“That’s So Gay”

“Oh, that is SO gay,” my daughter said the other night at the dinner table.

My husband and I looked at each other, a question there for both of us.  Do we go there?  My 22 year old son, home now post college graduation and furiously interviewing at any number of amazing companies, looked down at his plate.  He was surely wondering, “Let’s see how they handle this one.”

This was obviously my job, my responsibility here.  After all, it is my father who is homosexual.  It is my dad whose marriage was broken up after my mother found out about his affair with another man.  And it was my own anger and frustration at the way I discovered it that made me vow that with my own children, it would be different.  No one came to me, sat me down one day and told me my father was gay, and that was the reason my parents weren’t married anymore.

It was another time, back in 1977.  No one talked about homosexuality.  This is a world my children don’t understand:  no Will and Grace, no Arizona and Callie, no “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”  I’d never even thought of it as a possibility that my father was gay; by the 1980s, there certainly was a stereotype out there of what gay men must be like.  My father didn’t fit a single one of them, so when he moved in with another man, I accepted that they must be roommates.  These were just things that didn’t get talked about much in my family (to be fair, they didn’t talk about straight sex to me either, leaving me to find out about all of the details through conversations with my best girlfriend).

And my father really still doesn’t talk much about being gay.  I’ve never really asked him about how he met his partner, Keith (although my mother probably mentioned it to me one night late after she’d been drinking; I’ve never thought to verify it).  He still lives with that same man he moved in with in 1978, and they are just…there.   Keith never came to any family weddings, because he always felt it would be too much of a distraction.  He doesn’t travel with my father when he comes to visit us kids.  Keith isn’t my stepfather, or even my father’s husband.  To be honest, I’ve never thought to ask my dad if they want to get married (not that they can, they live in Florida).   And while I love Keith and have never had a problem with him in any way, I really don’t need all of the details of how their relationship works.

Which means there isn’t really much of a guidebook for introducing your children to the fact that their grandfather is gay.  We finally told Z, somewhere in his early teens that his grandfather was gay.  He seemed a little surprised, which honestly surprised me…my father and Keith don’t even bother with the pretense of separate bedrooms anymore, and Z has been to their place many times.  But I suppose for him, like me, that one simple fact answered a lot of lingering questions in his head.  It hasn’t seemed to alter their relationship in any way.

“Missy,” I started slowly, “Does that mean you think that being gay is bad?  Because it sounds like a put down, what you just said, using gay in that way.”

She looked at me, surprised at being questioned on the phrase.  I’m sure she was thinking that everyone says that.

“Missy,” I repeated.  “Do you know what being gay is?”

She made a face somewhere between disgust and anger.  “Really?  Of course I do.”

I forced myself to sound steady.  “Why did you make that face?”

“Because being gay is gross.”

And there it was.  Even at 11 years old, she already had heard the talk on the schoolbus, on the playground, from her friends.  Because of course she would have never heard that at home.  And it was clear to me she didn’t realize at all that her grandfather was gay.

“Missy,” I said a third time.  “Being gay is not gross.  It’s just another way to be.  Some people love the opposite sex, some people love the same sex.  But it’s all love.  And love is a good thing, not a gross thing.”

She looked up at me, her big brown eyes caught up in confusion. “Okay…” she said, trying to give me what I wanted, but clearly not there yet.

“There are a lot of people who are gay,” I started.  But I paused.  I had to get this lesson into her before I could go to the next one.  I just couldn’t give her the whole thing yet.  I had to work past our church, the kids at school, the culture of hatred that was so prevalent everywhere and get her to acceptance.  I couldn’t go all the way, not here at the dinner table.  Not yet.  “Lots of people.  So many, because it isn’t something you choose.  I’m sure a lot of people would choose to not be gay, because it is awfully hard to be that way when so many people are so awful towards them.  But I need you to understand that being gay is not gross, it’s not wrong, it’s just the same as my blond hair and your brown hair.  It’s the way you were made, and that’s all.”

