It Runs in the Family: The Journalist
I thought it would be interesting to write about all the different Aspies in my family, because there are quite a number of them, and the sheer fact of so much autism in my life has had a real impact on me.
One of the reasons I went undiagnosed for so long was because of all the autism in my family, on both sides. Only two of us have ever been diagnosed. The fact of my family’s alienness has gone unacknowledged for generations, or been brushed off humourously, instead of being regarded as a problem.
You know how he is.
That’s just her way.
It’s a Preyde thing.
It runs in the family.
I want to start by writing about someone who isn’t even biologically related to me. Out of all the Aspies in my family, she’s the one I know the least about, and she played a complicated role in my life.
Her name was Nancy, and she was my grandmother’s partner. I was thinking about her today because I had a dream about her last night, and after I woke up I realized how little I knew about her. I don’t think any of us knew her all that well except Gran. Nancy was only in the family for twelve years, from the age of forty-five until she died of cancer at the age of fifty-seven.
Maybe one of the reasons I dreamed about her last night is that it’s finally occurred to me how young she was when she died. At the time I thought she was an old lady. She was living with my grandmother, after all.
But my mother turned fifty-eight last month, and now she’s older than Nancy ever was.
My perception of Nancy is dodgy and unreliable, and continues to shift, even after all these years, even after she’s been dead for longer than any of us knew her.
Gran and Nancy moved in together six months after I was born, in December 1987. I don’t know how they met. I don’t know how long they knew each other before they fell in love. I know that the queer community tends to be very close, and everyone- especially people who self-identify in the same way, and especially people who are around the same age- tend to know each other.
So it’s possible they’d known each other for a long time, if only in passing, if only as acquaintances. I know a lot more about Gran’s first female partner, if only because that relationship was one of the primary factors in my grandparents’ divorce.
What drew Gran and Nancy together? I can speculate on that, at least.
Gran is a mystic. Picture Dumbledore, except more approachable and down to earth. That’s who she became after the divorce, and maybe who she had been all along, somewhere inside. Gran skips across life like a stone across a pond. She’s more complicated than that, obviously, but that’s the impression she gives. That’s the impression she seems to want to give.
Nancy was different.
She was prickly, peppery, and had a short fuse. She swung from one strong feeling to another. Everything was the most exciting, or the most interesting, or the most outrageous. She was argumentative and self-involved. She had a childlike enthusiasm for her many passions and sometimes seemed like a little kid reacting to the world around her for the first time. In direct contrast to this, she also possessed a towering intellect. Nancy was scary smart. She knew everything about the stuff she knew. She was a reader. A thinker. She demanded constant stimulation from the world around her, and usually got it. Nancy could be difficult to be around, because of the sheer muchness and volume of her personality. But she possessed a natural, easy charisma. She never tried to be charming- because fuck it, who cares what people think? She didn’t have time for that- but she was charming. Effortlessly so. Everyone loved Nancy.
Gran and Nancy could both be forces of nature; large enough and powerful enough to convince me, as a child, that they were less human beings than a state of the world around me. They are, were, and would always be. And they balanced each other out. Because I grew up with Nancy in the family, there always seemed to be something inevitable about her.
Even though she confused the hell out of me. I never understood her at all. Even now, reading my own description of her, I feel like I barely understand her. Which is funny, because the older I get, the more I remind myself of her. I also possess that all-devouring need for information about the things that interest me. I often relate to things that move me by invoking blustery hyperbole. I’ve tried my damndest to continue to be interested and engaged in the world around me- and succeeded, I think. And I don’t suffer fools gladly. Or at all.
But when I was a kid, Nancy didn’t make sense to me. And I didn’t make sense to her. Nancy didn’t understand kids, and had little interest in them. It’s just as well she was a lesbian born in the 1940s. If she’d been born much earlier, then the overwhelming intolerance for homosexuality might’ve pressured her into posing as a housewife. If she’d been born much later, then she would’ve ended up in this era, in which lesbians can marry and have kids, and if they don’t want to, are pressured to come up with some reason other than “I can’t”.
Nancy wanted to dine at fancy restaurants, and travel, and go to baseball games, and generally have a life full of leisure and Nancy-time.
Then she fell in love with a woman who was the matriarch of a family with four- and eventually six- small children in it.
