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“I know now that though the risks of living my authentic truth are great, the permanence of love, like the primal pull of ocean waves is an even greater force.”
~~Ruth from the Winter Loon
This beautiful sunset was taken at the actual beach in La Jolla where the main character Ruth from the Winter Loon has the above realization.
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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.
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In The Winter Loon, all the cowgirls roll their own smokes. Rollie theaches Ruth the technique, and Ruth takes up smoking right away, splurging on cheap loose tobacco and rolling papers. Back home, Ruth stops smoking to save money until she meets Gisela who offers her a Pall Mall from the red and white package.
No wonder women in the 1930s were hooked on cigarettes.
Cigarettes were chic:
Cigarettes were sexually alluring:
Cigarettes were healthy and good for you:
Here are some interesting facts from an American Public Health Association article: The Physician in U.S. cigarette advertising 1930-1953.
During the 1920s, the first medical reports linking smoking to cancer appeared. Many newspaper editors refused to publish rather than offend tobacco companies and lose advertising dollars.
Advertising slogans in the 1930s promoted the advantages of smoking. A Luckies campaign extolled the virtues of staying slim – “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” Another Luckies ad suggested: 20,679 physicians say Luckies are less irritating.
Phillip Morris jumped on the bandwagon in 1937, taking an ad in The Saturday Evening Post that said, “According to a group of doctors . . . when smokers changed to Phillip Morris, every case of irritation cleared completely and definitely improved.
Advertisements appeared in medical journals for the first time in the 1930s–tobacco companies’ effort to develop a symbiotic relationship with physicians.
It wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that major medical reports confirmed smoking causes serious disease.
This post is a short and incomplete history of the word Queer. (Becoming Visible, An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life In Twentieth-Century America; Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman gives an in-depth history through the 1990s.)
The characters in The Winter Loon live in an era where women who formed lifelong partnerships would not have considered or called themselves queer and most likely not even lesbian. It was an era when articles, vice reports, psychologists like Havelock Ellis, and authors like Radcliffe Hall who wrote The Well of Loneliness, used terms like pervert, deviant, and invert to describe lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. It was an era when same-sex partners, seeking to live, work and play as productive citizens, kept their love and lives hidden.
I can’t imagine how difficult and frightening it must have been to live a concealed life in that era. It is especially close for me because I wrote The Winter Loon based on what I knew of my mother’s life. She was a rodeo performer, a clinical psychologist and always had a woman companion who I believe was her lover during the Thirties and Forties. I wanted to explore and write a novel that shined a light on how different life was in the 1930s for lesbians.
During World War II, thousands of lesbians and gay men met others like themselves and began to realize they were part of a larger group.
In 1951, Donald Webster Cory wrote a book called The Homosexual in America. He observed that most homosexuals at the time hid their sexuality because of shame and fear of social persecution. He stated that only when people dared to be open could others do the same. A few courageous people took the challenge, but persecution and fear held more back.
There were changes during the 1960s with the Stonewall Riots and demonstrations for Equality for Homosexuals. Gay liberation was threatened by society’s definition of homosexuality as a mental illness until 1974. Anger spilled over in the decade of the Seventies. In the 1980s and 1990s the AIDS epidemic led to political activism in the gay community. The Nineties became the Year of the Queer.
We’re here! We’re queer!
We’re fabulous! Get used to it!
~Queer Nation Chant
Queer Nation is an LGBT activist organization founded in New York City in March 1990 by AIDS activists from ACT UP New York (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). Those who rejected the terms gay and lesbian as too limiting and mainstream, proudly adopted the self-designation, queer. Diversity has been a source of strength for activism and the controversy continues as lives, attitudes and politics change.
The Twenty-first century so far carries on the tradition of changing labels and use of terms to describe the LGBT community. Today, LGBTQ+ represents the diverse experiences of people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and allies.
Founded in 1972 with the simple act of a mother publicly supporting her gay son, PFLAG is the nation’s largest family and ally organization. Uniting people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) with families, friends, and allies, PFLAG is committed to advancing equality and full societal affirmation of LGBTQ people through its threefold mission of support, education, and advocacy. Find out more at:
A definition of “Queer” from PFLAG:
Kindred Spirit ~ like minded, in harmony, compatible, soul mate
A kindred spirit is someone, a missing piece, who fits perfectly into the puzzle of our lives. A kindred spirit is someone we did not know was missing. A kindred spirit is someone we connect with before we know why or who they really are. It is a connection of energy, a positive connection that makes us feel good to be around them because we resonate on the same frequency.
In The Winter Loon, Ruth meets four kindred spirits.
Ruth is a loner who from the age of six prefers to spend time with her first kindred spirit, her horse, rather than make friends at school. Her Uncle Edward gave her the foal from his favorite mare. Ruth watched and assisted at the birth. When the foal stood for the first time she did a little dance and her coat was smooth as satin. Ruth named her Satin Dancer.
When Ruth is thirteen, a boy named Duke is assigned to sit next to her on his first day at her school. He is tall and skinny and draws magnificent, fierce looking horses instead of taking notes. It turns out he is afraid of horses. As they mature, they become sweethearts
On the train heading for her first rodeo, Ruth meets Rollie, a seasoned cowgirl who rides every year on the same rodeo circuit. Rollie is probably in her forties to Ruth’s eighteen years. She sees something in Ruth right away that moves her to take Ruth under her wing.
I introduced myself and said, “This is my first rodeo.”
“I thought so. Welcome.” She reached out to shake my hand.
“How can you tell?”
“Sometimes you know things.” The leathery skin around her eyes crinkled when
she smiled. ~From Chapter One of The Winter Loon
Together with Rollie, Ruth learns not only about rodeo culture, but also about life and herself.
Ruth returns home from the rodeo less confident of where she belongs than before she left home. Her family and society expect her to marry Duke. After enrolling at the University of Minnesota and joining a sorority, she meets Gisela. Ruth sees Gisela for the first time through a window in the university library.
. . . A movement on the grass caught my attention. A woman appeared out of nowhere. With a long stride, she ascended the library steps two at a time, seeming to float toward the entrance.~from Chapter Ten of The Winter Loon
Both women are attracted to one another before they speak.
* * *
If all the stars and kindred spirits in my universe align, The Winter Loon will be available in June 2016 on Amazon.
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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.