She nodded slowly.  I looked around at R and Z, nodding at my words, waiting to see if I was going there.  I shook my head the tiniest bit at them, and they both started talking to her, taking up the torch, following my lead.

I’m a coward, I know.  I’ll get there, I will.  But for now, I am hoping that my little girl is just a little less judgmental than so many in this world.

A Blurry, Boozy Mess

“Should I go get him and bring him back?” I asked the group assembled around my sister’s patio table in her backyard.

We were days into my trip to Michigan and it had been a mostly tense experience.  The kids were having a blast being all together, but my sister and my brother were trading jabs so often that sometimes I felt like ducking my head as they flew across the room.  I’d responded to the tension by stocking up on alcohol and my father did the same.  This had the desired effect of relaxing us, but also had the unwanted effect of loosening our tongues.

Since I didn’t see my brother and sister more than once a year for the most part, it meant that we hardly ever progressed in our relationships.  We always fell back into the same old comfortable routines; my sister would complain about my brother to me and tell me stories about his latest bout of irresponsibility.  I would either become peacemaker or co conspirator.  My brother would respond with his trademark biting sarcasm, and I would respond in either of my two usual ways with him as well.

But throwing my father into the mix was putting lighter fluid on the already smoldering family dynamic.  And this evening, we’d sat around my sister’s table trading unsavory family stories.  These were the hard ones, the ones that my kids didn’t even really know about because they were so awful and so personal; their eyes grew wide as the stories rolled off our alcohol sweetened tongues.  It was finally too much; my brother stormed away from the table and into the house to sulk.

“I don’t care if you go get him,” my sister answered.  “He gave as good as he got.  He just is mad that the stories are true and he looks bad in them.”  She was right of course; my brother was very good at applying a double standard to his own and other people’s behaviors.

“Let him be,” my father agreed, taking another sip of his whisky.

“I can’t,” I responded, the peacemaker coming out.  “We’re here five days, and I don’t want one of them to be ruined by this kind of ridiculous childishness.”

I went after him into the house, all ready to smooth things over.

“Get out of here,” my brother growled at me.  “You owe me an apology for what you said out there.”

I mentally replayed the conversation in my head.  “Don’t be like this,” I said, trying not to engage.  “You know it’s all talk out there.  Just come back out and try not to let your anger get the best of you.”

“No way.  You guys are all making me look bad in front of Dad.”

Ah, there it was.  And before I knew what I was saying, the words came out of my mouth:  “Well, you are doing a great enough job on that all on your own without any help from us.”

I could see the red rise in my brother’s face.  “I’m not going out there until you and our sister give me an apology.”

“Well, you’re not going to get it,” I answered evenly.  “We’re telling the truth out there, and sometimes the truth hurts.  If anything, you owe us an apology for the fact that these stories even exist.”

He glared at me.  “I have made up for my past mistakes a long time ago.”

I swallowed hard.  “You will never, ever be able to make up for your past mistakes.”  A million images of our angry life in the ruins of my parents’ divorce flashed in front of my eyes.   When he’d hit me.  When he’d stolen from me.  When we’d locked up our possessions in padlocked bedrooms.  When he’d tried to break down my bedroom door.  When I’d had to be sent away because his shrinks told my mother he’d probably hurt me if he was left alone with me.  It was a buzzy, blurry mess in my head.  I started recounting these memories out loud, one by one, until I was screaming so loud my throat hurt.  “You can never fix what you broke in me!”  I yelled so loudly that the entire neighborhood must have heard.

My brother walked out of the room and I crumpled onto the floor in tears.  How could I have possibly thought coming here would be anything but a disaster?

My Father’s Birthday

We were sitting in the breakfast area of the Hampton Inn with my father.

