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my mother and me
Today, in honor of Mothers Day, I share an essay that first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Gay Parent Magazine. Amazing stories of LGBTQ parents and kids are published in the magazine. They are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. Read more here.
MY MOTHER. MY FOUNDATION
It didn’t dawn on me that my mother was lesbian until the mid-1980s when working as a therapist with the AIDS Health Project in San Francisco I told a colleague my story. At that time I was attempting to put together the puzzle pieces of my early life because my mother, a woman of mystery with seemingly no family ties, died when I was nine years old, leaving no clues about herself or my biological father.
From my earliest memories we lived as a family with another woman and her son on the Mojave Desert. It was the late 1940s, and our home was about twenty-five miles from the nearest town where both women taught elementary school. The town had unreliable telephone service and no public transportation to larger communities. Far from the prying eyes of neighbors, they could not have found a better place to hide.
When my mother became ill with cancer, our family moved into town, but lived in separate houses. Adding to her hidden life, not long before her death, my mother married a man with two sons about my age. Perhaps she thought it would provide a stable home for me, but with no relatives and the fact that my stepfather had not formally adopted me, I went into the foster care system.
Sometime in my early twenties one of my stepbrothers tracked me down and gave me a box containing letters, photos, and a scrapbook that had belonged to my mother. At the time the sketchy information only inflamed my abandonment issues.
However, a few years later, and after lots of therapy, I managed to focus on the contents of the box and found the remnants of my mother’s life quite fascinating. There were photos of women camping, usually with horses nearby, and a newspaper clipping of my mother as a rodeo competitor.
Hanging with the cowboys.
There was also her Master’s degree certificate in clinical psychology, with an emphasis on vocational rehabilitation, from the 1930s.
She is on the far right.
As I reread the letters that I had only skimmed before, I learned that my grandmother had died when my mother was in her late twenties. With addresses in hand I did a search, but too late to find any living family members, or anyone who remembered or had known any of them.
I spoke with my mother’s companion only once as an adult before realizing they were most likely lovers. She called me, saying she would be in San Francisco and suggested that we meet. I imagined she had known my mother well, and still hopeful I might learn more information about my family legacy, I counted the days as I anticipated our meeting.
Unfortunately, she was unwilling to divulge any information. No matter how I formed the questions, she remained stoic, claiming to know nothing about my mother’s life, and the visit left me with more questions than answers. Their relationship didn’t occur to me until, after listening to my story, my colleague said, “Your mother was lesbian. Her lover must have still been closeted when you talked with her.”
Unable to find any truth about my history, I turned to writing short stories about two women raising children together using the names of my mother and her companion. The stories, which had started as a personal healing journey, gradually transformed over the years into a novel about a young woman struggling to define herself in a world where she does not seem to fit.
When I decided that I wanted to publish the The Winter Loon I googled my mother’s companion before moving forward with using her name, and lo and behold she was alive and still living in the desert. When I called, her son answered and did indeed remember me. He invited me to visit and I accepted, but without divulging that I had written a novel with our mothers as protagonists.
His mother was frail and in the late stage of Alzheimer’s disease, but otherwise mostly healthy. I gathered all the photos I had of my mother and drove from Oregon to the Mojave Desert.
My hopes went up and down as I sat with her for two hours sharing the photos. I’d say, “Do you know who this is?” and she’d lean forward wrinkling her forehead and squinting at the picture as if she was going to tell a story. She’d say my mother’s name, then lean back into silence, lost in the tangle of her compromised memories. Before saying goodbye, I decided to leave the photos with her.
The next day her son and I drove to the canyon where we had lived as children. Overwhelmed with emotion, he seemed to have forgotten that we had lived together as a family. I stayed safe as I shared my memories, feeling it was not my place to out his mother.
Sadly, he called less than two weeks later to tell me his mother had died, and that she had kept the photos in her lap, sorting through them as she spent her day in her wheelchair. Can there be any doubt that our mothers were lovers in their youth?
I finally understood that my mother had done the best she could in an era when she would have faced dangerous repercussions if her truth had been discovered. It took many years for me to claim my scars as badges of honor, but I made peace and, after finding my mother’s grave in a cemetery in Mojave, California, identified only with her name on a simple wooden plaque, I ordered a marble marker inscribed with her name, her date of birth and the date of her death along with the words, My Mother My Foundation because she was my foundation, despite the secrets she was forced to keep.
