Valentine’s Game

1882 Jozef Israel Painting "Family At The Table" — Source: The Google Art Project and Wikimedia Commons

I breathe easier knowing my grandfather died before the age of Trump. My grandfather, a fiercely opinionated man, believed in people’s power and populism. He was the first person to breathe the word “communism” in my presence — then, in the early nineties, still a dirty word. His relationship with populism and fascism was complicated. His own father had been a soldier in Mussolini’s army, but taken prisoner for most the war in North Africa and presumed dead, leaving my grandfather’s family without a source of income, broken, and ostracized in their small Italian village.

My grandfather was still a young child when Canadian soldiers liberated his village from Axis powers at the end of the Second World War. I still remember my grandfather’s smile at that particular memory — from that point in his life, he would forever associate Canada with hope. When he emigrated to North America, he became a factory worker. Like most men of his age, class, and cultural origin, he had a difficult time with contemporary liberal politics. Decades later, by the time 2008 was said and done, he often felt a strong need to express his dislike for Obama and Obama-style politics. But towards the end of his life, as sickness and age eroded his ability to track world politics — and wage interminable, circular political arguments at the dinner table — he did not have to watch the rise of Trump-style American fascism as his children and grandchildren watched him die. Small mercies.

I’m thinking of that on Valentine’s Day. I’m twenty-six, and I just watched my family blow up in my face.


 

I’ve been here before.

We were always a family split along linguistic and cultural lines — I often joked that my parents’ dinner table was a Babel where three or four languages could be heard simultaneously. Even if bits were lost in translation, nothing could stop the signal of this beautiful cacophony.

As is often the case, there’s only so much difference that blood and habit account for. Eventually, something cracks. We lost our ability to speak to each other.

It ends this time, as it did last time, with an email from my father. This one contains only two words: “Fuck you.”


We are not Americans, but American-style politics have become, in the past decade, our common frame of reference despite ourselves. My brother, the youngest sibling, often wears a baseball cap mimicking those red ones we saw on television at the American Republican National Convention. He calls himself the most feminist person of the family, as he uses racially and sexually charged language to provoke anyone at the dinner table into a confrontation. He is a master of pivot-and-redirect argumentation. He loves to personalize everything. The moment I begin talking about patriarchy, or racism, or oppression in terms larger than any one individual person, he reframes the conversation to be all about him, about whether or not we think he is a bad person, whether we think he is acting like a white supremacist, whether we love him enough despite his faults.

My brother also fully admits to be trolling us at the dinner table. It’s all a joke: the baseball-cap-wearing-redneck attitude, the role of devil’s advocate, even the yelling out of racial epithets to shock us.

Nonetheless, my parents are fiercely protective of his right to say whatever he wants. Every argument with him happens the exact same way. I have tried arguing with him at the dinner table and on Facebook. I have tried being calm, taking him aside one-on-one to detangle this web of entitlement and rage that keeps its iron grip on my brother and won’t let go.

I have also tried, as I did just this last Valentine’s Day after another disastrous family dinner, to walk away. To walk away from his provocations, from this game he plays where he tries to get me to call him out for racist or sexist behaviours in front of our parents. Because he knows that the moment I do that, it’s game over. My father will rise from his chair and begin to scream. My mother will defend her son, throwing daggers with her eyes. As my brother knows well, the bulk of that rage is directed towards me. It’s the fault of feminists that my brother behaves this way. It’s our fault, as women, that my brother channels his insecurity as the youngest in this way.

I reach out to my father later that evening to apologize, again, that dinner was ruined, again. The response is: “Fuck you.”

Reading the email, somehow I am still capable of stupefaction. I am struck with the memory of my grandfather in tears when I admitted to him that I wasn’t sure my father loved me, let alone even liked me.


The problem likely isn’t a lack of love. My father shunned me when I was twenty years old, and I usually describe the year after as the worst of my short life. My life was split into a before and an after; the edges of that divide reached into my family, as certain members of my family no longer spoke to me and others still did, braving my father’s chilly wrath.

My grandfather never stopped speaking to me.

It was through his efforts, my grandmother’s, and eventually my mother’s, that after a long, frosty year, I reached out again towards my father and accepted his help on his terms.