It was Labor Day weekend, and this year, my father’s 70th birthday fell on the Saturday of that weekend. Two years ago, R’s mother had thrown a splashy, expensive party for his father when he’d turned 70.  We didn’t have enough people to pull together anything like that in any location other than Florida, and I knew my siblings could never afford to travel there anyway.

With Z in college in Pittsburgh, and him performing at ever home football game in their marching band, it put another layer of difficulty in scheduling such an event.  Until finally one day, looking at the football schedule, it dawned on me:  we could do it in Pittsburgh.  My father had made a habit the last two years of attending at least one of Zach’s football peformances each season; I could just ask him to attend this one.  The gift could be the surprise of having my sister and brother and their families there; they had never really shown an interest in coming to any of Zach’s performances in the two years he’d already been in college here, so it would be an easy surprise. I had tried to think back to the last time we would have all seen my father together, with all of our children; it would have been six years prior when I’d had everyone to my home in Ohio for Thanksgiving.

I looked down at my phone on the table while my father and daughter went up to the buffet for more scrambled eggs and hash browns.  It was my sister’s text buzzing on the screen; the plan was that she and my brother would come down while we were eating breakfast, casual as anything, and my father would just look up and see them all there.  Unfortunately my father was an early riser and a fast eater, and we were nearly done with breakfast.  My brother, as usual, was taking too long to get himself out of bed and presentable enough to appear in public.  I furiously texted her that if they wanted to perfect moment of surprise that they had about five minutes left.

“Who are you texting so early in the morning?” my father asked as he returned with a second plate full of food.

“Oh, it’s Zach,” I lied smoothly.  “He just sent a good morning message and wished you a happy birthday, and that he’ll see you after the game.” On early game days, when the game started at noon, Z had to report to the stadium at 7 am.  There was no time for a leisurely breakfast for him.

My phone buzzed again.  I grabbed it before the words flashing on the small text window could be seen.  “Wow, Mommy, you never text Zach.  That’s weird.”  I flashed her a “shhh help me with the surprise” glare before reading the words “on the way” on the screen.

I sat back and watched my father and my daughter together quietly, allowing myself a moment of reflection.  We sure hadn’t had an easy road, my father and I.  My parents’ messy divorce had left our family in pieces, and when the puzzle started to take shape again, I’d firmly been placed on my mother’s side.  There were months that would go by without my father and I speaking in high school; I’d spent my teenage years fantasizing about the kind of father I wished I had.  My teenage crush on my English teacher, my fascination with 80s formulaic family comedy TV, even my obsession with a rock star could probably all be traced to the fragile relationship with the man sitting across from me.

He hadn’t been perfect.  When my brother’s anger issues swallowed me up in their path, my father had been slow to react, and I’d blamed him for it. When my father moved in with his partner, I grew resentful that they spent more of their money on themselves than sharing their good fortune with us kids.  And certainly, my father’s move out of state for a promotion just six months after my mother’s death had been a hard pill to swallow.

But he never stopped trying.  He had wanted to be a good father because his own had been a horrible one.  He just didn’t know how.  Looking at him talking with my daughter now, I marveled at how far we’d come.  I knew now that I could count on Christmas in Florida with my dad.  I knew that he’d always come to a football game for Zach while he was in college.  He came to Melinda’s first communion earlier this year, Zach’s graduation several years ago, the birth of all of my children. Somehow, for better or for worse, he’d figured it out.  He was there when it counted.

“Hey Pops,” I heard sheepishly from behind me.  It was my brother, standing there with his own son.  My sister, her children and husband brought up the rear behind him.

“Happy Birthday Dad,” my sister said, standing alongside him and leaning down to give him a kiss on his now bald head.

I watched as my father’s face went from recognition, to astonishment, to full on emotion.  His face grew red and the tears that I hardly ever saw him shed, slid slowly down his face.  He smiled, and stood, and the hugs began.

We’d come a long way, all of us.

