Mother

Mother: You never were afraid of me. Your sister and your brother, I think they are still afraid of me. They are so conventional. I frightened them into conventionality. So afraid of making a mistake. I had to be careful not to push them.

Me: You weren’t frightening. You were never angry at any of us. I think [brother] and [sister] are just timid. And you do have an overpowering personality.

Mom: They did things right because they were afraid of what I would say or do if they did them wrong. They were perfectionists in a by-the-book way. Not you. You were never like that. Never afraid to make a mistake. Never afraid to challenge me. Never afraid to challenge anyone. I don’t think you ever cared what I thought.

Me: That’s not true. I cared very much what you thought.

Mom: Nonsense. You did things right because you got pleasure from doing things right. Pleasing me never entered your mind.

Me: No, I was never afraid of you. There was never anything to be afraid of.

Mother: But you were so afraid of me about the most important thing in your life.

Me: I wasn’t afraid of you. I was afraid of losing you. Of losing our family. It’s the most important thing in the world to me. Well, now it’s the second most important thing in the world.

I just knew what you believed. The Church doesn’t accept it and you wouldn’t accept it.

Mother: Was it just the Church? That I would follow the Church? I wasn’t happy when you left the Church, but I accepted it.

Me: No, it wasn’t just the Church. I knew how you felt about it yourself. We were in Seattle –

Mother: Oh, no! The women kissing! I said something, didn’t I? I regretted it the moment I said it. Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.


Me: I’m sorry. I underestimated you. I never thought you would accept that I am a lesbian. I should have come out years ago.

Mother: You didn’t underestimate me. I wouldn’t have accepted it.

Me: But you did.

Mother: I never would have accepted it in the abstract. If you had come home any time and told me, “Mother, I’m a lesbian,” I would not have accepted it, even last year. I can’t say what I would have done, but I know that I could not have accepted it, not as I have. I doubt that I would ever have agreed to meet one of your girlfriends. It would have been forever a wall between us.

But meeting CA changed that. She put a face to it. Sitting here, talking all afternoon, having dinner, seeing what a wonderful woman she is, seeing what she means to you, having it slowly dawn on me that you two are in love. Having her so forthrightly admit her love for you. How can a mother resist that for her daughter?

Me: So stop regretting anything! If I had come out earlier, I never would have met CA.

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Mother bear and her cub

At the cookout, I saw my Mother looking beatific, a sure sign that she has done something that will embarrass me. [Two things about Mother: She is a devout Catholic, and she sometimes talks in italics.]

Me: Mother, what have you done now?

Mother (with a sly smile): That woman doesn’t approve of your lifestyle.

Me: Oh, God, Mother, what did you say to her?

Mother: Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, dear. I told her that you two have respectable lifestyles. You live in a little one-bedroom apartment, [fiancée] lives in a sublet and doesn’t even own the furniture, for goodness sake.

Me: I don’t think she meant that kind of lifestyle.

Mother: Of course she didn’t, the ignorant bigot. I told her you don’t go out to bars and you don’t party. You court each other by making dinner for each other. By the way, you both work too hard.

Me: I don’t think she meant that kind of lifestyle, either.

Mother: Of course she didn’t, the ignorant bigot. She said you didn’t have a Christian lifestyle. I told her that getting married and having kids is the best kind of Christian lifestyle, and you will make terrific parents.

Me (rolling eyes): Thanks, Mother.

Mother: Don’t roll your eyes at me, dear. It’s not ladylike or respectful. I told her you are good Christians, too. You go to church every Sunday. For goodness sake, [fiancée] is ordained or an elder or something, isn’t she?

Me: Yes, Mother. An ordained elder. But aren’t we a couple of Protestant heretics?

Mother: Of course you are, dear. That doesn’t mean you can’t be good Christians. So I told her, why don’t you stop beating around the bush, talking about lifestyle? Why not just say that you’re an ignorant bigot who doesn’t like homosexuals?

Me: Oh, God, Mother.

Mother: Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, dear. She told me I should read the Bible instead of going to one of those liberal churches where the gay agenda is more important than the Bible. I told her she’d have to take that up with the Pope. Ignorant bigot.

Dad

I should have posted this yesterday, of course. Dad will never see it (I hope!), so I’m not sure that matters.


In my memory, Dad lives in my Mother’s shadow. Mother is a force of nature. Dad is quiet, quietly amused at the passing parade.

But the older I get, and the more I look back at my life, the more I see of Dad, the more he becomes a main character.


Dad’s response to almost everything my Mother says is a slightly ironic, slightly exasperated, “Yes, my dear.”


Dad started me in Engineering. When I was little, we built things with wood blocks. He got end scraps from the lumberyard, mostly 2x4s, but lots of oddities, too. We built bridges, railroads, skyscrapers. He taught me about thrusts and vectors, corbelling and arching, catenary and centering, friction and balance.

He’s not an engineer. He’s got a college degree, but not in a scientific or quantitative discipline. Our discovery of engineering was purely experimental and empirical.