I was dating my nonbinary ex-partner at the time, a relationship that disturbed the delicate heteronormativity my family adhered to religiously. My ex was furious I was speaking with my father again: in fact, it nearly broke us up right then and there. They kept asking me how I could do this to myself after everything that had happened. After all the work we had done to make it to that point, my ex believed that I was cracking under the financial pressure of trying to cope with being in university full-time, working full-time, and being without my family’s financial help. They were truly, completely furious with me. I realise now, with the benefit of hindsight, that so much of that anger was fear — fear for me, fear for my fragilized mental health, and even fear for them.

While my dire financial straits certainly were a factor that encouraged me to reconcile with my father, the truth is that that doesn’t even come close to the full reason. The simple truth is: I love my father. I love my father even when he calls me a whore. Even when he calls me a liar. Even when he screams at me. Even when he tells my brother to go commit suicide. Even when he tells me that my mental illness, multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations, weren’t real. Even when he tells me that no one would ever love someone as screwed up as me. Even when he has never once apologized for saying these things. I love him even when he tells me, so simply: “Fuck you.”


My grandfather, when he was a young immigrant factory worker, asked my grandmother to dance on a Valentine’s Day. It was the very first time they met: star-crossed love between young immigrants separated by language, continents and race. The Day of Love has always had a mythic quality in my family. Somehow, the story of my grandparents falling in love and beating every single odd before them seemed a story too pure for the shallow claws of commercial capitalism and the cynical Hallmark-card-narrative reaffirming heterosexual gender roles. The story of their first date was a story my grandfather and grandmother adored telling, over and over, long after we had already memorized all the details.

It would be on a Valentine’s Day, in another century, in another world, that the very same family my grandfather built, could be so easily torn apart.

I am not alone. I may be walking away, but I am not alone. I reach out to a friend of mine, who works in the United States and has recently been disowned, financially and in all other ways, by her family because she would not support Trump.

We admit to ourselves that we don’t know, exactly, how to cope with this. We spent a day crying or staring at a wall, and then we rolled up our sleeves and threw ourselves back into work. We try not to worry about the fact that our futures have become dimmer. We try not to think of family reunions and dinners that we will miss. We try not to think of the holidays and vacations we will not be invited to. Funerals, weddings, births we might miss. These memories with loved ones are fleeting and ephemeral — I think of my grandfather dying last year. I don’t even remember the last proper dinner I had with him, when he was still completely lucid and there.

We try not to wonder about these things, and instead try to come to terms with the fact that this has happened at all. The usual suspects: the ever-present accident of our birth and bodies and gender; our queerness; our unapologetic commitment to a feminism that isn’t bullshit; our generational status as entitled millennials with terrible job and housing prospects. In my family, I consider the part language and culture have to play, and think of God confounding Babel until all its people scattered, no longer able to connect with one another. Trauma manifests, poisonous and inescapable. Can it really be that simple, that we are estranged, denigrated, or refused for these reasons? How have Trump-style politics and violence arrived at our dinner table and infected our conversations? How is it so easy for love to be corrupted as it is?

There will be a before, and an after, now. My friend in the United States admits that, just like with my own family, the tension in her family ran high for years, and while the results were usually explosive and terrible, she’d always been able to avoid the finality of this kind of confrontation in the past. Somehow, a few weeks into President Trump’s presidency, a dam broke somewhere — she was unable to escape this outcome.

We wonder about the stresses of “unconditional love” on children and on parents, how it broke us as proverbial lines were drawn in the sand. These cracks in the earth that separate children from their parents, or siblings from each other, don’t seem to matter much in the greater scheme of things. If a political agenda is being served by all this interpersonal chaos and violence, it will probably be for posterity to name and trace its contours, though I have my theories.

After Valentine’s Day, I call my oldest friend. She is, coincidentally, also estranged from her father. I ask her why it seems like the whole world has become a nightmare, and why it feels like it is going to only get worse. She says that she feels it too. She tries to cheer me up as an afterthought, reminding me: “Things always seem darkest before dawn.” The platitude is one we’ve exchanged before. It hangs awkwardly between us in the phone static, as we both take a second to steel ourselves.

The “Fuck you.” echoes, viscerally. When I open my emails I have to reign in the urge to close my computer in panic. I need to go back to work. I take in a deep breath, find my father’s email, and delete it from my inbox.


This was an anonymous contribution to Gods and Radicals. A complete list of Gods and Radicals publications can be found here.