Holiday nostalgia as the granddaughter of a cult leader is bittersweet at best. My family is made of strong women, some of them abusive. My grandmother in particular was a confusing presence in my life, and a destructive force in the world. One moment I can be happily remembering the food served at family Thanksgiving (marinated pork, black beans and yellow rice, and all the yams with marshmallow I could eat). The next moment I remember that my grandmother – my funny, charming, great-at-parties grandma – has a body count. And then it’s not so fun.
My relationship with religion is spiky and emotionally charged. I grew up in a faith healing cult but also attending services and church functions at much more mainstream institutions of faith. I still love Christmas carols and hymns that we sang in church choir, and I remember what a happy song Joy to the World is to play on a piano. I loved Christmas with my family too, gathering all the extended relatives together for a day of opening gifts and playing Encore! (a musical board game for song lyric nerds, popular with the whole gang).
I remember playing with my cousins, and my cousins’ cousins, in my aunt’s backyard at Thanksgiving. I remember everyone getting together on the beach for 4th of July, when we celebrated the summer birthdays of the family. I remember so many good things, but it feels almost selfish to have so many good memories of a family centered around a woman who brought so much pain into the world. She killed a woman in a car accident. Left a sponge inside a surgical patient as a nurse, causing his death. As a faith healer, she was the spiritual inspiration that led to the deaths of at least two laboring mothers, three neonates, and three older children (two of whom were buried in a state park and their deaths not reported, eventually leading to their parents’ arrest.)
It’s hard to reconcile the terrible toll she had on the world with the woman who taught me to love Shakespeare and musical theater, the woman who gave me my sense of humor. It’s hard to know how much it’s even my place to forgive her. In some ways I was closest to her, but I was never the most harmed by her. In some ways my proximity – and my genetic relation – bought me protection. In other ways, it entrapped me. Cognitive dissonance seems the only way to cope with her role in my life.
Holidays are very different these days. It’s just me and my son. His Christmases are small, early morning affairs with no cousins to play with, no aunts to pinch his cheeks, no grandma to rock him in her lap singing hymns – or recruit him into her dangerous and irresponsible cult. No grandma to get him in a fatal car accident before third grade. No aunts to ignore his boundaries and tickle him when he begs them to stop. (I can’t come up with a bad thing to say about my cousins, even though it would provide better literary balance. I love my cousins.)
I can’t go back and have a different childhood, one without a cult. If I could, I think I’d like to keep most of my relatives. Maybe even grandma. If she’d just been the narcissistic emotional vampire grandma I have always loved, if she didn’t have a body count, it would be easy to overlook her other sins. I tend to anyway. It’s the death toll I can’t get around, can’t overlook, can’t pretend away. I don’t know how relatives of serial killers feel, but I can make a few educated guesses.