(March 2005) I’m a contributing writer to our local independent newspaper and wrote an article about how strange it was to return to my grandmother’s tiny farming community and her Southern Baptist church for her funeral.
Most of my family still lives in one of the most conservative states in the south and that was where I returned with my manly haircut and nose ring and urban garb for this funeral. And I waxed poetic about this experience in the paper—delved into how strange it is, when you think about it, that otherwise sociable people in a community with little variation are stopped dead in their tracks by difference, that those same women who get up early to cook food for a wake, who hug strangers who visit their church, who grew up pampering you and doting on you and calling you sugar are leery of you now because you deviated from their norm.
Now I don’t know if it’s this way in other rural communities but, in Southern Baptist ones, difference is dangerous, is wrong, is something to be suspicious of, cured. And conversion drives the Baptist faithful (whose newest plan, incidentally and according to my mother’s mission magazines, is to convert the Mormons).
And try to convert me they did. My grandmother’s preacher—who stared at me with contempt when I stuck out my hand for a handshake—knew immediately that I was the granddaughter who had long worried my grandmother, the queer one, the one who left town as soon as I scraped together the resources to do so and rarely returned. He told me that my grandmother died worried for my soul because she knew I’d burn in Hell.
I drove home thinking about how odd the accident of family is—how strange it is that I give leeway to people I would otherwise never endure simply because I’m tied to them by blood and know we’ll circle into and out of each others' lives for as long as we breathe.
And I thought about the fact that our family tree includes all these details about my grandmother’s five children, her sixteen grandchildren, and her eighteen great-grandchildren, but not a word about the woman I’d been partnered with for, at that point, six years—the person I most considered family.
And I thought about the power of naming something, of just choosing not to record or acknowledge a reality. And I wrote about this whole strange experience in a public forum.
I don’t feel that I was disrespectful of my family, but I did write about how strange it felt to always be Other: to notice the silence that always follows even the most casual declaration about my life if it includes a reference to my partner; to know that, in my nieces' and nephews' eyes, I am not the whole and interesting person that I am but am, instead, their queer old-maid aunt, a stranger they define by my love—about how strange it is to not belong with the people you’re bound to by blood, and to have to, instead, form your own chosen family with people who never even knew you as a child.
The newspaper is just getting around to posting their archives online and this is one of a few of my articles they’ve posted so far. Unfortunately, my grandmother’s little farming community has an unusual name and I used it, so a parishioner in her church discovered my article only a few months after the funeral. He shared it with the church and my family and it apparently caused a big scandal and definitely prompted fury within my family of origin.
(OMG What will they do when the, um, novel comes out?!)
Now no one would accuse my aunt Betty of being a kind woman. She’s never been able to sustain a relationship for more than a year and is, really, just a bitter and bigoted person.
My most enduring memory of her is this: every Christmas Eve of my childhood, she passed out purple mimeographed pages of revised carols (that smelled good) for us to sing. Then she very carefully gathered these pages back up (which means that I never managed to snag a copy of her songs, although I’d love to have one).
The Christmas carols in the old Baptist hymnal are just not Baptist enough for Aunt Betty, so she reworded them for the benefit of her family's souls.
Here’s the first verse of the only one I can remember with certainty:
On the first day of Christmas my true lord came for me, but I was not re-e-eady....
Then, yes indeedy, we go on a merry, instructive holiday journey through Hell.
Aunt Betty sent me the following letter after reading my article, along with two heavily highlighted paperback books about the sin of homosexuality:
I didn’t get a chance to talk with you alone at Christmas and don’t know if your mother told you or not, but a church member read your newspaper article and gave me a copy.
I was hurt, to say the least, that you would do this to us and to Mother’s memory.
It was briefly discussed at Sunday evening’s service (the last one I attended) that Mother’s gay granddaughter had written an article.
I am sorry that you feel the way you do, but I happen to love our community, our church, and our people.
I have become a Christian, and was librarian and on the flower committee. I placed many books in the library in Mother’s memory, as she taught a class there for many years.
I’m not one to argue with anyone about religion—however, it is every Christian’s duty to attempt to witness and save the souls of those they love.
There are some people I hope to never see in Heaven, but you are not one of them. It grieves me and breaks my heart to think that those I love will not get there.
I’m even tempted to tear a page from my Bible and send it to you—please read 2 Timothy, chapters 2 and 3.
In Christian love,
LISTENING TO: Toad the Wet Sprocket's "Before You Were Born" (Before you were born someone kicked in the door. You are not wanted here; get back where you belong...)
READING: Paradise Garden: A Trip Through Howard Finster’s Visionary World by Robert Peacock with Annibel Jenkins