The Real Write Stuff

It occurred to me today that I post about my writing, but I haven’t let you read any of it.  So today’s post contains an essay and a poem, both written and published several years back.

The essay started out as a short piece titled “The Silences We Keep”, but it ended up being expanded and published as a larger chapter in the anthology Mentors, Models, and Mothers: A Community Writing Project, edited by Judith Blackburn and Susan Hilgendorf.  I was privileged to read this at a meeting of biographical writers in Chicago and it brought tears to some peoples’ eyes.  As a bit of background, this essay is about telling my Southern Baptist parents–my church deacon and Sunday School Director dad and Sunday School teacher mom–that I was gay.  Anyway, here it is:

“When I could be silent no longer, I told them all I could.  But I didn’t say lesbian to my mother and father. .

I couldn’t.

For to say lesbian to them then would have been to say unnaturalUnholyQueer.  To say lesbian then would have been to say I am shame.  I am anathema.  I am the evil no parent wants as daughter.

So when the time to tell came at last, I said only gay.  I said only please don’t hate me.  I didn’t say desire.  I didn’t say need.  I didn’t say love for a woman. . .

. . . I didn’t say lesbian.

And I didn’t tell them of stones cast and lessons learned along the tangled path to revelation.  I didn’t tell them of slights from strangers and assaults from friends.  I didn’t tell them of truth lost and untruth gained, of learning to lie and learning to hide.

I didn’t tell them I could no longer see the face of God.

And I didn’t say that I would rather have endured the eternal rending of my own heart than cause their hearts a moment’s pain.  That I would rather have cut out my tongue than come to them with words they could hardly bear to hear.  That being a disappointment to them was something that would ache inside me until the day I die.

I didn’t tell them any of these things.  I said only the few words that I could stand to say.  I’m gayI’m sorryPlease don’t hate me.”

The poem is titled “A Moment of Life”.  I had a pregnant friend whose newborn baby was delivered in an emergency situation at home and died before an ambulance and help could arrive.  I combined the voices of everyone who was at the scene into one person, the narrator of the story.  This poem was published in the anthology Mourning Sickness: Stories and Poems about Miscarriage, Stillbirth, and Infant Loss, edited by Missy Martin and Jesse Loren.

“You sit cross-legged on the floor,
glazed eyes staring through the rusted screen door
at a Fourth of July sun blazing down
on the bare arms of browned farmers
baking in the fields.

Are you all right, I say,
just as you stand up and a dark circle of blood
gives testimony to where you have been.
Too soon.
The baby is coming too soon.
We all move at once —
Grandma screaming into the phone for an ambulance
that won’t make it in time
and Mom laying you down
and me praying “Sweet Jesus, you’ve got to help me here.”
But I guess even He takes a break now and then.

The child died in my own two hands.
Now she lies in a small graveyard
just off a dusty, gravel road.
Two uncles and an aunt keep her silent company there.
One lived a day, one lasted a week,
and one survived just long enough to be missed.
Sometimes I put flowers on her grave,
a tiny doll, some baby toys.
The wind always bears them away.
But nothing disturbs her gentle slumber,
while I lie awake night after night
wondering what more I could have done.
Was it my fault?
Never to forget that moment of life,
wrapped forever around my heart
like lights on a Christmas tree
that shine so brightly for just a brief season,
before their glow is gone.”

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When “what we usually do” isn’t what we usually do anymore

Earlier this week, my brother Greg met with the potential buyers of my parents’ home and the assorted lawyers.  Mom and Dad’s house is now officially sold.  It’s just about over.

My siblings and I have been through a tough 5 years.  The oldest of us 6, our sister Judy, died in October 2007 after a decade long fight with hepatitis C and myelodysplastic syndrome.  She was only 57.  Our mother followed her just 10 months later in August 2008.  Her passing was due to complications of Alzheimer’s disease and kidney failure.  Dad left us last year in May, 9 days before his 84th birthday.  He had fought stage 3 lung cancer for 4-1/2 months.  The cancer won.

