“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me.” — Jim Valvano
As my friends, family, work colleagues, and regular readers are already aware, I recently finished moving. I now have only one set of keys, and my material life resides in a single location for the exception of a dozen totes that a friend generously volunteered to store in her basement. Moving seemed like a never-ending process and I’m grateful it’s over and I can stop writing and talking about it (I will, I promise). I can now direct my energy to other things, which brings me to Father’s Day and the tragedy in Orlando at Pulse LGBTQ nightclub. You might ask, “How are these two subjects related?”
In my experience there’s often a synchronicity to life. Synchronicity is defined as, “the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.” I intended to write a tribute to my father for Father’s Day for my next featured blog post. In between my move and Father’s Day, the mass shooting deaths of LGBTQ people happened in Orlando. I find myself needing to address both my love and gratitude for my father and my sorrow for the tragedy that occurred to a community of which I’m a member. Be patient, read on, and I’ll eventually connect the dots.
“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me.” — Jim Valvano. Let me edit and add to this quotation, “My father gives me the greatest gifts anyone could give another person, he believes in me, he loves me unconditionally, and he accepts me.”
Growing up I always knew I was loved by both my parents. They weren’t perfect, like the rest of us they were human and perfectly flawed. My father grew up without his father present in his life and I always sensed that he loved and raised his children in the ways that he wanted to be loved by his father. He was fortunate to have loving women in his life growing up, his hardworking single mother, Violet, his beloved grandmother, Helen, and older sister, Bette They looked out for him, loved and cared for him, taught him how to be in the world. When he married our mother, she took over.
From a very early age, Dad set the bar high for me as the eldest child. Like his sister, Bette, it was my job to help care for, look out for, and protect my younger siblings, to step in and parent when needed. He taught me to be independent and to think for myself. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “Just because your friends are going to jump off a cliff, are you going to?” He taught me that school and learning were important and that my job was to perform to the best of my abilities. He worked at the middle school I attended and my teachers were his colleagues. He had instant access to my grades and progress. He encouraged me to be active and a leader in extracurricular activities.
He also extolled the importance of how to choose friends and how to nurture those relationships, what values and behavior to look for in others, and which ones to avoid. He was the product of his generation, and often expressed his prejudices regarding race, ethnic groups, and economic classes, yet whenever I observed him on a one-on-one basis, he was accepting and tolerant only expressing his bigotry when talking about groups in generalities, whether based on color, ethnicity, or the money they possessed. He was more sympathetic to the poorer classes since he was born during the depression and knew first-hand about the challenges of putting food on the table, the clothes on his back, and how to make the most with minimal resources. He had a strong work ethic, he was proudly working-class, a union member, and a Democrat.
Dad taught me to work hard and modeled it for me, holding part-time jobs in addition to his full-time job to augment the income needed to raise our family. My sister Roz and I worked alongside him on the weekends, alternating by cleaning house with Mom, and cleaning churches with Dad. During summers, first Roz and I, and later my sister, Cindy, and brother, Rick, took care of our younger siblings during the day because both Mom and Dad worked full-time. We were taught to be responsible and contribute to the household and family.
During my adolescence, I asserted my young adult autonomy. Dad and I became passionate adversaries, arguing about the news and culture of the day while we read the Sunday newspapers or watched the television news. We argued about everything and anything, we were both stubborn right-fighters too. Our other family members would often leave the living room when we argued. We were oblivious to our effect on the serenity of the home. The irony is I had become the smart, independent thinker he had worked so hard to raise.
After I left home, attended, then dropped out of college, I became both a hippie and a community activist, and married my first love, Frank. The four of us, Frank and I, and Mom and Dad became friends. Frank and I spent a lot of time going out to dinner or drinks with them together, attended UW-Badger Football games when Frank and I moved to Madison, and hosted family vacations in our home every summer. We had shared experiences which made for happy memories. My parents loved Frank and he quickly became a cherished member of our family.
Then it happened —not all at once — in stages over time. First, I attended feminist consciousness-raising groups (CR), became active in the National Organization for Women (NOW), and found that my friendship circle was changing— to what we referred to in the mid 1970s as “women-identified women.” I had always had an attraction to women; my earliest crushes included middle school boys and girls. I had romantic friendships with women that at the time I chose not to act on physically.
As I’ve chronicled in other reminiscence vignettes, I had my first affair with a woman while married. Frank and I “opened up” our marriage, a trend in the pre-AIDS, post birth control decade. It worked for awhile until it didn’t any longer. On our 7th wedding anniversary over dinner and drinks, Frank suggested that we separate so I could figure out whether or not I remained committed to our marriage.
Here’s where the story of Pulse in Orlando and my father converge. Soon, I made the decision that I was not returning to Frank and my marriage. I needed to convey three things to my parents. First, Frank and I would not be hosting my parents for our annual July 4th week vacation, Frank and I were separating, and the final most important news —I was a lesbian. Oh my! I was able to share the first two pieces of information in person, but I did not find the courage to share the third, most important revelation.