He gave me my favorite toys – wooden Brio trains. The Brio box has been in every place I’ve ever lived. I currently have a track set up in my Love’s apartment. I learned lattices and graphs and curves and grades.


Dad taught me the most important thing about Engineering and life:

When I was very young – maybe 5 years old – I was upset about something that had gone wrong. (A common experience in my life. If I start to wonder about what would happen if I did X, I normally try to find out. Experimentally. One of the nice things about having learned Physics, Math and Engineering is that I can get a first approximation before risking life and limb.)

Dad showed me a video tape of Galloping Gertie: The Tacoma Narrows bridge shook itself apart under a wind load. It’s studied by every engineer and physicist in the world. (Really: Please watch the video: It’s amazing. Think of how that would impress a curious 5 year old.)

Dad explained to me that we all make mistakes. Not all of them have results as spectacular as Galloping Gertie. Blame and guilt and fault are irrelevant. They are about the past, and the past can’t be changed. The important thing is to learn from our mistakes and use them for a better future. And engineers and physicists have learned a lot from Galloping Gertie.

I learned the most important lesson in Engineering before I started kindergarten.


When I was in kindergarten, the principal called my parents. I was engaging in some experimental activity. (I may have conscripted some other children as experimental subjects. My memory is hazy on specifics.) The teacher told me to stop, I would get hurt. I told her that the best way to learn was from your mistakes and she was stupid if she didn’t let me make mistakes.

I had to sit in the principal’s office while he explained this to my parents. On the drive home, Mother told me off. Dad just grinned. Mother chewed him out for encouraging bad behavior.

Dad: “Yes, my dear.”


Lindsay at Solo Mama reminded me of another event with Dad.

In catechism and confirmation class, I was a trial to our priest. The priest told my parents that I was refractory and that he would tell that to the bishop.

I said (to my parents) that the priest was an ignorant fool and, if the bishop backed him, the bishop was a stupid jackass.

Mother called me “Young Lady” (the highest level of censorious address, worse than being called by my full name) for only the second time in my life, then sent me to my room to consider how I should confess and apologize.

The last thing I heard before I closed the door to my room:

Dad: Well, he is a stupid jackass.


Dad was raised Catholic. My Mother was raised Protestant, but converted to marry Dad. The old saying, “Converts tend to be zealots”? That’s my Mother.

Dad has always been an indifferent Catholic. Mass every Sunday. Kids through catechism, first communion, confirmation. But it has always been a bemused (and, I think, amused) detachment at my Mother’s heartfelt Catholicism.

I knew how my Mother would react if I came out of the closet. (In the event, I was wrong, thank goodness.)

I didn’t know about Dad. I assumed he would not be happy. I assumed that he would back Mother. And he did.


I didn’t come out to Dad. Mother outed me to him before I got the chance. After my Love outed us to Mother, Mother took me back in the living room.

Mother: Your daughter is a lesbian. That was her girlfriend.

Dad: Yes, my dear.

Mother: Don’t “Yes, my dear” me. Your daughter is a lesbian.

Dad: Yes, my dear. I knew it the minute they walked in the door. Anyone could tell those two girls are in love. I’ve spent the last six hours trying to guess what you were going to do when you figured it out. If you don’t give her your unconditional love, I’m filing for divorce.

Mother: I gave her my blessing, and I don’t want anyone giving her any trouble about it.

Dad: Yes, my dear.

My story: In the closet

You might wonder why I stayed completely in the closet until I was almost 35. Why I never breathed a word of it to anyone. Why I was celibate, a monk in the Order of Engineering.

My mother.

Not fear of my mother. Love of my mother. I could not break her heart.


My mother is uncompromising. She does not know how to compromise. She has never done it.

She would not let us compromise, either. She would never accept – would never let us accept – anything less than our best. Schoolwork, sports, morality, hygiene, household chores, summer and weekend jobs – all had to be done to our utmost ability. Learning by rote was unacceptable. I had to understand what I was learning, question it until I understood the underlying ideas.

She never had to tell me that. I just knew it.

Unlike many uncompromising people, however, she is tolerant of other beliefs and the failings of others.


My mother certainly does not compromise on religion: She is a devout Catholic. She raised us strictly in the Church.

My Catechism and confirmation classes sorely tested her belief that I should question until I understood. I questioned the priest relentlessly. It not only tested her belief that I should question, it tested her patience with me.

But she defended me to our priest and the bishop. She wasn’t afraid for my soul then; the disciples, the prophets and Augustine all had their moments of doubt.

It hurt her when I left the Church, but she never rebuked me. It hurt her more when I joined a Protestant church. She knew I would never return to the Church.


She could accept that I might be a heretic. But I knew that she could never accept that I might be a lesbian.

My greatest fear in the first 30 years of my life was that she would learn that I was gay.

I stayed resolutely in the closet. I never acted on – or even thought of acting on – my orientation. I withdrew into celibacy and solitude.

I came out to my minister.

I didn’t come out to my mother.

I met my Love.

I still didn’t come out to my mother.