Easter is by far my least favorite holiday. Not for a gripe against Jesus, or about Christianity and Paganism, or that weak-willed whining of adults who as kids had the labor of twice a year dressing for church. It was on this holiday in 1981 that Dr. John Wiswell died, and that sort of a thing sticks with a John Wiswell.
I grew up hearing he was my guardian angel. I also grew up hearing he was an atheist. He was a sickly man who couldn’t get out of bed on his own, and he almost left my grandmother for another woman. They couldn’t have kids and adopted them to build a loving family, and he kept a harmful emotional distance from them. For most of my childhood he was a photo on my father’s desk that Dad wouldn’t talk about. My paternal grandfather managed to exist as a highly contradictory set of myths, myths that were retold and reappropriated every April.
All myths tied to the central Easter story. I spent most Easters at my grandmother’s; I’m told my birth saved her life, coming so shortly after the loss of her husband. That’s one of many things I heard from her, or my father on the drive to Maryland, or my mother on the drive back. That Easter story had a damnable habit of changing.
There’s a 1981 Easter dinner, my Mom and Dad sitting at John Wiswell’s dining table, John telling his son he wasn’t good enough for his wife. In some versions he was joking; years later, after my mother divorced him, more versions pitted John as serious. I remember one Easter Story where he was so excited over the prospect of a grandson, arguing over the best place for him to be born, though I also recall one about him spending that morning in the basement workshop, alone, refusing to tell anyone what he was doing. The most common is the 1981 Easter dinner where a family member came out as gay, and John was so visibly shaken that he went upstairs to lie down. In every version of the Easter story he went upstairs to lie down, and he never returned.
It was a heart attack that left my grandmother a widow for my entire lifetime. She’s looking at her 95th birthday this summer. That’s one of the ways I mark my life: I’m the length of time that the sweet old lady has been without John Wiswell.
None of the John Wiswell Easters are necessarily true, but they combine to a very good primer on how people’s agendas define history. Even when I was too naïve to really doubt each contradictory tale, I understood they came because my father was particularly morose that weekend, or my grandmother felt particularly nostalgic, or from whatever was behind my aunt’s cloudy eyes. I appreciated and internalized all the myths.
Perhaps I internalized them too well. In recent years I’ve tended to fall very ill around Easter, and this mortality leads to inevitable morbidity. On a recent Easter, after having dinner with a wonderful lesbian couple, I actually had to excuse myself and go lie down. Staring at the plaster ceiling, uncertain if I could sit up, it was hard not to dwell on the myths of John Wiswell.
So around Easter I tend to fall ill, and I tend to grow grim. It’s not a gripe against Jesus, or my health, or even against any John Wiswell in particular. It is a long habit, no better than Samuel Clemens thinking he’d go out on the comet he rode in on. Actually, it’s worse – at least his was zany.