Family Thanksgiving

“I’m trying to remember the last time we would have done this,” I said, standing at my kitchen counter, my sister at my side.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 2003.  I had invited my side of the family to all convene on our place in Ohio for the weekend.  It was a risky proposition:  my sister and my brother didn’t always get along, and of course there was always the constant oneupsmanship we all engaged in to some extent whenever my father was present.

Since I’d moved away from Michigan, my father’s visits had become a strange thing.  It was almost as if my siblings kept score on how many times he came to my place versus their own.  When my daughter was born, up flew my father to Oklahoma.  When my brother’s baby boy was born nine months afterwards, there he went to Michigan.  When I moved to Ohio it became even worse, because to visit one sibling or another, the other was only a four hour drive away.   He visited me when I first moved there, then my brother when he bought a condo.  It started to get dicey when my older son flew down to Florida last summer to see my father; no such reciprocal visit was offered to my sister’s kids.  I decided to cut all of the competition off at the pass by offering a visit to everyone; all they had to do was show up.  I’d clean the house, cook the meal.

“Well, we all had Thanksgiving at my house once after Mom died,” my sister offered as I chopped the celery that was going into the stuffing our mother had taught us both to make.  We paused there, looked at each other sympathetically before she continued.  “But Dad wasn’t there.”

“We had Thanksgiving out East after he moved away once,” I offered.  “But was our brother there?”

“I honestly can’t remember,” my sister answered, opening up the bag of bread crumbs.  “Wait, no, he couldn’t have been.  We all stayed with Dad in Baltimore and there wouldn’t have been any room for him in that tiny townhouse.”

“Right.”  I answered, racking my brain as I added the chopped celery to the pan of onions on the stove.  I looked at them and dropped another square of butter on top; it sizzled as it met the metal of the pan.  “Certainly we haven’t had a big holiday together since I moved from Michigan, not with Dad anyway.  So that means…wow…no clue the last time all three of us would have shared Thanksgiving with Dad. It might have honestly been 1976.”

1976 was the year before my parents’ separation and subsequent divorce.  A small silence ensued as my sister and I both mulled over the past twenty plus years in our collective heads; I knew we were both thinking that we’d never spent Thanksgiving with my father.  He would share Christmas with us, but Mom always had us for Thanksgiving.  There was one awful Thanksgiving in my memory banks when my mother had called my father, begging for him to take my brother off of her hands; but he’d been sick with pneumonia and bed ridden.  I could see the same look on my sister’s face as I knew what must be on mine:  awful, terrible memories coming unbidden, one after the other, of horrible holidays and harsh words.

“What’s going on in here?” my father asked, coming into the kitchen to offer help, as he’d done every few hours since he’d made us a big, family breakfast.  I could see his studying our faces for clues as to what was so serious.

“Just getting the stuffing together,” I said lightly, giving my sister the cue that we didn’t need to be mucking up the sweet family scene with sour thoughts from the past.  I saw my father peer into the pan and nod approval.  It wasn’t lost on me that the last time we likely had all been together to eat stuffing on Thanksgiving would have been at a table where my mother sat as well, a table where she would have made this exact same stuffing.   I couldn’t tell if he was comparing my efforts to my mother’s or not; I certainly was.    I breathed deeply in and out a few times, trying not to think of my sadness when suddenly, my brother appeared in the kitchen, looking panicked.

“What’s wrong?” my father said, a deadpan statement he’d probably said to my brother at least a thousand times before.

“Do you have any towels?  We have um…a little situation in the upstairs bathroom.”

My sister and I looked at each other and groaned.  My dad started swearing under his breath.  I called for R and a plunger before my groan turned to laughter.  “I wonder if that happened the last time we were all together for Thanksgiving?”

The mood lightened and my shoulders relaxed.  Crazy though we may be, it was kind of amazing that we were all here, together, considering everything that had gone on in our collective pasts.  I vowed to enjoy my family holiday and not stress.  We were all here, together; it was all that mattered.

