There Will Be Stories

Like most other families, when mine gets together there will be stories. Some stories are the ritual retelling of past shared memories, the mythology we’ve created and strive to preserve. Other stories are simply gossip, told family-style, which in ours means we are usually talking about the absent relative, so there’s additional incentive to attend family gatherings if you want to protect your reputation or tell your side of the story. Lastly, we tell stories to impart our values and create a family legacy for the next generation.

This past weekend my aging parents visited Madison. My mother doesn’t drive anymore due to blindness in one eye, and my father never drove for the exception as a young man learning behind the wheel. He almost had an accident and decided on the spot he’d live longer and so would others if he didn’t drive. Over the years however, he became a very vocal back seat driver sitting next to my mother in the front bench seat of our 1956, two-tone cream and bronze, Chevy Bel-Air. Because my parents don’t drive, my sister Tami and I sometimes provide shuttle service for them; one of us will drive to our hometown of Racine, Wisconsin bring our folks to Madison, while the other returns them after a visit.

My mother’s health has been challenged these past seven years, and my parents’ last trip to Madison was probably five years ago. I’ve moved since then and my folks take pride in claiming, “We’ve seen every place Linda’s lived.”  Yes, over the years I’ve lived in many apartments, condos, and houses, never as an owner. I have a reputation for moving into new buildings and a pretty good flair for interior design.  I’ve also been married, divorced, came out, lived a late-in-life lesbian adolescence, did the proverbial U-Haul thing a few times, settled into a lesbian partnership for 15 years and now in my sixth decade I’ve learned to enjoy a solitary life until love knocks at my door again.

Ex-Husband, Frank

Ex-Husband, Frank

Like my father, my ex-husband Frank never drove, except for the Harley he won in poker game while living in Arizona. The past few years, whenever I visit my parents in Racine for a holiday, I call Frank and invite him along for the trip. He always declines, a master of excuses. I must admit I wanted his company, but more importantly I wanted an opportunity to make amends to him. Frank was my first love. We met in college during the turbulent late sixties, a time that we described as “psychedelic, rock-a-rock-a, bullshit.” I must admit, we experimented with drugs and I’m proud to say we marched against the war and in support of civil rights, and after we witnessed the unintended legacy of drugs and a hippie lifestyle, we strove to become middle class and anonymous, find jobs and build a life together. The theme of our young marriage was “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Our House

I’ll light the fire, you place the flowers
In the vase that you bought today
Staring at the fire for hours and hours
While I listen to you play your love songs
All night long for me, only for me

Come to me now and rest your head for just five minutes
Everything is good
Such a cozy room, the windows are illuminated
By the evening sunshine through them
Fiery gems for you, only for you

Our house is a very, very, very fine house
With two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard
Now everything is easy, ’cause of you
And our

Our house is a very, very, very fine house
With two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard
Now everything is easy, ’cause of you
And our

I’ll light the fire while you place the flowers
In the vase that you bought today

I came out in the late 1970s after I became involved in feminist consciousness-raising and the second wave of feminism, fighting for a woman’s right to choose, for equal rights under the law, equal pay for equal work, and all the other issues of the times. I met and fell in love (and lust) with the women I was spending time with, who were coming into their own lives, becoming empowered and redefining their futures. Frank and I opened up our relationship for a period of time. “Open Marriage” was considered a viable option for couples during this pre-AIDs decade. Frank was accepting of my relationships with women as long as he was the only man in my life. He was.

Back to the amends-making: Frank and I separated in 1978 on our seventh wedding anniversary. It was his suggestion. My energy and affections had dramatically shifted to women and he asked me to decide if I wanted to stay married. I was afraid to leave, to initiate this conversation and he was much braver than I. Though I didn’t tell him in that moment, I knew that if I left him, even for what he was describing as a temporary separation, I would never return. I didn’t. I came out as a lesbian.

We didn’t spend much time working through the end of our marriage. I observed his decline into depression from afar. I was virtually detached while I explored and celebrated my lesbian adolescence. It was a very selfish time for me. I also began drinking more and would later need to face my alcoholism as a result. Over the years, Frank and I didn’t talk through the end of our relationship and whether we could redefine it and stay in each other’s lives. I wanted him to remain in my life as he did with my parents, staying in contact with them, exchanging greetings at holidays and birthdays, and occasionally stopping to visit them when he was in Racine to see his family.

