New Colors for an Extended Family
The 1920s dining room smells like fried pork. Antique canoes hang from the ceiling. I dive into the crowd of gregarious Midwesterners and start hugging everyone while my 14-year-old twins find a small, faraway table for us. They’re probably overwhelmed at seeing 50 cousins they do not remember, or maybe they’re feeling as jittery as I am. This is the first family reunion since one of my daughters changed genders. How will the relatives react to him?
Ellie, our 92-year-old “Matriarch,” a distant relation to my late father, rises from the long table, saying in a high voice, “Oh, Kat,” and hugs me. She strides to my children, slow-footed but sturdy, and hugs them.
“Lydia!” Still grinning, she turns to my son. With sublime courtesy she says, “And shall I call you Noah?”
Noah nods, “Yes.”
Much has changed in three years since the previous reunion, when my children were both girls with long blond hair, identical as twins can look. Now Lydia has rainbow-colored hair cut longer in front with jagged edges, and Margaret is Noah, with hair cropped at the sides and spiky on top.
I’d written to the Matriarch, hoping for this kind of acceptance. Now that my parents are gone, I value her company more than ever. That my children find joy in knowing their relatives is my greatest wish. I want them to discover their places in the wide circle. But will everyone be ready to accept Noah? My husband, Robert, has stayed behind in Oregon to work, so it’s up to me to protect our son.
Ellie goes back to her group. Kimmie, 11, hugs the twins. Apparently, she doesn’t care if one of them is now a boy. For this moment, I am grateful.
I make my social rounds. Of course, the subject of Noah comes up. Afraid of their reaction, afraid I might babble on senselessly, I follow my script: “Robert and I accept it. Noah was severely depressed. We’re not going back to that.”
One of the women says, “I’m so sorry about that depression.”
The women all join a chorus of well-wishing. None of the men say anything, but their silence feels congenial enough.
After a while, all move out of the dining room like a herd, except for distant cousin Brodie, a mechanic and church deacon. He takes a seat near me. “Our Ethics and Religion Committee had a meeting about transgender people,” he says. “Genesis says all people were created in God’s image. God created man and woman.”
My shoulders sink a little. “And?”
“That this new trend of people deciding to change gender runs counter to biblical teaching,” Brodie says.
A churchgoer myself, I listen and wait, stewing inside. “There’s room for all kinds of people in God’s world, isn’t there?”
Brodie frowns. I stare at a plate where someone had cut up pork into little pieces. Finally, I raise my head. “God created my son to be exactly the way he is.”
“I’ll pray for her,” he says. When he leaves, the twins walk over to me. Noah gives me a questioning look, with one eyebrow up. I’m pretty sure he knows I’ve been talking about him.
“Mom,” Noah says, “is it really going to be okay that I’m trans?”
“If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have brought you here.”
“I’m pretty sure the relatives are fine with it,” I say.
“The girls all have blond hair and ponytails. And sundresses,” Lydia says disdainfully. “Kimmie’s the only one who talked to us. I don’t think they like us.”
“Give them a chance. They do accept you. Family is family.”
Noah frowns. He is not convinced.
* * *
For all the next day, Friday, the twins sit on their beds playing computer games on their phones and listening to screamo music on their headphones, surviving on granola bars.
Meanwhile, I chat with my cousin Rhiannon from Florida. “Don’t take Brodie seriously,” she says. “Genesis, the book where snakes talk!” I learn that the Matriarch has lectured her six adult sons on behalf of Noah.
Whatever Ellie told them made an impact. At Friday’s dinner, Brodie and his five brothers each approach me, one by one with versions of the same statement: “Kat, I just want to say something about Noah. If it’s okay with you and Robert, it’s okay with us.”
I thank them, appreciating that they are reaching out. But, meanwhile, Noah is still holed up in his room.
Hunger and lack of air conditioning finally bring the twins out for Saturday lunch. They sit at another table with my niece Joyce and her boyfriend Carlos. Later they disappear with their tablemates. I am overjoyed that they’ve found something and someone to occupy them.
Eventually, I round up enough relatives to go for a hike through shady copses in between the meadows and the marshlands. Among yellow birches, I catch a whiff of manure, hear hooves clomping, then detect figures in black on horseback.
“Is that one of the twins?” Cousin Rhiannon asks of the lead rider.
