Witnessing Joy Was the Christmas Gift

Christmas 1958.

Christmas in Maine was routine.

Not a hum-drum sort of thing but rather something to count on.

Thanksgiving led to Christmas Eve at the Congo church that kicked off restless sleep before Santa came.

Photo for an annual Christmas card. The popup book? “Poochy the Christmas Pup.”

Before sunrise could emerge my sister and I would locate our bulging knit stockings and empty the contents as our parents looked on.

Then in heightened anticipation of the rest of the day, my mother’s elegant, candle-lit breakfast would be ever-so-slightly rushed.

In record time dishes were washed and put away so that the only thing standing between us and racing toward gift exchanges was Nana Webster’s deliberation.

And trust me when I say her Christmas-day pace was remarkably relaxed.

With Nana Webster in 1960.

She admired each gift.

It was held up and received as if it had been personally delivered by one of the three kings.

Because to her it had been.

And as our elder, she got to go first in the slow rotation — one person, one gift at a time.

It’s a cadence I’ve come to love.

To grandmother’s house we go

Halfway through the day we’d bundle up and walk three houses down to be with our other grandparents where happy chaos prevailed. 

They were faster, didn’t save paper like mom and Nana, and one of them used expletives like most of us throw out thank yous.

“Well for *&@!#%’s sake, who gave me this?” my grandmother would ask.

Bob and Hattie Weatherbee, 1960.

With a door always open to nine children and spouses, 21 grandchildren, great grandchildren and long-time friends, even ordinary days in their home were high-energy events.

And rarely a day passed in my youth when I wasn’t in their company for at least part of it.

This segment of the Christmas ritual meant watching as they opened packages between pausing for coffee warm ups, taking calls from friends, and greeting relatives entering and exiting the scene.

Witnessing joy in one another was what these days were about.

Christmas present

As an adult I count my blessings for each year I get to spend with my husband and children.

And it’s inevitable that sometime during Christmas day, reflection will appear.

I’ll miss kicking off wet boots to  rush into cousin Berta’s room to see what Santa left.

I’ll sense a longing for the sweet scent of baking bread and will feel the acute, still undefined loss that accompanied the stocking’s end as I reached the navel orange that filled the toe.

Such a poor use of space, I still think . . .

I’ll miss my mom and my dad, the man who modeled agape love.

I’ll think about Nana and Grampie Bob and my beloved Grammie. 

Dog memories of Patches, Rocky, Wags and Tippy will color in the background.

And in a flash the foundation responsible for this year’s Christmas will be acknowledged with a nod to the past and a prayer of thanksgiving for the joy I get to witness right here and right now.

Wishing each of you a moment to witness joy 
in this and every day.
. . .
(a recent photo taken at Ariana and Lucas’ wedding in Los Angeles — my son Byron, daughter Audrey, me, and my husband, Ed)

Growing Up In a Town Hospitable to Lesbians and Others With Non-Binary Lifestyles


I’m pretty sure the central-Maine town I grew up in was modestly hospitable to lesbians and other women who didn’t fit neatly into a heterosexual mold.

There were the two close friends who worked in Newberry’s.

The egg lady who made deliveries smoking a pipe.

And the Page sisters in Burlingon I visited with my grandfather.

In hindsight it didn’t seem to matter if these and so many other women I knew were lesbians or fell somewhere else on the LBGTQIA+ spectrum.

Rugged Little Town

Lincoln is carved from a forest of white pines and birches.

Many of the 13, grey-blue lakes that dot the landscape are framed in pink quartz and granite.

It’s much closer to Canada than any major American city.

And it is still the place my heart calls home.


It’s a rugged little town whose sole industry, making paper, closed down as reading became digitized and competitors in China and Finland prevailed.

Overt femininity peaked for many of us in the experimental years of high school.

Perhaps it tapered as the practicalities of living in a remote part of the state took over.

Where snow gets deep and stays.

And summers are breathtaking but require a certain no-nonsense approach to black flies and mosquitoes.

Yet it seemed as long as you were white, Christian (though not necessarily practicing), Republican (as evidenced by not declaring to be a Democrat), a hunter or recipient of the hunt (as my mother was with the necks of deer for mincemeat canning), you were  accepted.

My decade of influence was the 1960s.

Lesbianism and other lifestyles weren’t talked about, but in hindsight they sure seemed to be accepted.

Especially if you were a lone woman or part of a quiet, female couple.

Anti-discrimination in Wyoming and Maine

The second-ever Pride Week just ended in Laramie, Wyoming, the town my husband and I have lived in for the past 11 months.

It’s where Matthew Shepard attended college and was brutally murdered 20 years ago by being beat up, tied up, and left for dead at the base of a fence.

Laramie now has a city ordinance – the only such one in the state – that prohibits “discrimination of any person based upon his or her actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.”

Unlike Maine, Wyoming doesn’t yet have state-wide protection laws.

State anti-discrimination laws
Grey = no state protections; dark purple = states that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; the rest of the state laws are somewhere in between.

Women’s Alternative Lifestyles in Lincoln

Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins
Olympia Snowe (left), represented Maine in Congress for 34 years – 16 as a House Member and 18 as a Senator. Susan Collins (right) has been a Maine U.S. Senator for 22 years.

I have to wonder how the women who chose alternative-lifestyles managed in Lincoln back then.

How did they deal with inheritances, hospital visits, and the whole next-of-kin thing?

And more generally, how much of who they were did they have to keep secret?

Still, I don’t recall — even once — anyone making a face or a fuss over how someone else chose to live.

And this was a time before precedence, formal laws, ordinances or activists for equal rights having much of a voice.

Maine Congresswoman and Senator, Margaret Chase Smith, 1940-1973.

It may simply have been a case of getting along with one another.

Through my eyes it was a matriarchal community, starting with my grandmother, then my mother and her strong, funny friends.

And might that be part of the answer?

When not goaded to separation by hateful media and cruel religious takes on right and wrong, could it be that people naturally accept one another?

Even act kindly?

Maybe as time has passed and Maine continues to elect centrist, independently-minded, female leaders,  Lincoln’s ease with people just as they are continues to grow.

I know my own has.

Take Action!

Read about Lincoln, Maine

Learn about aging LBGTQIA+ in Maine. “AARP Maine/SAGE Maine: Statewide GLBT Aging Project Report,” by Jane Margesson, March 22, 2013.

Learn about SAGE: Advocacy and services for LGBTQ elders

Support  Wyoming Equality.

Learn about EQMaine – Equality Maine

Learn about non-discrimination in Maine

Read about Wyoming’s Safe Zone, free online trainings for LBGTQIA allies.

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West