Ruminations at Year’s End

Snow gauge
Copper Snow Gauge at gardners.com

I had an odd thought yesterday while I was out walking my dog. I’d put on my winter standby coat – a lined wool Winnie the Pooh letterman’s jacket I bought from the Disney Store when I was in NYC in 2001, standing with co-workers on line in Times Square in below-freezing temperatures, hoping to get tickets to The Lion King.

All of a sudden, I realized that I had owned this jacket for 17 years. I had worn it every winter since 2001 and lost six friends and a husband, a house, and two jobs in that time. What a strange thing to think, I said aloud. And yet, like most of my seeming non sequiturs, it has a context.

This year, I had Christmas dinner with a family friend and another guest was a recent widow. This was her first Christmas without her husband of more than 40 years and she was dealing with it better than I think I had. She had still baked Christmas cookies, gone to a cookie decorating party, celebrated the season. I had not celebrated for years. In fact, this 11th year since my husband’s death was the first time I took any real pleasure in Christmas and the first I made more than a half-hearted effort towards enjoying it.

My husband died on December 6th, so that first Christmas was a complete mess. I bothered with no decorations, no Christmas dinner, no gifts, no cards.

This year, my hand-stamped cards were completed in November, addressed, postage affixed, and mailed the first week of December. The effort reminded me of how much time I had spent 20 years ago on finding just the right cards, carefully calligraphing the addresses, writing a humorous holiday letter, and getting everything out on time – an endeavour that my husband’s relatives said only pointed up the fact that their guy had truly become a married man because cards for any reason had never been seen before with his return address on them.

An article I read today spoke to how many widows and widowers had to find new traditions for the holidays. For me, contemplating an old tradition, like Christmas cards, or something new like a watching a different holiday movie, meant using a pain gauge. Did the idea of doing this thing cause me pain and if so, how much?

For quite a few years, my husband’s death alone was the pain gauge. But as other people disappeared from my life for one reason or another, the pain gauge also became about memories and relationships other than having been a wife. Losing friends I had known even longer than I had known my husband became part of the equation.

When I was very young and fascinated with life, I heard that old people sometimes welcomed the idea of dying and I found that mystifying. At 66, I don’t feel old and yet I find I understand that thinking much better. It’s hard to lose those with whom you were close – with whom you shared a particular set of moments in time, events, other people. It’s the same as losing a part of your life – a piece of your soul and history entwined forever is ripped away and it leaves a mark that can’t be erased. When it happens a lot in the space of a few years, it can be overwhelming. The pain gauge pegs in the red and all you can think about is getting away from the pain; part of you shuts down.

This year has been a mixed one for me. I’ve had a couple of blessings and some challenges that have pegged that pain gauge more than a few times. But I also enjoyed Christmas this year and that brightens me in a way I didn’t expect.

For the first time in the 11 years since my husband died, I didn’t mark this December 6th with tears and a sense of loss. I acknowledged the day, but the pain gauge needle didn’t move much. And that’s probably a change I still don’t realize the immensity of. I probably won’t understand it for a few more years as I approach future Christmases.

I expect that in those future holiday times, I will once again pull out my Winnie The Pooh letterman’s jacket against the cold weather. Probably when I do, I will be reminded of those who have left this life since I have owned it. I hope when I recall them, it will be with wistful fondness and the pain gauge will register that feeling appropriately.

Jesus Saves

jesussaves

When I was thirteen, my mother appeared on the cover of the National Inquirer. She was extremely proud of it and bought all the copies she had the money for. The covers were all black and white in 1965, and I was thankful: her minister outfit was a purple cassock, cloth of gold chasuble, and purple and gold stole. Still, black and white was bad enough when your classmates were asking “Isn’t that your mom on the cover of the Inquirer?” The headline was: I RUN A CHURCH FOR HOMOSEXUALS.

I don’t know when and where Momma met her first gay friend. I only know that, growing up with Momma, nine out of ten of my babysitters were likely to be drag queens or gay hustlers or gay hairdressers, all of them what she called ‘fem queens’. She didn’t seem to think them unusual, so neither did I.

I found most of them an interesting contrast to my mother. The drag queens often dressed as well or better than she did and more flamboyantly and they were definitely better at putting on makeup and producing a bustline. But out of drag, or if they didn’t wear it, they were usually slight young men whose voices flowed out in a rush and whose hands fluttered about them as they spoke. My mother was considered very tall for a woman in those days – she was five foot nine or ten in heels and very broad-shouldered with a solid, boyish shape and pretty but sturdy legs. In the midst of her friends, she was an Amazon.

When I was very young, Momma would sometimes run away from home for a few days and take me or my sister with her. Never both at once. It usually happened in Spring or Summer when the evenings were soft and warm.

We would spend the early parts of an evening in downtown Los Angeles, in Pershing Square, named after “Black Jack” Pershing, the World War I general. We would arrive there just about twilight, when the office workers were heading home maybe from City Hall – then the tallest building in Los Angeles – or the Richfield building, all black marble with gold filigrees and eagles decorating its deco splendor.

In the Square, Momma would talk to her friends until the people with the songbooks and portable organ arrived. Then we would sing hymns of the type my mother learned when she was being raised by my great-grandmother. My mother told me that great-grandmother had been a Seventh Day Adventist and had once given away all of her belongings because the leader of her particular congregation had said that Christ was coming back to earth on such-and-such a day. It might have been just a story. My mother told me a lot of stories and probably believed every one of them. During her lifetime, she tried on a lot of religions, but always liked singing those songs, so maybe that story had a little more truth in it than the others.