I did so in a letter to my parents shortly after my visit. In the letter I spelled out how I hoped that they would respond to the declaration. That I was essentially the same person they had raised, loved and nurtured, yet this was a new discovery for me and an essential part of who I was becoming. I was still the daughter who loved them and needed their unconditional love in return. I affirmed how much they loved Frank and my hope that he would remain both in my life and theirs in some way (and he did).
I waited for their response for what seemed like an eternity. They called me. I picked up the phone and before I could speak my father said, “Your mother and I want you to know that we still do and will always love you. We’re sorry that you are leaving Frank, and we want you to know that he is part of our family and is always welcome in our home.” I responded between my tears and told them when I visited next; they could ask me any questions that they had. I told them how much I loved them and how much their love and acceptance meant to me.
When I saw them next, my mother took me aside. We sat on the front porch, talked and smoked cigarettes together. She hugged me and held my hand and said, “Honey, all that’s important to me is that you’re loved and treated well.” I leaned into her loving embrace and cried.
Later that day, my father said. “Toots (he calls all his girls “toots”) I do have a question for you, if that’s okay?” He shared with me that he personally knew lesbians when he was growing up. One of our neighbor’s daughters was one. His question for me, based on his experience in the late 1940s and 1950s was, “Are you the boy or the girl?” I knew he was referring to butch/femme roles. I launched into a nervous feminist response about androgyny and gender roles. He looked at me like I was avoiding the question. Then I understood — he wanted me to be the girl. I answered, “If I had to choose whether I was the boy or the girl, I’m the girl.” His face transformed, relaxed, and expressed his relief. What I realized afterwards, he didn’t want to lose his daughter, his little girl.
Mom and Dad regularly went to their favorite bars on Saturday night when I was growing up where they’d meet their friends, have a few drinks, relax, and laugh. It was the hub of their social network. The locus for my new life as a newly coming-out lesbian was an LGBTQ-friendly, feminist restaurant and bar cooperative called Lysistrata. My sublet apartment was a block away. I could walk to Lysistrata for Sunday brunch, attend a meeting, join friends for drinks, view a new art opening, and listen to women’s music. Every Thursday was Women’s Night and I’d dance until it closed!
Over the course of a couple of visits to Madison, I scheduled a dinner date, first with my mother at Lysistrata, and then one with my father. I wanted them to meet my friends and experience my hangout first hand, which resembled what was referred to in the late 1970s as a “fern bar,” characterized by light woods, lots of windows full of plants, a salad bar, and open floor plan with a small dance floor and juke box and art shows hanging on the walls.
My mother was pleased. This was an environment that appealed to her sense of interior design and the clientele were open and friendly. When I went to dinner with Dad he too seemed relieved. This looked like a safe place, not a dive or dangerous bar. Lysistrata had both men and women for its customer base, Madison’s progressive and feminist community. We had a leisurely dinner and talked. My father excused himself to go to the bathroom.
When he returned his eyes were wide open. He was excited and animated. He said, “I have to tell you what just happened to me. You won’t believe it! While I was in the bathroom a man approached me…”I braced myself. I thought, oh no, what happened in the restroom? Was it a mistake to bring Dad here?
Dad smiled and repeated, “You’ll never guess what happened in the bathroom? A younger man approached me. He had a shaved head and an earring in only one ear. He asked me if I wanted to dance!” I waited for a moment, not knowing what would follow. Then I realized he was flattered and not offended. We paid the bill and when it was time to leave his bathroom friend was also leaving, opened the door for us, and said directly to my father, “Maybe when you’re here next, we can have that dance!”
Dad loved that story, and didn’t hesitate to tell it. Mom and Dad both welcomed my friends and partners into their home and family. Some of my partners had children and they always encouraged the kids to call them Grandma and Grandpa. They celebrated my partners and their children’s birthdays and there were always gifts under the Christmas tree with tags that had their names on them.
Back to Orlando, we don’t know all the details or motivation of the killer for the mass shootings and deaths of innocent LGBTQ people and patrons of Pulse. The killer may have been a closeted gay man, a homophobic man, or he was simply researching gay venues and people as targets of his hate, religious beliefs, or terrorist agenda. Maybe it was precipitated by mental illness or some combination of it all.
What this story and tribute to my father reaffirms for me is the power of love over hate, acceptance over prejudice, and that we all need safe havens in our lives, to be with our community, to congregate, and celebrate with our family, whether it’s the family we are born into, or the family we choose. I’m lucky. I’m grateful to have both. Today, I celebrate my father, Richard Frank Lenzke, Sr., who gives me unconditional love and acceptance and raised me to be the person I am today. My siblings and I, and the generations that follow, are the legacy of the union and commitment between my father and mother.
My father is now a widower. Before my mother died, he was her caretaker, soul mate and best friend for 67 years until her last breath and now beyond. It’s now our job to both care for and honor him. Happy Father’s Day, Dad, from your grateful daughter!
Remembering the innocent victims of Pulse