A Gift You Can Never Wrap

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A swirly background in blues, oranges, and golds. The words HOLIDAYS 2022 are on torn gold paper, along with the Autostraddle logo.

Holigays 2022 // Header by Viv Le

When I was a kid, my favorite thing about the holidays was the idea of presents more so than the receiving of them. The unknowing void wrapped in brightly colored paper tied carefully with ribbons stashed below a tree. We used to get the Sears Wishbook right as November turned to December, and I would pore over it to earmark every page of Lego sets and Ghostbusters paraphernalia. Whenever my mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I would simply deliver a Sears catalog bent at every page and tell her I had made some decisions. I never wanted anything in the physical sense. There was no Lego set I could build that would make me feel complete. But I knew this was a part I was meant to play, and I was happy to abide by the script.

The holidays have come to represent many things to me. As the years trace memories in my mind, December has become a collection of time balled into a single experience. A festive homunculus of memory. Sitting in my mother’s kitchen watching her bake cookies and cinnamon buns and fruitcake we would never eat. Christmas music collected and played in an endless loop from a stereo in the distance, dancing with the fresh smell of a pine tree recently received from the backwoods of the Yukon behind our house. A tree that is tall yet thin, with innumerable branches sparsely adorned with needles and foliage. What the tree lacks in volume, we make up for in decorations made of popsicles sticks and pinecones and old childhood photos hot glued to festive shapes.

It’s the time of year my family always spent together. When we were younger, my dad would try and work less, my sister would be around and willing to spend time with me, and my mom would be the center of every day, cooking, inviting friends over and planning the one lavish party my parents hosted every year. We would decorate the tree and drink non-alcoholic punch until my sister and I turned old enough to drink very alcoholic alcohol in the basement. We are not a family that is terribly concerned about family most of the year, but in December we were always together, and it was always important to do so.

Our extended family is tricky. My father’s side: Welsh immigrants who landed and decided to stay in Vancouver, British Columbia when they decided to make Canada their home. On his side, my grandfather died before I was born, and my grandmother only came to visit us one time. I remember her standing in the kitchen and lecturing me about how little I knew about my origins of Welsh and Greek heritage and what a waste it was for me to grow up in Canada disconnected from my roots. I was 10 or 11 when I received this lesson, and she never visited again or inquired about our health in the decades before she passed away. I don’t even remember her name.

My mother’s side we knew better. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a complex man built of stern anger and playful whimsy. He would joke with us, play pranks to cause endless delight, but would also yell at drivers and women and the peacock that would occasionally wander down the road of his property. My grandmother would sidestep the barbs of his anger and sweetly ask if you wanted to go into the other room, close the door, and watch Disney. She had an immaculate collection of Disney VHS tapes in their original puffy clamshell cases, and you could put Lady & The Tramp on as loud as you wanted, as loud as a movie could cover the yells of a complicated grandfather irate about trivial matters.

My grandfather passed away a good number of years ago now when I was no longer living at home and, having learned the truth of what a man yells when young children cannot hear him, had long cut him out of my life. But my grandmother remained just a sweet and kind woman who would come visit and sit in the nice chair in our living room, knitting and sleeping and shuffling about in slippers.

At Christmas, my grandmother never asked what I wanted, she just sent me a nice card that said she was thinking of me and that she loved me and hoped to see me soon and truly she was the only one who knew what to get me every year.

When I came out as trans, in the dark dead cold of a Yukon winter quite a few years ago now, I mantled the burden of telling everyone in my life — friends, family, acquaintances, and local grocers — who I really was, who I had hidden away for decades. This was the real me, the one I had wished to be on the pages of the Sears Wishbook I never dared earmark, finally arrived. My family took the news in stride, my mother confused and then upset and then confused in a new way. My father was mad but only that I thought he would be upset or would look down on me. My sister was annoyed to have not had a sister for so long until now.

But my mom told me we could not tell my grandmother, for she was too old and wouldn’t get it, this confusing and upsetting news. So that Christmas, a month and a bit after I first came out, we lied to her. And then the next Christmas, we maintained that lie. After that, I moved away and didn’t come back to the Yukon to see my family all that often, and my grandmother wasn’t allowed to know who I had turned out to really be underneath it all and thus didn’t know who to send cards to at Christmas. She just sent them to a name that no longer existed.