The cemetery was kind enough to send a photo.
* * *
There is no greater agony than bearing
an untold story within you.
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On my home page, I say that I believe in synchronicity. For something to be synchronistic and not just coincidence, unrelated events are more than just mere chance. Here’s something that happened last week after I decided to jump back into blogging and set up an Instagram account.
Many years ago I had a dishtowel that I remembered said, “One man’s flower is another man’s weed,” attributed to Tennyson. Fast forward to my launch on Instagram. Not long ago, I learned that dandelions are the first source of nourishment for bees in the spring. Every year in the past I’ve grumbled about the dandelions taking over the grass. For the last week, the bright yellow flowers I’ve always thought of as a weed, have been in full bloom. I took a photo and decided to make my first instagram post about bees and dandelions.
I wanted to say: “To mow or not to mow . . . ” and then add the quote from my long-lost dishtowel. A little voice warned me to be accurate—it was a long time ago and maybe it wasn’t Tennyson. A quick Google search: Tennyson—One Man’s Weed led me to his lovely poem the Flower. My memory kicked in, it was the first stanza on the towel I remembered, not the quote I wanted to use.
Once upon a golden hour
I cast to earth a seed
Up there came a flower
The people said a weed.
Back to Google and who said the quote I remembered about weeds. I had several choices and for no particular reason, chose Susan Wittig Albert who said, “One person’s weed is another person’s wildflower.” She is the award-winning author of many books, including Loving Eleanor, a book I read as part of my research while writing The Winter Loon. I mentioned the book and it’s importance to history in a blog on April 5, 2016. You can read it here.
I don’t think it is mere chance that the memory of my old dishtowel led me to my first post on Instagram that led me to Susan Wittig Albert that led me to my old blog post called Deception and the insight that it gives to Ruth’s character as she embarks on her journey of self-discovery in The Winter Loon.
Synchronicity, the seed that grew into this post.
I’d love to hear about synchronicity in your life. It can be something simple like this post all the way to something life changing.
Thanks for stopping by.
In a scene from THE WINTER LOON Gisela says to Ruth:
“Sticking together, you mean like what’s happening in Europe? No one over here seems to care, but my father lives in Paris and writes that despite street violence in Germany against the SA Storm Troopers, newspapers sympathetic to Nazi influence continue to wage a propaganda campaign blaming Jews for Germany’s economic and social problems. It’s unbelievable how the general public there often turns a blind eye to the SA thugs trying to intimidate customers from entering Jewish shops.”
“It’s so complicated,” Ruth answers.
“And in this country so many folks who can’t find work, living in hobo villages. Why? Where are all the good Christians who claim to be their brother’s keeper? It doesn’t matter what problems we’re talking about. People are too afraid of consequences of losing what they have. Jesus said, ‘Turn the other cheek,’ not ‘Look the other way.'”
The scene is set in Minneapolis in 1932.
In January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. He watched in triumph from the Chancellory balcony while thousands of torch bearing Nazis celebrated his victory. Nineteen months later he achieved absolute power.
A mix of KKK members, Nazi sympathizers and White Nationalists carried torches through the University of Virginia campus last week, menacing people of all races, creed, and religion.
Candidate Trump held the Pride flag upside down, pledging his support for the LGBTQ community and a few months later as president called for a ban of transgender people serving in the military.
We can’t afford to turn a blind eye to what is happening right now in America. We can’t be bystanders. We must stand up against hate and bigotry.
In every community, there is work to be done.
In every nation, there are wounds to heal.
In every heart, there is the power to do it.
Marianne Williamson –
I’ve been up to my eyeballs editing with Deborah Mokma. We’re working on the final edit and proofreading of The Winter Loon. Some writers hate this phase, but not me. I love to dig in and examine every word and phrase. The drawback is that this process is soaking up all my time and energy, and I’ve been neglecting my blog.
I’m excited to have an accomplished and artistic team helping me to self-publish my novel, The Winter Loon: Deborah Mokma, editor; Chris Mole’, cover designer, and Maggie McLaughlin, book designer. I’ll write more on these talented women and the self-publishing process as it unfolds.
