Monday, November 21, 2016

When I Was A Girl: Part 1

When I was eight years old Pat moved into our house.  She had an amazing t-shirt collection, which made her cool in my eyes.  But she was also smart, well-read, and worldly, with books about philosophers and great artists.  I remember my mother awkwardly trying to explain their relationship, but she seemed to lack the vocabulary.  It was 1984 in the deep South and words like gay and lesbian carried with them unbearable weight and stigma. 

Pat had her own room, but it was only for show.  When friends would ask about her I told her she was our roommate, but I knew that it was more than that. 

It was a secret that took a lot of energy to maintain.  My mother lived in fear that I would be taken away or that she would lose her job as a teacher.  Her fears were valid since there were no legal protections in place at the time.  She over-compensated by being the PTA President, room mother and Girl Scout leader. 

Their relationship, which had grown tumultuous, ended and for years mother was alone.  In that time she did a lot of soul searching; she dealt with family secrets and personal relationships all in an attempt to be a better person.  She asked hard questions about herself and the people around her. 

But eventually she ended up in a new relationship, one that she entered into emotionally and mentally healthy.  It was a relationship that lasted until she died.

It was also a relationship that played a huge part in my life.  It brought my mom a great deal of happiness, but was still, in many ways, shrouded in secrecy. My mom’s partner and I were never close.  We didn’t fight; we were just two people who were bound together by the one thing we had in common. 

I invited her to lunch, but I didn’t tell her why.  An intensely private person I knew she wouldn’t come if she knew I was going to write about her.  It was an open, honest, sometimes difficult conversation, filled with stories and revelations.  It was only the second time in 20 years that we had shared a meal, just the two of us.  When I did tell her about my project she asked that I not use her name and I respect that.

She entered their relationship with her own baggage.   In the ten years they were together, she never came out to her children.  They were grown, but she still feared that she would lose them.  It became my secret to keep, but it was never my secret to tell.  Those secrets resulted in resentment and tension.  My mother spent a lot of time feeling torn between the two of us, and that I regret.

The day after my mother died our family gathered at my aunt’s house on the river.  We knew the funeral wouldn’t be until the end of the week and my aunt felt we needed to be together.  My grandmother refused to go, so I made the long drive across the bay by myself.  It was the first of many "firsts".  It was a miserable afternoon filled with awkward silences and good intentions.  We all sat on the back porch overlooking the swamp.  An owl appeared.  There was plenty of wildlife around the house, but I had never seen an owl.  I remember saying to someone that I thought it was my mother checking in on us.

As we were sharing stories over lunch she said, “You know, the day after your mother died I was alone in the house and I heard an owl.  I’d never heard an owl at the house before.  I think it was your mother checking in on us.”

Maybe so.

As a child it can be hard to separate the love a parent has for their child from the love they have for a partner.  I had picked up the pieces in the past.  There was a time when I was in college, when activism seemed like it was the answer to everything, that I looked to her to be a leader.  But now I realize she was already doing that, just in her own, quiet way.  She spent hours offering support and counsel to young people struggling with their sexuality.  She sat with mothers and fathers as they tried to reconcile their religious beliefs and political ideals with their love for their child.

Ten years have passed since my mom died.  Her partner is in a new relationship, one that is open and honest.  I’m glad.

We said a lot of things that afternoon, things that have needed to be said for a long time.  What I didn’t have a chance to say to her at lunch was that I’m grateful that she and my mom had that time together.  I’m grateful I had a chance to see my mom so happy.  But I still regret that so much of our lives were lived in secrecy and fueled by fear. 

It feels like we are living in uncertain times.  I knew this was a story I was going to write, but I wasn’t sure when.  But it seems important now.  I see other families like ours, which seem nontraditional to many, who are now offered the protections of any other family.  But those protections, those basic rights, could be threatened.

As I sit here I think of the motto Ecce Quam Bonum, which is taken from Psalm 133: "Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity."  We've come a long way; let's not turn back now. 

Just before she died, mother sent an email to friends and family.  She said, "I love 90% of who I am 90% of the time."  We should all hope to be able to say the same. 

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  1. What a beautiful essay. Just lovely and so poignant it touched my heart.

  2. I love this so much. Thank you for writing it down.

  3. I love this so much. Thank you for writing it down.