When we were young marrieds, Frank and I often went out on “double dates” with my parents on Saturday nights. We had a lot of fun together and share many memories which have now become legendary stories, like the night the four of us went to dinner at the then popular Racine restaurant, Wigs & Ellie’s. Frank was a big eater and though my father was a small man, he also had a good appetite. When the waiter described the specials for the evening, sweetheart steak fillets for two, and barbeque ribs, six or twelve-bone racks, Frank ordered the sweetheart special. My father, surprised and delighted, asked, “You can do that?” The waiter nodded yes, and he proceeded to order the sweetheart special too. Now it was my turn to order. I looked at my mother. We both love ribs and I said, I think I can eat a rack of 12, her eyes brightened and she said, I will too!

The waiter left, put in our orders, and returned with a galvanized steel bucket filled with an iceberg lettuce salad. He carried tongs, a Lazy Susan of salad dressing and monkey pod bowls. Next were small loaves of freshly baked bread (we asked for seconds). Our entrees came out and our table looked like meal-time with the cartoon characters, the Flintstones.  The chef came out to meet the guests at the table of four eating enough food for eight people. This was one of many shared occasions with good food and beer, lots of both.

I decided to invite Frank for this recent visit with my parents, along with my sister Tami, her husband Ron, and my niece and nephew, Gemma and Quinn.  Much to my surprise Frank said yes. When I told my parents he was coming, they adopted a “wait and see” attitude, since they too knew he was the master of excuses. He didn’t bail out. The day of the visit, my folks and I took a scenic drive through Madison to pick Frank up and to look at the changing colors of the trees, the growing University of Wisconsin campus and the wonderful neighborhoods we are lucky to have here.

Top row, l. to r. Ron and Frank, bottom row l. to r. Mom, Dad, Tami, Gemma and Quinn

Top row, l. to r. Ron and Frank, bottom row l. to r. Mom, Dad, Tami, Gemma and Quinn

Tami is my youngest sister. We are 18 years apart in age. I never lived with her. Growing up she knew Frank and I only as a couple, a package deal, and our divorce was hard on her. When she was a girl, she nicknamed Frank, “The Big Balloona.” He stood six-feet-four inches tall and hovered around 300 pounds most of his life. She adored him and he her.  I was excited anticipating and preparing for this visit with my parents, sister Tami, her family and Frank. I prepared a lunch of Italian-Style Roast Beef and all the accompaniments, baked beans, potato chips, cherry Jell-O with whipped cream (a family tradition at gatherings) and banana cake with cream cheese frosting for dessert. Tami describes it as “banana cake love!”

Banana cake love, or is it madness?

Banana cake love, or is it madness?

The reunion of my parents, Tami, Frank and I, exceeded our wishes. It was a wonderful afternoon of telling stories we each have saved as precious memories. First, we determined how long it had been since we last saw each other. Frank spent Christmas with my parents in 2000. I saw him in a Hallmark Card Shop buying greeting cards for my family a year or two later, Tami hadn’t seen him for many years and her husband Ron and the kids were meeting him for the first time. The room was full of love and affection.

We told stories all afternoon and into the evening, updates on family members, both Frank’s and ours, the deaths, births, divorces and marriages, retirements and catalogs of surgeries and health issues, past and upcoming. Then Frank and I reminisced, asking each other, “Whatever happened to…?” and “Do you remember…?” There was no need for amends-making. The love and affection that filled the room and our hearts washed away any residue of hurt or regret that remained. It was a moment that proved the adage true that “Time Heals All Wounds.” In this case it has, because what remained was our love for each other and our cherished shared experience.

Niece, Gemma

Niece, Gemma

Nephew, Quinn

Nephew, Quinn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The holiday season is upon us. Soon we’ll gather again to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. Like most families, there will be loved ones missing, parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, cousins, former spouses and friends. We will grieve their absence and celebrate their lives and there will be stories!

Postscript

When I brought my parents home we enjoyed a lunch together and my dad presented me with an envelope with my name written on it. Inside was gas money, but the real gift was seeing his cursive script with my name, a reminder from whom I inherited my artistic flair. Thanks Dad for the gift!

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5 thoughts on “There Will Be Stories

  1. Karen Kane says:

    Family stories always leave my heart warm. I had a partner for 35 years who decided to walk away from our family and yet I can always talk kindly of the memories. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Sarah White says:

    I loved meeting your family like this — so much compassion in this story. Thanks, Linda!

  3. candy says:

    This was another amazing story. You have such a flair for touching the soul with your writing. I love reading your stories they are so emotional full of joy and at times saddness.

  4. greydoolin says:

    Love this, Linda! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Crystal Hyslop says:

    Touching.

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