November 23, 2018

The American Branch of the Saunders clan – my generation. Early 1990s. From Left – Jenny Hellmann, Jeannie Duxbury Rae, Tom Hellmann, Jack Hellmann, Alec Duxbury with me in front

Dateline: Seattle, Washington-

I didn’t write last night as I was somewhat languorous after a fine Thanksgiving meal and wasn’t up to much afterwards other than drifting off to sleep to digest. It’s been a very structured couple of days. Yesterday was devoted to catching up on some work work in the afternoon and then the gathering of the clan in the evening. Today was devoted to some family catching up and my taking advantage of Black Friday to do the Christmas shopping for the family while I am here and get it wrapped and assembled into a gift basket so it’s over and done with and I don’t need to worry about it at all in December.

Tommy and I tried to make either Thanksgiving or Christmas up here over the years as those are the two important festivals at which the clan, also known as the American branch of the Saunders family, gets together. We missed both last year and this was, of course, my first one of these festivities since his death. In general, we had had more luck with Thanksgiving than Christmas in recent years. Considering that Christmas at our house the last five years or so consisted of Tommy wigging the Red Mountain Holiday Spectacular which would go into tech Thanksgiving weekend and usually required about 80 wigs, Opera Birmingham’s holiday performance which he would organize, do the set for and cater, singing the Messiah with the Alabama Symphony, prepare the kids at church for the annual pageant and create the props and costumes, Christmas Eve service at the church which he would lead the singing, cook dinner for the fifteen members of his family for Christmas eve, and prepare food for 200 for our annual holiday open house. My jobs were decorating the house including all of the trees, doing the Christmas shopping for both families, and running beyond Tommy and keeping him sane and on task. (And people wonder why I’m not doing the holidays at all this year…)

Frederick Anastatius Saunders, my great grandfather, was one of the younger sons of a huge Victorian family from Peckham, outside of London, trained as physician and ended up in practice in Scotland in the town of Crail, near Edinburgh, When his first wife developed TB of the spine, he moved her and their young children to South Africa for the salubrious climate. She died anyway and he went back to Scotland, quickly found a suitable candidate for wife number two and so my great grandmother, Lucy Meiklejohn, set sail from Edinburgh to Grahamstown South Africa in 1891 to marry him. We know a great deal about those events as Lucy kept the letters sent to her monthly by her mother Jane Cussans Meiklejohn full of family news and they survived to come to my mother who transcribed them all and they are a wonderful window into late Victorian/Edwardian family life.

Me with the only non-American member of the Saunders clan I have ever met, my second cousin Helen Lawlor deVillers and her husband Jonathan deVillers. San Francisco 1989

Fredrick and Lucy produced five surviving children including three sons who had families of their own. Reginald Saunders stayed in South Africa but his children and grandchildren have emigrated to the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. Philip Saunders emigrated to Canada. My grandfather John Saunders, along with his wife Alison Jean Maxwell-Wood, emigrated to the US ending up in San Francisco where they raised two daughters, my mother Alison and my aunt Margery. After they grew up, both marrying academics, the two sisters lived in various placed but, starting in the late 1960s, both ended up in Seattle as both of their husbands had faculty positions at the University of Washington. With three children each, the American branch of the Saunders clan took shape under their married names of Duxbury and Hellmann.

Thanksgiving and Christmas alternated between households with a set, traditional menu, inherited from my Saunders grandparents who would come up from San Francisco as often as they could. Turkey, with a green olive/bread dressing and garnished with sausages, mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce, bread sauce (a very British condiment), a green vegetable (which was allowed to vary some) and, for the Christmas meal only, flaming plum pudding with hard sauce. The meal and the traditions remained immutable and unchanging for decades. As my generation grew up, married, reproduced, and dragged additional family members into the circle, it changed somewhat. I first brought Tommy to one of these feasts at Thanksgiving, 2003. We had been in Los Angeles for some reason. (I think I had some meetings or maybe they were his meetings? I no longer remember) but we added a few days to the business trip, went to Disney together for the first time, and flew up to Seattle and back for a couple of days. I recall telling him about the idiosyncracies of the family meal but I don’t think I did a very good job as he came in expecting a turkey stuffed with whole green olives and festooned with ropes of sausages, which is not what we do. He teased me about it for years.

My father’s senior community is very conveniently located a block from a major shopping mall so I walked over this morning expecting huge Black Friday crowds. It wasn’t more crowded than a usual weekend which does not bode well for the retail season. I took an hour to wander and look at things, then decided it was to be an appropriate book for everyone and headed for the Barnes and Noble and knocked out the shopping in an hour or so. I like books as gifts. They last, they give pleasure, and they’re easy to wrap. Tommy, who had inherited the gay gene that allows one to take some tissue paper, old toilet paper rolls, and a box of Crayolas and emerge after an hour with a parade float, was very fond of gift baskets and he would create these elaborate confections of presents, ribbon, ornaments and clear cellophane every year. I, who did not get that gene, managed to learn just enough to be able to put together one basket for the family as long as the contents are fairly regularly shaped and that is now assembled and staring at me from across my father’s apartment.

I had lunch with my cousin Jenny. She is the closest to me in age and in temperament of the six Saunders descendants in my generation. She is two years younger than I, but was only a year behind me in school as she skipped a grade and we went to high school together and she then followed me to Stanford. We’ve always been very close and pick up just where we left off, no matter how long it has been since we last saw each other. Her life, like mine, has been marred by a certain amount of tragedy and we know we have always had each others backs since toddlerhood. She’s an attorney, but much prefers teaching art so just does the legal work to pay the bills and does her art the rest of the time. We are also physically very alike and we’ve joked for decades that we should play Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. (I actually did end up playing Sebastian for Park Players back in 2005 but, alas, she was in Seattle at the time). We’re probably a bit long in the tooth for it now.

Dinner tonight was en famille with my brother, sister-in-law and nieces. (My sister and her boyfriend having departed today for a week in New York). My sister-in-law, Sally, is the founder of Oiselle, a company that makes women’s running apparel so we went and toured her first store after dinner. I bought a little something for my female running colleagues, The Geriots of Fire. Now, I am reflecting on family, tradition, fifty some years of Saunders genome in the Pacific Northwest, and preparing to go to bed early as I have to get up at some ridiculous hour to get to Sea-Tac and catch my morning flight back to Dixie.

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