Like myself- like a lot of Aspies- Nancy’s natural disposition was toward selfishness. I can only imagine what her thought process was, but the end result was a brave and selfless act. She accepted the constant intrusion of noisy, disruptive children into her carefully ordered, sophisticated life.
Nancy seemed to appreciate me more than she appreciated the other kids, and there are a few possible reasons for this.
The most glaringly obvious is that I was the only one with Asperger’s, and she recognized some of herself in me. But that would’ve been an unconscious recognition at best. The reason Nancy always gave was that she was a journalist- she worked for The Globe and Mail as the food section editor, and I was verbally precocious from an early age.
Finally, thought Nancy, a kid who will understand and appreciate the same things that I do.
I remember when I was eleven- only a year before Nancy died- she gave me an outdated style book for The Globe and Mail. She thought this was a fantastic gift. I feigned appreciation and never read it. But you’d better believe I never threw it out.
Sometimes I actually acted my age, and this caused Nancy visible pain. She was so disappointed when I temporarily dropped the little professor guise and became an ordinary kid. I sensed her disappointment, even at that age, and it puzzled me.
I remember once when I was eight-years-old and staying at Gran and Nancy’s for an entire week. Nobody knew I had Asperger’s, or otherwise they would’ve realized that perhaps this was a taxing endeavor for someone who is so accustomed to routine.
It was bedtime, and I didn’t want to go to bed.
“You have to go to bed. It’s time,” said Gran.
“Well, I’m not brushing my teeth.”
“You have to brush your teeth. Otherwise you’ll get cavities,” said Gran.
“Well, I’m not going to.”
It went on and on like this for close to an hour, and grew progressively heated. Nancy was there too, growing increasingly exasperated.
“I’m not brushing my teeth, and you can’t make me!”
“WELL, FU- well, obey your grandmother!” said Nancy, and stormed out of the room.
I was old enough to know what Nancy had stopped herself from saying, and was blown away.
The next morning I woke up and walked out to the kitchen. There was a snack bar separating the kitchen from the living room, and Nancy stood in the middle of the living room. Gran was still asleep upstairs.
“Hey, about last night…” said Nancy. “We’re still buddies, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, not sure what else to say.
Nancy never felt like a buddy to me. I mean, adults and kids don’t tend to be buddies, do they? But what role did Nancy play in my life? I still have no idea. She was so much more than a family friend. She obviously wasn’t a step-grandmother. She wasn’t even a grandmother-like figure. She was not even vaguely materteral.
She was Nancy. That’s all. The role she played in our lives was Nancy. There could only be one, and maybe one is all we could’ve handled.
Her death didn’t phase me.
I don’t say this in a mean-spirited way, as if she meant nothing to me, because she did. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this after so many years.
When I say that her death didn’t phase me, I say that as perhaps the greatest tribute I can offer to Nancy’s skills as a journalist.
It only took her nine months to die- and considering that she was a Buddhist and believed in reincarnation, there may be significance in that number- and so we didn’t have much time to prepare.
The whole thing caught us by surprise.
Nancy approached her death with precision and objectivity, using all the tools in her professional arsenal to do this thing right. She was committed to dying well.
Toward the end, she described her experience with eloquence and lucidity.
“It’s not so bad,” she said. “It’s like floating down a long river. There’s no pain. I’m not scared. It’s very calm and peaceful.”
Nancy was on death’s fucking doorstep- or riverbank, as the case may be- and wasn’t scared. So I certainly wasn’t going to be scared. And I wasn’t. I was able to approach her death with the same matter-of-fact approach that she took. She felt no pain, and neither did I. There was just a calm acceptance of the situation.
This is how life happens sometimes. We lose people, and they cannot be replaced, but you move on, and gain new experiences, and meet new people, and think about the departed sometimes. This is how the river runs.
The only thing I missed out on was knowing Nancy when I was an adult, when we could be on a level playing field. Maybe we could’ve been buddies. When I was a kid, she wasn’t a real person to me. She was a force of nature. I recognize in hindsight that she had a rich, fascinating and complicated life that I’ll never know anything about.
When did she realize she was gay? How did her family react? Why did she decide to get into journalism? Did she have any long-term partners before Gran? How did she get into Buddhism? Where did she go to university?
Even these are all superficial questions. I still can’t quite approach her as a flesh and blood person. She’ll always be larger than life.