Pershing Square was lush with palms, ferns, and elephant ears and thick with stands of Birds-of-Paradise, the official flower of the city of Los Angeles. Lighting was a mix of Edwardian era standards with frosted, knob-like glass, and newer metal lamps, spare and utilitarian. A long time ago, purple glass blocks had been placed in the concrete sidewalks downtown and some places the light in underground garages or workplaces would still shine up through them, as it did in Pershing Square, where there was a vast amount of underground parking. I put my little feet on the purple glass from time to time, wondering what was underneath.

There were also lights in the bases of the planter boxes and lights at the bottom of the trees, but no matter how many lights were put in the park, it remained shadowy and full of dark and secluded grottoes; the perfect place for some of Momma’s friends to conduct their business.

In the early to mid-fifties, if you could stay in the closet, you did. But, if you couldn’t, you still had to earn a living. Then, as now, a lot of young runaways and boys who had been turned out of family homes, came downtown to hustle, providing sex to the guys still in the closet. Baby-faced kids with barely there beards who serviced the “chicken hawks,” and “drugstore cowboys” who went for a ride with those who liked their companionship a little more exotic or “rough.” Pershing Square, with its secluded spots and underground restrooms was perfect for such anonymous meetings.

The Los Angeles police were often there, and sometimes they would talk with Momma, and smile at me. Momma would wait until they were out of earshot before calling them “bastards” and “gestapo.” There must have been other types of people there, too: business people on their way to dinner or a night at the Biltmore, couples headed to the big art-deco movie theatres a couple of blocks away, drug dealers, other kinds of opportunists. But I didn’t know any of those. When I was with Momma in Pershing Square, my world was a night world of shadow and lamplight, my nearsighted vision blurred all lights to snowflakes, and I would sit on top of one of the large concrete planters and listen to the sounds of traffic, footsteps, the thrum of the pigeons as they went to roost in the trees, the mix of voices raised in song.

Maybe it was the Salvation Army, those people with the songbooks and portable organ. Or maybe another group, people from the building with the big red neon light reading, “JESUS SAVES.” Someone was always there, though. They would hand out the song books and start the singing. My mother knew every song. Her voice was not beautiful, but it was melodic and distinctive. In later days, I came to think of it as representative of her Missouri roots. It was strong and clear and conveyed a sort of certainty. She would stand near a planter, with me sitting on top of it next to her, my legs dangling from underneath my car coat, and I would listen as she lifted her voice about gathering at the river or clinging to an old rugged cross or becoming a Christian soldier. Sometimes I would try to sing along, but mostly, I listened.

I always fell asleep. Once that happened, I would experience the rest of the night as a series of blurry vignettes: opening my eyes to find myself being carried somewhere; hearing a man’s voice with a woman’s lilt singing to me; seeing the parade of Yellow Cabs in front of the Biltmore, men in tuxedos and ladies in evening gowns getting out of big cars to stroll across the sidewalk; Momma asking me if I needed to use the toilet and realizing I was already in a stall.

I alternated sleeping and waking to a continuous buzz of talking and laughter, the smell of cigarettes, coffee from a vending machine, and sometimes a cup of hot, watery cocoa or salty chicken-soup.

When the evening was done at last, we often walked to Cooper’s Donuts for a plain cake donut and a cup of coffee full of milk, each of them only a nickel. The pressmen from the Times or Examiner might be there, or men from the flower market. Almost always, one of them would buy me a special donut – eight cents – with chocolate frosting and nuts.

Walking downtown afterward, looking for a place to spend the night, we sometimes ran into more friends of Momma’s. They yelled, “Hey, Mary!” across the street at her, called her “Miss Thing,” and introduced her to others as their “sister Bobbie.” Momma and her friends would laugh about the evening’s work or entertainment and often, we would all go to a Clifton’s Cafeteria. My mother and I both favored the one that was decorated like an island paradise.

In those times, I thought the best part of being with Momma then was Cooper’s Donuts or going to Clifton’s. But now, I think I might pick Pershing Square in the springtime and the sound of young male voices singing about being Christian soldiers while the big red neon sign across the street flashed, “JESUS SAVES” and the world rushed by in shadow.

 

NOTE: this piece is part of a collection of autobiographical works under the title, My Life in Pictures

Maybe Your First Love…

wikipedia commons photo: farm road through Champaign County

Farm road through Champaign County – Wikimedia Commons

I forgot his name almost as soon as I heard it and there is probably no one now who could tell me what it is. The only things I really remember about him are that he had dark hair and he was a teacher. The car – it was a sedan, maybe foreign, but I don’t know what kind or remember what color. He drove us on the country highway for what seemed a long time, but possibly wasn’t. My mother told me later that he was the husband of someone she knew in college and it was a strange coincidence that led him to offer a ride to tall young woman and her four year old, half-Filipino daughter. He was animated and his voice smiled as he talked. I have no idea what they talked about, but somewhere along the drive, I fell in love with him.

We were hitchhiking to New York City from Los Angeles and we met him somewhere in the middle of the country. Then he had to turn off down another road from the main highway, so he left us at the crossroads and drove away past fields of growing things.  I did not want to leave him. Ever. I cried as I was lifted from the back seat and put on my feet on the dusty road. I cried even harder as his car receded into the distance and I have never forgot the feeling of connection and then loss.

There is a quote going around right now that starts, “Maybe your first love is the one that sticks with you because it’s the only one that will ever receive all of you.” When I read that, I thought of him.

The next line of the quote goes, “After that, you learn better.”

And again, I thought of him.