The last year has been spent emptying out the contents and the memories of the family home.  The material things have been claimed, donated, or trashed.  Tears have been shed, fingers pointed, and accusations made.  When you’ve grown up in a family as close as mine, you think that nothing in the world can come between you.  When the last parent dies, you find out just how wrong you were.  I’ve come out of this with no one left in my family who remembers the first 14 years or so of my life and a brother who doesn’t speak to me anymore.  I can’t tell you which one hurts me most.

There are still things that my brother Greg, the trustee of Dad’s trust, has to take care of:  getting whatever refunds are due, setting up the estate distribution plan with the family lawyer, making sure we all get our share.  Then he will be free of this burden.  He has lived with this strapped upon his back for over a year and he has done some fine work as trustee.  I’m very relieved that he will be doing this for me when I pass on.  I know things will be handled well.

For me, the biggest (and hardest) milestone is not getting that final inheritance check.  It’s the selling of the house.  I remember when Mom and Dad bought the land the house sits on.  Dad and his best friend Herman did a lot of the building themselves.  Some of Dad’s church friends helped, too, but he had a professional do the wiring and plumbing.  Compared to the house that Judy and I grew up in, the new house was a mansion.  Our old house on Pike Street had 2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom.  That was room enough when it was just Mom, Dad, Judy, and me.  But when I was 10-1/2 years old, my sister Lisa was born.  In the following 7 years, 2 brothers and another sister were added.  Eight people in 2 bedrooms all using the same bathroom was a bit crowded.  The new house was a quad-level, 4 bedrooms, 2 master bathrooms.  There was a family room and a full basement that didn’t flood every time it rained.  That house was a beauty.

Lots of big things happened in that house.  It’s where my sisters and brothers announced their engagements.  It’s where my sisters came to tell us they were pregnant.  I came out as a gay woman to my family there.  We took care of Mom there until going into a nursing home was the only option she had left.  It’s where Dad wanted to die and, thankfully, he was able to be there when it happened.

That house is where we celebrated every major holiday.  No matter which one of us kids offered to host the family at our home, it was always an “oh, no, just come here” from Mom.  Every Easter, I would fill the plastic Easter eggs with change and cash for the egg hunt for the nieces and nephews and take them down to Mom and Dad’s house.  The night before Thanksgiving, I would show up there with my toothbrush and pajamas so I could wake at the crack of dawn with Mom and help her prepare the big meal.  We would get everything ready to be cooked, I would spank the turkey (long story), and into the oven it would go.  Mom, Dad, and I would watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade and then Mom and I would get the feast ready.  It would be the same at Christmas, except then we kids were allowed to bring a dish, a ham or potato salad, baked beans.  Sometimes, I would stay there on Christmas Eve, other times I would be there over Christmas night.  And so it went until Mom got sick and her mind started leaving us.  My sister Terri took over the Thanksgiving dinner.  We continued Easter and Christmas as usual.

Now Mom and Dad are both gone.  New traditions have begun.  Terri still rolls out the Thanksgiving meal.  Christmas moved to my brother Greg’s house.  My sister Lisa was all set to host the family for Easter, but too many of us had other plans.  I hope it works out next time.  Ginger and I had the gang over for July 4th.  It was my brother-in-law Mark’s birthday.  We had planned to watch the city’s fireworks which we can practically see from our front yard, but it had been raining for days and was raining still.  Four of us braved the drizzle and were treated to a fantastic display.

New traditions.  New ways of doing things.  This is what happens when what we usually do isn’t what we usually do anymore.  And so I say, “Goodbye, house.  So long to the many Saturdays I spent within your walls with Mom and Dad and then just Dad.  Farewell to the holidays and sledding down the back yard hill.  You have served us well.  But nothing ever stays the same and I’m sorry to see you go.”