One More Try

The phone rang in the darkness.  I fumbled for it on the bedside table, registering the clock’s red 11:46 as I reached for it.

It was a Saturday night in November.  I was tired after a busy week of Parent Teacher conferences at school, having to ask my brother and sister to help me out with the two evening sessions.  Parent Teacher conferences came on the heels of report cards; I’d spent the whole week before going through over 150 student notebooks, assigning scores for the daily work my students did as we went through our lessons.

I’d spent the evening on my sofa after putting Zach to bed at eight.  It felt like every other Saturday night.  I sometimes went out for drinks with my coworkers on Fridays, but on Saturdays they were all busy with their husbands or wives.  My girlfriend Karen now lived five hours away.  My girlfriend Dawn too was busy in her new home with her husband.  Sometimes my friend B would come over with her son and our boys would play together while we sipped white zinfandel or coffee, depending on our mood.

But mostly, I spent my evenings alone after Zach went to bed.  I felt in such an odd place; still in a much more mature place than everyone I knew at my age, though many of my friends were now married and starting to have families. In some ways, I was purposely isolating myself, not wanting to admit to anyone else that I felt like a lonely failure.

“Hello?” I asked with trepidation.  My caller ID was downstairs, so I had no idea who could be calling at this hour.  Calls this late usually meant bad news; the last time I’d gotten a call at this hour it was my father telling me my great uncle had passed way in Florida.  I had enough elderly relatives to be sure I always answered the phone late at night.

“You’re there, I wasn’t sure you’d be there.”  It was R, sounding far away and emotional.

I had heard from R exactly once since the papers had been filed.  It had been an emotional phone call a few weeks ago when I shared with him that Z was missing him and that he was wondering if he was going to ever see him again.

“I’m here,” I said.  “Where are you?”

Turns out R was in Las Vegas, living it up with his former roommate.  They’d met up in Vegas, each sharing their new good fortunes at the tables and slot machines.

“It’s quarter to nine on a Saturday night,” I said, groggily sitting up in bed.  “You’re in Las Vegas.  What are you doing calling me?”

“I just wanted to hear your voice,” he said.  “I have to know.  Are we really over?”

And so R and I started talking, really talking, for the first time in over a year about our marriage.  With the buffer of safety and distance between us (plus a few beers on R’s part and some drowsiness on mine), we both admitted that we’d done some things wrong.  We agreed that there were some good things about our relationship that both of us missed.

“Have you been dating?” I asked R, curious.

“Actually yes,” R admitted.  “I’ve been seeing one woman pretty regularly for the last few months.”

So my husband had a girlfriend.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  But I was.  “And?”

“And what it’s shown me is that I miss you even more than I realized.  I wish somehow we could just see each other again and see if we’re ready to be done or if maybe we’re worth giving each other another chance.”

Maybe it was the quiet darkness.  Maybe it was my months long loneliness.  Maybe it was the late hour.  But for some reason, I found myself saying:

“I’d like that very much.”

Done

I looked down at the papers in my hands and sighed.  It was real, it was happening.

Divorce papers.

I had finally gotten up the courage to visit a lawyer after the last phone conversation between R and I, which had of course ended in an argument about him and the debt he’d left me behind with; I was still paying for the boat he’d left behind here in storage.  He countered with if I was so hurting for money, why had I hopped on a plane to go see Rick Springfield a month ago.  This was certainly true; it was the first time he was going on tour since 1993, and I’d missed it then; I didn’t want to miss it now.  So I’d flown to Kansas City, MO and then driven to Dubuque, IA with some of my Rick Springfield pals to see the shows.  I’d been blown away by the experience, including the visits to both soundcheck and the invitation the ten or so of us had received to go back stage…twice.  I’d loved the experience, and in true R form, he didn’t understand it and made use of it in arguments that ensued in its wake.

I was tired.

