‘I could have burst into tears. I was just there, with everyone else, a part of the family’: Soula Emmanuel’s most meaningful Christmas
Three years after beginning her transition, Soula Emmanuel found acceptance in the quiet normality of joining the family Christmas photo as her true self.
Christmas 2020 was a meaningful one. The game birds and the smoking crackers were stuffed with meaning. And there was meaning, too, in the greater distances between us. In the people we didn’t see.
My grandfather’s nursing home closed to visitors on March 2. We got a phone call within thirty-six hours of COVID reaching Dublin. “First thing, Monday morning: we’re closed.” The residents didn’t mind. And they were in safe hands, thank goodness. There were no cases. They made it to the end of the longest year.
My grandfather doesn’t know my name. But then he doesn’t really know anyone’s name anymore, so I don’t take it personally.
Lots of things change the complexion of families, and I suppose transitioning is one of them. There was a time when it was taken for granted that coming out as a trans woman would sever family ties. People would leave their small towns behind, go off to bigger and more tolerant cities and they’d never look back, not unless they wanted to.
Now, we’re on a doorstep of history. Trans people are here, but we have not yet stepped in fully. We’re shivering on the welcome mat, looking at a wreath, its red, greens and oranges, not quite knowing what it is we’ll find when the door finally opens.
So what do you do? Do you send a postcard to the relatives, informing them?
In the end, we didn’t tell my grandfather. There didn’t seem to be much point. And it was one less moment of anxiety – one less question mark in a year that was full of them, for so many reasons.
People have been good to me. I’ve been lucky with family. Not everyone is.
Transitioning into a pandemic is an experience rich with irony. Coming out only to go back in again. As the plane crashed down, she thought: well isn’t this nice. I had no idea living my truth would involve so many boxsets. One day I’m sure I’ll look back and reflect on how very funny it was. But at the time it felt the same way it felt for most other people – like my life had stalled.
The great thing about Christmas is that it’s about other people. When you’re a trans woman stuck at home for a year, already prone to navel-gazing at the best of times, it’s useful to have an opportunity to step outside yourself.
And it’s about the kids most of all. They are the real beneficiaries of the season. That’s why they have Bop-Its and Billie Barry kids on TV. That’s why they don’t call it the Late Late Introspection Show.
We hadn’t had a Christmas with young children for years. But in 2020 my niece arrived, during the lull between the first and second COVID waves. She was my parents’ first grandchild. She was three months old at Christmas – the age when they start grabbing at fingers, smiling at nothing, pulling at the hair I had spent the preceding years growing out.
It gets harder to buy Christmas presents for people as they get older. Children are easily pleased: I know I was with my bicycle and my juddery PlayStation and the portentous electric typewriter Santy brought me at the age of seven.
What do you buy an eighty-eight-year-old, sat on his armchair in his nursing home, a kept man? My grandfather used to sing All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth – the original Mariah Carey. But even his teeth are too well looked-after to concern us now.
No – what you get a man who has been staring a face-masks for the last nine months is the gift of seeing his family. So that is what we did, via a family photo.
Christmas Day was hectic, as it always is. Keeping the baby entertained, keeping the dog away from the baby, keeping about twenty kilos of food away from the dog. All of it coloured by the fear that we might be busily engaged in giving each other the gift of the novel coronavirus, as well as everything else.
There were flying visits too – we weren’t in lockdown yet – so that presents could be given and received. In lieu of vouchers for restaurants, there were bird feeders. In lieu of spa weekends, there were more bird feeders.
But then we got to my grandfather’s present, awarded to him in absentia because we weren’t able to visit the nursing home on Christmas Day. A photo collage, of all his grandchildren and his great-granddaughter. My niece was there, looking impossibly small, a little red holly berry with a face.
And I was there too, somewhere in the middle. As me – who else would I be?
I could have burst into tears there and then. It was the simplicity of it. The way that no attention was drawn to me. I was just there, with everyone else, a part of the collage, a part of the family.
Sometimes acceptance is not a hug. It is not a grand gesture. Sometimes acceptance is in quiet moments.
It was a meaningful Christmas.