Today is November 28, and we’re in the swing of the holiday season, though most stores – and radio stations – started the holidays November 1, right after Halloween. It is also the start of another season of anxieties, depression, and bad memories for me.
The only family I have here in the US are my parents. Both come from Germany, so my entire family lives overseas. There was an older couple who lived next door to us in Da Bronx; they became my “adopted” grandparents. They had issues with their own children and grandchildren, and were delighted to play grandparents to a child who truly appreciated what they did. My adopted grandfather – Popeye – got me on Romper Room for one season, so I am a kind-of-celebrity-if-you’re-really-straining-to-look-for-celebrities. He also arranged for me to meet Bozo the Clown, who is about two inches tall on TV, but about 10 feet tall in person; hence my fear of clowns. But I digress…
In an attempt to make sure I got to know my family in Germany, my parents and I made many trips when I was a kid. I didn’t know my grandfather on my mother’s side, and my grandmother from that side was often ill, so our visits with her were short. On my father’s side, though, I spent a lot of time with Oma and Opa, both in Germany and when they came to visit us in the US. Lots of “bonding” and that sort of stuff. Everything appeared to be perfectly normal. But when I was 16, I was going to learn a harsh life lesson.
One year, Opa decided to visit us by himself. Oma had just been placed in a home — she was diagnosed with dementia – and he felt this may be his last trip to the US. Popeye was living in Sarasota, and my parents decided it would be an interesting for me to experience both of my grandfathers together, so they sent Opa and I to Florida. And, as one would expect, my father wanted me to spend some time with solely his father, my blood-related grandfather, so I could learn about life in Germany, about our family, etc., so the two of us went to that most magical place on Earth, DisneyWorld (written with a heavy dose of sarcasm). Well, the magic of Mickey, Donald, and all those other creatures did not help with the evil that was about to happen in a hotel room.
Opa was already acting somewhat odd at dinner, treating it like we were on a date, rather than grandfather/granddaughter. I assumed that since this was the first time EVER that we were alone, he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do, so I didn’t think much of it. However, that night, in the hotel room, he got into bed with me and started to molest me. It didn’t last long – maybe three minutes – but three minutes can feel like an eternity under such circumstances. I kept talking to him, telling him this wasn’t right, but there would be no verbal response; it was almost like he was in a daze. Finally, I managed to push him off. He walked calmly back to his bed and went to sleep. Needless to say, I did not sleep, and actually sat in a chair for the rest of the night. The next day, he acted like nothing had happened, but my trip to mental catastrophe had begun.
When we got back to Sarasota, I gave Popeye the longest hug I think I’ve ever given anyone, and I made sure the three of us were always together. I did not tell him what happened, nor did I tell my parents when we got back to New York. I did not think they would believe me; after all, this man was a pillar of the community, beloved by the citizens of the village where he lived. For me, my battle with depression began, and I continued to keep my mouth shut for next 21 years.
After years of avoiding depression screenings, I finally took one and it saved my life (I was planning on a second suicide attempt the night before my 40th birthday). In my second session with the therapist – the SECOND hour I knew this total stranger – I told him what happened in Florida. He comforted me, told me it was not my fault and that I had nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about… and he said my parents would believe me.
Ironically, my grandfather was on death’s doorway at that time, and my father was in Germany to prepare for the funeral. I was at my parent’s house doing the laundry, and I suddenly blurted out to my mother the story of DisneyWorld. Her first response, as I expected, was, “Why didn’t you ever tell us?” My response was, “Because I didn’t think you’d believe me.” She then began telling me stories about my father’s family that were not pleasant. My grandmother suffered from depression and she drank. My grandfather did not physically abuse her, but he essentially ignored her, preferring the adoration of the townspeople. My grandmother’s brother hanged himself (to this day, I have not told my parents about my numerous suicidal thoughts and attempts… there are some things I just don’t need to share). My father and his brother basically had to fend for themselves. So the whole situation was more like a fairy tale from the Grimm Brothers than one from Disney.
My mother told my father over the phone. My father told his brother, who promptly broke the dinner table when he smashed his fists down on it. They both had a talk with their father, even though he really wasn’t conscious, but that’s what I wanted… for them to know while the old man was still alive.
When my father came home, he, too, asked why I never told them and I gave him the same response. Then he did something he never, ever did in his life… he apologized. He said he had no clue that something like this would happen and would not have sent us to Florida if he did… and I believe him. I still do. He told me all kinds of tales about what went on in their house… again, no physical abuse, just ignorance of the people who needed the head of the household the most.
Now, you’re asking yourself, “OK, Kipper, that’s a horrible story, but what does it have to do with Christmas?” My grandfather’s birthday was December 24. Christmas Eve. That evening holds a lot of traditions among Germans, and it is also when we open our gifts by the light of the lit Christmas tree. I always looked forward to it, and always enjoyed it. Until I was 16. From that point on, I had to send not only a holiday card but a birthday card to the man who molested me in a hotel in Orlando. When I moved out on my own, I also felt compelled to decorate, even though I didn’t want to… “tradition,” you know? It wasn’t until I started therapy 14 years ago, that I realized I didn’t have to decorate. I didn’t need to have constant reminders of the holidays around my apartment 24/7 for four weeks. And that’s when things changed. I suddenly didn’t mind listening to Christmas music (though NOT at the beginning of November) as long as it’s under my control. And I own every TV holiday special and enjoy watching them, again, as long as it’s under my control.
As the stores start marketing holiday stuff earlier and earlier, I feel anxiety and depression come on earlier and earlier, too. And, naturally, when the words “Christmas Eve” get uttered, the memory flies through my head for about five seconds, same as if someone utters “DisneyWorld” or “grandfather.” But by taking control of how I handle the holiday, the anxiety and depression are not nearly as bad as it was for those 22 years. Plus, watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas always puts me in a good mood (the ORIGINAL animated classic, not the horrendous movie version).
Why did I spend time writing all of this? This is the first time I’ve ever put into written words what happened in that hotel room. And just like talking about it got a lot of the pain out of my system, I wanted to put it on digital paper to say, “Yeah, I was down, but not out. And here’s my story.”