worms are like.

A few years ago I heard that there was a group who went caroling every year in my neighborhood. I knew that I needed some live, participatory music event to give me holiday spirit and it still took me a year or so to find out where and how to participate in this particular event. It turns out that it's been going on as long as I've been alive. They have little lyric books and oil lamps and homemade cookies and decadent hot chocolate. Everyone is very welcoming and it's exactly what I need. I have more fun than I can express even when I'm singing along regretting not brushing up on my harmonies.

I've probably never invited you along. There are a lot of reasons for that. First, I stay until the bitter end. Even when it's cold or sleety or we're singing the carols that only the woman who made the lyric book knows I stay to the end because if I'm going to go I want the whole experience. I'm afraid you'll think I'm weird or you'll leave early or both and it will be awkward. More importantly, though, I probably haven't asked because I think you'll say no and, this time of year, it's a lot harder for me to hear that. So, in a few sentences when I ask you to join me please think carefully before you respond. Remember that it'd be better to respond not at all than to outright say no and way better than saying yes and not showing up. Then remember that you like me because I'm weird not in spite of it.

The caroling comes up this Friday the 17th. At 6:30pm we gather in the little community garden on DeKalb and Hall. It takes a while for people to gather and we admire the luminaria, drink hot chocolate, eat cookies and sing a few songs to warm up. Then we head off with a man named Charlie in the lead. He scouts ahead to know that some families will be home then makes educated guesses about others. He notices trees lit up in windows and rings bells and explains why there are people singing at your doorstep but you don't need to do anything about it but listen. People do listen, they think it's crazy in a good way, on some streets Charlie will ring one bell but by the end of the first song we'll have three or four houses full of people coming out to listen. Sometimes they dance. I love it and I like to think it makes Auntie Blanche proud of me and Robbie believe I'll be OK.

I don't even mind anymore when we sing Away In A Manger.


  1. Kizz, what I really admire here is how well you know yourself and know what you need. Also that you went out and found it!


  2. In a New York Minute...and till the very end...I would sing with you. Maybe we'll put that on my NYC trip list.

  3. My sis will be in town, and if we can get away we're both in for sure. Might drag the whole family along for starters too :). I did it two years ago with a friend (and Douglas), must have seen you but not known you then!