I was tired of fighting about everything, of hearing what a horrible person I was because I was considering breaking my vows, I was tired of not being understood.  The writing had been on the wall for the entire past year we’d been separated.  It was time to finally admit the marriage was over and move forward. So I called some of my mother’s old lawyer friends and got the recommendation for a divorce lawyer.

I should feel relieved I supposed, but I stared at the papers with a mixture of confusion and sadness.  What would my mother have said, if she had been here, about all of this?  What would her reaction have been to me coming to her asking for advice and legal help?  I couldn’t decide.  On the one hand, my mother would have wanted me to be happy, first and foremost.  I knew that was true.  She was big on saying that she was not interested in people’s money or degrees but who they were; so she wouldn’t have cared that R was upwardly mobile and excelling in his career.  She would have cared about who he was.

That being said, my mother came from a very strong family, like R’s family.  A family where people regularly gathered, had  traditions, liked each other.  It was one of the hardest things about her own life, losing both of her parents at a young age and then later losing more of her extended family.  She believed in marriage and had wanted hers to last; she worked hard to try and keep it together.  She had lived first hand how hard a divorce could be on a family, and I know she wouldn’t have wanted that for me and for Zach if it could be avoided.

Everything I’d wanted for my life, everything I thought my marriage would mean for me, my future, my son felt like it was all gone, signed away on the last line of the packet of papers on the table in front of me.  I was giving it all away.  The uncertainty I felt was overwhelming; was I doing the right thing?

In a flash, the battles, the fights, the angry words came into my head, playing like an instant home movie in front of my eyes.  I couldn’t live like that any more.

Ready or not, it was happening.  It was done.  I was done.

Wedding Day

My sister was finally getting married.

She and her fiance Chris had been engaged since my junior year, three years ago.  They’d settled on November, 1989 as the date for their dream wedding long before my pregnancy had come into play.  She admitted to me that her first thought when I’d announced it was that I wasn’t going to fit into the aqua bridesmaid dress I’d already chosen and ordered in a size 8.  I assured her that I planned on dropping my forty pound weight gain as quickly as possible so I didn’t mar her special day with a dress catastrophe.

Everyone in our whole family came into town for the event.  It was the first time, I think, all of them had been in the same place at the same time since my parents’ divorce twelve years prior.  My grandparents were gracious with my mother, my mother’s brother was kind to my dad’s sister, it was all just what my sister and I would talk about in our quiet moments together:  “normal”.  What typical families do.  She was over the moon.

My brother even came back from the Navy, having requested a leave from his job working on engines for submarines, or maybe it was aircraft carriers.  My mother couldn’t have been prouder of him walking her down the aisle in his dress blues.

I dressed two month old Zachary in a tiny baby tuxedo I’d found at the Children’s Place store I used to work at in the mall.  I had to take him into the bathroom at church to nurse him just before the ceremony, so that I could be sure I wouldn’t leak breastmilk onto my bridesmaid dress.  I had planned to have my friend B hold him during the service, but she had gone into labor the night before with her own baby, so instead my cousin held him as he slept.

The pinnacle of the event was my parents.  It was my sister’s wish that rather than just the traditional father of the bride walking her down the aisle, that both of my parents do the honors.  My sister wanted to symbolize all that my mother had given us and done for us; certainly more than our father had after the divorce.  Things were certainly better now, much better, but the fact was our mother did all of the day to day grunt work of parenting for us, and my sister wanted to acknowledge that in the ceremony.  For my father’s part, he didn’t bat an eye and was completely understanding and gracious about my sister’s wish.

Seeing my parents together as they walked my sister down the aisle, and later that evening as they danced the first dance together, was a healing moment for all of us.  My parents had come back together to give my sister what she wanted, what I needed, what my brother needed.   Their marriage might have not been meant to be, but my sister’s wedding showed that they were able to come together and be happy again.

It gave us all hope.

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