In the The Winter Loon, the protagonist, Ruth Thompson, struggles with committing to the woman she loves. She faces this challenge in the 1930s before advocacy, before the terror of the McCarthy era and before the historical change in America that has led to gay rights and equality. I want to get it right because even though so much has changed over the years, there is still a long way to go. Young people still wrestle with feeling different and confiding in family and friends. Bullying hasn’t stopped and in some areas of the United States, the simple joy of choosing the flavor of a wedding cake is threatened.
I’ve been a bit depressed lately, carrying around a sense of dread with all that is going on in the world and here in the U.S. One thing lifts me up when I get down and that is music. I’ve been listening to Bob Marley songs, full volume. Who can help but move their body to the Reggae beat and his voice? He has a legacy all over the world for his music and philosophy. In Serbia there is a statue of him with the inscription that reads:
Bob Marley Fighter for Freedom Armed with a Guitar
Turn up the volume and dance to one of my Bob Marley favorites:
One more to share:
Israel ‘IZ’ Kamakawiwo’ole
SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW/WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD
What songs lift you up when you’re feeling down?
I just learned about this movement/organization and want to share it.
RaiseAChild.US is the nationwide leader in the recruitment and support of LGBT and all prospective parents interested in building families through fostering and adopting to meet the needs of the 400,000 children in the foster care system. RaiseAChild.US recruits, educates, and nurtures supportive relationships equally with all prospective foster and adoptive parents while partnering with agencies to improve the process of advancing foster children to safe, loving and permanent homes. For information about how you can become a foster or adoptive parent, please visit www.RaiseAChild.US.
As you know, if you read this blog, I spent most of my childhood in foster care because my lesbian mother died estranged from her family ties. I was blown away when I read the story of Adam Reisman and his husband, Ryan:
and then learned that it is part of a series being written by the Huffington Post that highlights LGBT families.
I knew I had to share their story when I read that Adam and Ryan along with their two children live by these rules in their home:
RaiseAChild.US is the nationwide leader in the recruitment and support of LGBT and all prospective parents interested in building families through fostering and adoption to meet the needs of the 415,000 children in the foster care system of the United States. RaiseAChild.US recruits, educates and nurtures supportive relationships equally with all prospective foster and adoptive parents while partnering with agencies to improve the process of advancing foster children to safe, loving and permanent homes. Take the Next Step to Parenthood at http://www.RaiseAChild.US or call us at (323) 417-1440.
No surprise. Not much to report from the 1930s on women with emotional and sexual attraction to other women.
The “liberated” young college women of the 1930s wore makeup. Some drank alcohol in mixed company. Smoking was no longer disgraceful and now considered sexy. Many young women went to college to husband hunt with education as a secondary goal.
Changes in sexual mores had been underway since the 1920s. By the 1930s on college campuses a dramatic change in attitude had occurred. A 1938 study of over one thousand college students uncovered new standards of permissible behavior—premarital sex with a fiancé and a clear commitment to marriage, justified the intimacy. The shift in attitudes did nothing help lesbians. The word wasn’t even widely used until much later.
Lesbians have been ignored, persecuted and labeled as deviant. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that limited acceptance was gained in the U.S. Then in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television. Almost twenty years ago, but still lots of relevance.
And here is a link to a list of books BuzzFeed:
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Gertrude Stein ~ an icon of the 1930s
Gertrude Stein and her life partner, Alice B. Toklas, met and lived abroad. They toured the U.S. for 191 days during 1934 and 1935, while Ms. Stein gave a series of lectures. Out west the two were accepted as a couple. The Chicago Press referred to Alice as the wife or mate who protected Gertrude.
During her lectures, limited to only five hundred people, Gertrude Stein sat alone on the bare stage next to a table with a white cloth and a glass of water. She exuded a commanding presence. To some, her lectures sounded baffling. How could something that seemed so lacking of ideas be considered literary? But if one listened carefully to the rhythm of her speech, she could delight an audience as an innovative artist explaining English literature, using the relationship of one word to the next as her medium.
“Twenty-five years rolls around so quickly, but one hundred years do not roll around at all. They end, the century ends. What makes narrative difficult is a century begins and ends, but no part of it begins, and no part ends.” A Stein mind twister for sure.
According to the San Jose Mercury News in 2011, Wanda Corn, author of Seeing Gertrude Stein finds the focus on Gertrude Stein’s long-term domestic partnership with lover Alice B. Toklas timely, in light of the gay marriage issue today. “Here was a couple who really personified a long, monogamous relationship,” Corn says.
For more go to: www.gayheroes.com/gertrude.htm
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