Kyle on Great Uncle Grant
Is this how the world sees Me?
Back in June 2019, I made my first zine: an illustrated story about my relationship to my Great Uncle Grant. I got an invitation from my friend Michelle (an old Intercom coworker) to contribute to a fundraiser booth she was putting together for the SF Art Book Fair. The booth would sell zines and prints under the theme “How does your identity shape your work?” and all proceeds from the booth would be donated to the nonprofit which runs the fair.
I was honored by the inclusion, but also intimidated by the blank canvas on which I now needed to reflect. In recent years my identity has felt curious and unfamiliar. Or, as my therapist often says when I verge on outright self-loathing, “Feels like we’re touching on that allowing yourself to exist category.”
Can you believe it’s Me who’s keeping Me from existing? Big, if true. Really hard to wrap Me’s head around, considering I’m not even sure where Me-self is in there. Am Me the qualities most noticed and brought to Me attention by others? Or in the traits Me feel most resonance to?
Just one month prior to the zine invitation, my grandma Janett died. Her death sent me into a bit of a spiral. As the self-appointed family historian, I felt an enormous loss of generational wisdom—and a growing guilt for not documenting her, interviewing her, or hell, just calling her one single time in the year before she died.
Janett lived life particularly. As she aged, those particularities got steeper and more specific, and I got convinced that I disappointed her in them. During the last couple years of my undergraduate degree, she let me live in her basement rent and utilities free. When I moved out, all she asked in return was a single game of cribbage and her favorite pizza order from Papa Murphys (a large thin crust Veggie deLITE® with added chicken and garlic sauce to dip in). In a frantic misremembering, I ordered the wrong pizza, and forgot about our plans, and the pizza got fridged.
She didn’t want to reschedule. I felt like she didn’t think I could get it right. During that time our most frequent talks were about the ways I was mistreating things in her home or not keeping up to promises I made. I struggled to fit into the rigid expectations my grandma drew, and defined myself by my failures in that struggle to be near to her. I see now the ways it perpetuated a story (one that goes “Kyle has beans for brains and everybody knows it”) which I have used to soothe myself through low points in my life.
It’s stories like these that compose the death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts verdict of Me, or at least, my grandson identity. But there is one exception, a redemption story, if you’re looking to have mercy on your troubled Kyle. Unfortunately, it’s one with a matched devil-in-details lack of clarity. It’s the story I put into the zine.
It’s those who survive that write the history, grandma!
In the last few years of her life, as she’d leave from some family event, she’d hold my face, draw me in close and say, “You look just like my brother Grant.” Grant was her long-passed brother, a man I never met. A man my parents have tried to assure me I look nothing like. “You both have a beard?” my mom would say after grandma was out of earshot.
That’s enough of a preamble. I’ll now pass the mic to 2019 Kyle:
Emily never got to meet grandma Janett, something we both feel sad about. There’s a little game of speculation we’ve made about which parts of me come from her. Scrubbing white the baseboards? Grandma. Constantly coaching Emily’s driving? Probably grandma.
While it’s fun to remember her in some part, these traits now belong to living Me. They’re now mine to sort. I can’t fault my grandma for wanting to narrow her borders, make clearer the resolution of her own image. She saw firsthand the cost that came to her brother in coming out. Little wonder she fought so hard to instruct the world on her own fair treatment.
We all stumble around, confused by the hall-of-mirrors image that comes back at us in pictures, zoom calls, therapy sessions. “Is this how the world sees me?” we (Kyle) ask at a missionary journal written by an ostracized distant relative. And like the light of a star, traveled over centuries, now dead at the source, we wander bleary and haunted, obscured by the long exposure, never sure which is more real: the distorted self, or the journey it took to finally be seen.
One day, I suspect, Emily will hold my face, draw me in close and say, “you look just like your grandma Janett,” and maybe, even in the absence of any real experience with Janett, she’ll be right. Maybe a day will come when the clear borders of my Kyle-ness will be as clear as Grandma’s were on the day she died. I always figured Grandma was giving me an honest reflection of myself with her constant corrections. Lately I think she was just doing some work in the “allowing [herself] to exist category”.
An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of the author’s grandma. It is Janett, not Janet.