“No. That child has red hair,” my sister says.
I see the next rider. Shoulder length hair with rainbow streaks. “That’s Lydia!”
Noah follows next, holding his slight shoulders very straight. Another figure follows, then Kimmie, Joyce, and Carlos.
Feelings of gladness and surprise come like a gentle wind. I wave as the horses approach. Lydia nods in my direction. Noah grins as he pulls back the reins and trots faster.
After they have passed I ask, “Who were those other kids?”
“Distant cousins from Illinois,” Rhiannon says. “Zack and Kristin, now Zaina.”
At the saddle barn, I find the twins chugging down sodas and chatting with Zaina as if they’ve always known her. In a sense they have.
Zaina’s electric orange hair is long on one side. The other is shaved to reveal the letter “Z.” She wears a tee shirt of two kissing skeletons, jeans with cut-out slits, and black combat boots.
Noah may have a spiky cut, and Lydia’s has varied colors and jagged edges, but Zaina’s hair is all-out wild. Zack has a faux Mohawk with a red stripe.
Non-conforming Northwestern cousins meet non-conforming Midwestern cousins under the Indiana sun. I take it as providence.
* * *
Lydia and Noah arrive for the family photo and games with their new wolf pack: Zaina, Zack, and Kimmie. As the photographer lines up the four in black, mixing them among others in pastels, I’m struck by the beauty of the family tapestry. It looks like there are a few black-eyed Susans in a field of daisies. I feel a deep sense of satisfaction.
Then the Frisbees and footballs come out, followed by the trivia contest, in which Noah and Lydia participate wholeheartedly. Later, when the adults gather on the lawn, talking, Ellie the Matriarch approaches and puts her arm around me. “Kat, I just knew everything was going to be all right with Noah.”
“Yes, by the grace of God. But you had a part, too. What did you say to Brodie?”
“I reminded him that Jesus added light to the world. Always.”
“Thank you, Ellie. You are such a gift to me. To all of us.” I put my arm around her shoulders in return.
Smoke curls out from charcoal grills, and soon there is the smell of seared meat. One of the Matriarch’s sons makes an announcement. “I’ve had a suggestion from Mother. All the boys and men will do the serving as well as the barbecuing this time. Do I have any volunteers?”
“I can’t believe you set this in motion,” I say to Ellie.
She laughs. “This is good for them.”
Awhile later, I spot Noah happily cutting up pies and brownies and putting them on paper plates. He’s uniting with the men of our family.
After the feast, I join a party on the inn’s wide balcony overlooking the lake. Below us on the lawn, 20 or so of our children play capture the flag in the warm air.
When I see Noah, I call down, “It’s midnight. We have to get up early tomorrow.”
“Mom, no. We’re in the middle of the game.”
I allow them to play on and listen to their enthusiastic shouts.
Fireflies gently pulse their green bioluminescent displays, appearing and disappearing, enigmatically, magically. The night feels enchanted.
* * * * *
The Sunday service at the picnic shelter is the only event of the weekend that starts on time as some of us must drive to airports. Brodie, and one of his sons, a minister in Iowa, leads the service. Lydia and Noah sit together toward the back of the shelter with Zaina and Zack. The morning has a feeling of rightness about it. We start with a responsorial Scottish blessing:
If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character.
If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home.
If there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation.
If there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world. So let it be.
The service concludes with the Lord’s Prayer, a departing prayer, and a favorite family hymn, Amazing Grace. Grace, yes. I am grateful for the weekend. I am grateful that Noah is well and happy. I am grateful my children and I are part of the larger family.
It’s time now for good-byes. One by one, I hug people tightly, especially the Matriarch. I give Brodie a hug, too.
“Until next time, Kat,” Brodie says.
“Yes,” I say, “see you at the next reunion.”
Noah, Lydia, and I will look forward to it.
5 replies on “New Colors for an Extended Family”
I just loved the family reunion article !@ thank you Katrina for shedding light on the life experiences a mother of teen
Thanks Jane and Sara!
I loved the scene of the new “wolf pack” riding those horses. The change in attitudes, brought about by listening to the Matriarch’s wisdom, was real to me. The Scottish psalm is a beautiful conclusion. Great and powerful reunion piece.
Thanks, Pat, glad you enjoyed the piece.