A few days ago I attended the the Golden Crown Literary Society Conference held in 110 degrees, Las Vegas. Whew! I didn’t step outside for three days.
Every year this amazing group of lesbian fiction writers get together to learn from each other. I attended great classes and panel discussions with the best take away being the support, rather than competition, these women feel for each other. In that vein, I offer my congratulations to the winning authors in the Debut and Historical categories.
Even though a finalist in both those categories, The Winter Loon didn’t take home a Goldie award, but I still feel like a winner and am honored to be in the company of these fine writers.
In the Debut category the Goldie awards went to:
And the winner in the Historical category is:
You can check out all the rest of the 2018 winners here:
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.
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.
Before it was called The Winter Loon my novel was titled Barriers. All I could envision for the main characters, Ruth and Gisela, two young women who fall deeply in love, were barriers of all kinds. Ruth and Gisela lived in the Midwest and met each other in 1932.
In New York in the 1920s, queer culture flourished, but by the early thirties, a Broadway play with a lesbian theme opened and closed to biased reviews. The producer, director and players were hauled off to court and charged with obscenity. Bars and clubs closed down. It was the same in Chicago and elsewhere in U.S. cities.
The Depression era squashed the gay nightlife and excesses of the twenties. The avant-garde crowd became the target for those wanting to punish and blame. What had been tolerated became immoral and illegal by the mid 1930s. The 1934 Motion Picture Production Code banned all reference and depictions of gay or lesbian lifestyle from the movies.
Ruth and Gisela’s story isn’t about coming out of the closet. In the thirties there was no closet to come out of. It’s a story about the healing power of love. It’s a story about Ruth breaking down barriers—her own and those of society. It’s a story about a naive young woman searching for a life lived in authentic truth despite the obstacles.
For a short time a couple of years ago I had a friend in her late 90s. She passed away last year. I met her because she was featured on the front page of our local newspaper with fist raised and the caption, “Gay and proud.” The story was about the Gay Pride celebration for that year. It’s a small town. I looked up her phone number and called her, hoping to get first-hand information for my book.
It turned out we both loved jazz and going out to dinner and had many fun nights. She was open about her long-time relationship with the woman she loved and still mourned her recent death. I thought I would learn more about the barriers the two of them faced, the kind you can’t find in history books. I found out more about love than about obstacles. The two of them met in New York City. They ended up living a quiet life in upstate New York, running a B&B before traveling out West.
Perhaps The Winter Loon will remind a generation now fighting to keep marriage equality about how difficult it was before gay advocacy groups formed after the 1969 Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village. Before Stonewall, there was almost nowhere to turn for information unless a person was lucky enough to meet a kindred spirit.
I’ve added a link to a PBS.org film about the Stonewall Riots which is riveting and enlightening about the struggle people faced leading up to the riots:
Word of the day ~ regenerate. The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus says revise, revitalize, renew, breathe new life into. I’ve chosen this word because I’ve spent way too much time in the last few days trying to breathe new life the appearance of my blog site. Thanks to my website advisor, Maggie McLaughlin, changes are happening.
Perhaps the word should have been choices. So many choices in designing a website. So many choices in life.
My main character in THE WINTER LOON, Ruth Thompson, makes a choice early in her life based on what she doesn’t want. She questions the values she has been raised with and society’s expectations for young women in the 1930s. Her choice opens the door to a whole new life. Along the way there are many changes. Many times she must renew the direction of her life in order to follow her heart.
Still reading LOVING ELEANOR. I can’t help believing that Eleanor Roosevelt was the first blogger with her My Day daily newspaper column that ran in almost one hundred newspapers. Her choice to write the column took away from precious time she could spend with Lorena Hickok, the woman she loved. It was Lorena’s choice to suggest the column and to encourage her writing success that caused the whole world to fall in love with Eleanor.