In the years that followed, I always wondered what she thought happened to me. Had I died or disappeared or been whisked away by a cult that cuts off all ties to your former life. My sister would occasionally tell me that she asked about me, and my sister had to maintain the lie we promised our mother we could keep up, and so she would tell my Grandmother that the version of me, the lie who had ceased to exist years ago, was doing fine. The lie lived in Toronto, a lone truth floating in a sea of deception.

My mother, who herself is in ever worsening health and this year alone has taken numerous concerning turns, asked me what I wanted for Christmas this year. I was out walking the dog and thinking about smoking and trying to make a secret plan with my sister to surprise my mom for the holidays. I told her I had no idea, which is always true, and that I didn’t need anything. I had no Wishbook to earmark or secret hopes to unfurl. All of my wishes were things you could never wrap with immaculate precision, placed under a tree with great care.

My mother, who had to cancel multiple trips and visits this year due to the state of her health, was finally stable enough to get out of her home and accompany my sister on a trip to Vancouver. And it was there, in a hotel room on a Wednesday afternoon, she gave me the gift I never had to ask for.

I was once again out for a walk, with the dog and thinking about smoking, and my sister texted me to say that the lie was over. My mother had told my grandmother who I was. I called my mom right away, and she told me the story, about how she relented and told my grandmother in a rather clumsy way which involved a lot of born-in-the-wrong-body storytelling which I would never have done but it’s fine that she did, and now my grandmother knew my name was Niko and that I live in Toronto with my fiance and a dog and two cats and I’m a writer of stories my mom doesn’t read unless I send them to her.

The next day, I got a text from my grandmother for the first time in years and it was long and sweet, and in it she told me she loved me and hoped to see me someday soon. It was every card I hadn’t gotten from her in years. I called my mom to tell her I had heard from my grandmother and, before I could tell her, she told me the same story she had told me the day before because her mind hadn’t allowed her to hold onto the memory, and she was so excited to tell me that the lie was now finally at rest. A gift received twice.

My mom didn’t have to ask me what to really get me for Christmas this year. She delivered it unknown in a story told over the phone precisely the same way two times in as many days. A gift of a family that felt whole and connected once more and a grandmother that finally was aware of my name and safety. A gift that you could never write on a page.


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Niko Stratis

Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in outlets like SPIN, Bitch, Xtra, Catapult and more. Her work primarily focuses on culture, the 1990s, queer/trans topics and as often as possible where all those ideas intersect. 

She wrote that piece about Jackass that you liked and also the Gin Blossoms one. 

She is also the creator and host of V/A Club, a podcast about movie soundtracks.

Niko lives in downtown Toronto with her fiancé and their dog and 2 cats. She is a cancer.

Niko has written 41 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. This beautiful story made me cry ❤️

    Your grandmother and my grandmother were cut from the same template. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss my mine – I never got the chance to really come out to her in the way I wanted before she was too ill to understand, but she was always the person in my family who saw me and accepted me for exactly who I was, no explanations needed. I’m so happy you got the gift of that text 💕

  2. Niko, this is a beautiful piece about a very poignant experience. I’m sorry and sad and angry that your Mom made the choice to lie and not at least give your Grandmother – who tolerated her husband for decades and managed to stay loving and accepting of him. Your Mom didn’t think she would be able to tolerate/accept/continue loving YOU, her precious innocent grandchild. I know it’s not an analogy between her husband’s harmful behaviors and your innocent and positive identity, but it’s just striking me as ironic and demonstrates how parents can make illogical choices about coming out to grandparents. My parents did a similar thing with my lesbian identity in 1988, and I just went along with it for a while. Later in life I learned how much more queer-positive things were in the earlier parts of the 20th century than for my parents’ Baby Boomer era. So I think sometimes there are grandparents who are better at support than parents. Which may be true for other reasons as well, like how grandparents spoil even after being strict as parents.
    I’m rambling, but I am just so moved by your piece and I love discussing things I read, even if it’s just in the comments section.
    I hope your heart is feeling so much peace and more loved and valued now.

  3. This is so complicated and beautiful and makes me so thankful for the large and small ways my family is growing, becoming people who can give these kinds of gifts without thinking about it, which is a long way from where we started. Happy holidays!

  4. This is such a beautiful & meaningful story! Thank you so much Niko, I absolutely love your writing & am always pleased to see a new story from you because I know it’s going to be awesome!

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