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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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Rodeo athletes from the 1920s and 1930s were talented and tough. One woman who changed the landscape of rodeo is Bonnie McCarroll. She was from southern Idaho and won many bronc riding contests, including Cheyenne, Madison Square Garden and Wembley, England.
McCarroll wasn’t competing at Pendleton the day she was killed, September 19, 1929. She was thirty-four years old, giving her last performance as an exhibition before retirement. The organizers assigned a bronc named Black Cat for her to ride. According to a description from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Black Cat fell and went into a forward somersault. He recovered and began to buck, but McCarroll was riding hobbled and her left foot caught in the stirrups.
Riding hobbled means tying the stirrups together beneath the horse. It was considered an easier, but more dangerous method than riding slick with stirrups loose. The Pendleton roundup required that women ride hobbled even though McCarroll preferred to ride slick. The rest is history and documented in the film by Steve Wurstas called From Cheyenne to Pendleton: The Rise and Fall of the Rodeo Cowgirl. Here’s a trailer. The film is on DVD and available from libraries
Fairness ~ Equitable, Honest, Upright, Honorable
Fairness is a continuation of Equality. Close, but somewhat different. To me, equality is a legal issue legislated by our elected government or the courts. Fairness is a social issue. Without it our society falls apart. We legislate equality, but fairness is a trait of a civilized society. Fairness is a close relative of the Golden Rule.
Many would say that what happened in the 1930s to women rodeo athletes wasn’t fair. It’s the world Ruth, the protagonist in The Winter Loon finds herself when she leaves home at eighteen.
The challenge for a single woman to earn money often took inspiration and an adventurous spirit, life experience and a willingness to step out of her comfort zone. Inventive and flexible and even naive women such as Ruth discovered uncommon ways to survive.
Popular throughout the Thirties, rodeo competitions offered cheap entertainment for small communities and provided an uncommon source of income for those able to compete on a rodeo circuit. Not many women qualified, but those willing to travel and endure harsh conditions could win substantial purses.
Prior to 1930, Cowgirls had competed in all the same contests as men. Rodeo culture changed after a tragic 1929 accident at the Pendleton Roundup. A popular cowgirl, Bonnie McCarroll, was thrown and fatally trampled by the bronco she was riding. The Rodeo Association of America stepped in with a protective rather than an egalitarian rule to prohibit women from competing in what they considered dangerous—bronco riding, steer wrestling and roping contests—events with the highest purses. Some rodeo producers on small circuits ignored the regulations and allowed cowgirl events. Barrel racing, trick riding and relay races were the most common competitions for cowgirls.
By 1939, the singing cowboy, Gene Autry, took over most of the major rodeos and eliminated all women’s competitions except the sponsor-girl event of barrel racing.
Deception ~ Deceitful, misleading, specious
This topic chose me. I randomly opened Volume 1 of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to the D section and ran my finger down the page, opened my eyes and my finger had landed on Deception. I wasn’t happy with the negative impression I have of the word: underhanded, fraud, monkey business. I’ve been carrying this word around with me for a few days, wondering how it fits my theme.
In the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus I came across a challenge of how to describe a person who is said to be deceptively strong? I would describe Ruth, the main character in The Winter Loon as deceptively strong.
Ruth handles and rides horses like a pro. She competes in relay races, one of the most dangerous rodeo events of the era. After a few months on the rodeo circuit, she dresses as a cowboy and joins a steer wrestling team as a hazer. A hazer rides alongside an eight hundred plus pound steer to keep it running in a straight line for the bulldogger who in a few seconds wrestles the steer to the ground. It takes a lot of skill and guts, especially for a woman in a man’s world.
But Ruth has a softer, weaker side. She has trouble being assertive. Raised to believe she should marry and be cared for by her husband, Ruth conforms to her gender role. When she leaves home for the rodeo, she is a follower who must learn to stand up for herself. She let’s Mac, her cowboy sponsor who fronts the money push her around even though she earns high prize dollars. The underbelly of Ruth’s strength is her passivity.
There’s also a deceptively positive aspect to deception. It has a self-protective side for women in keeping their relationship hidden. The white lies about being spinsters, saying they live together to save money during the Great Depression were deceptive. The fact that the truth could result in persecution, losing everyone and everything dear, physical harm and even death, made deception advantageous. But it also took a toll on a person’s freedom to be authentic and relaxed with co-workers, with family and casual friends. The underbelly of living a self-protective life through deception is fear.
Eleanor Roosevelt was probably the best-known woman of the Thirties who lived a duplicitous life because of the woman she loved. I don’t use duplicitous in a pejorative way. She lived a secret life to protect herself and her husband and to keep from shocking her adoring public.
It wasn’t totally secret. In The Winter Loon Ruth and Gisela laugh over “lesbians in the White House” when Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas have tea with Mrs. Roosevelt. According to the book, Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert, FDR took action to cover up Lorena Hickok’s relationship with his wife.
It’s a great read about not only about the relationship between Lorena and Eleanor, but also about strong, professional women of the 1930s.
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