Monday, March 18, 2013

Pink Sheep of the Family

In the ten years since my mother died, my trips back to my home town, an eight hour drive from Toronto, have tapered off dramatically. I still have a beloved aunt living in the area. Since last year, her advancing deafness and an undramatic but steadily creeping edge of confusion have put paid to keeping in touch by phone. Yesterday she turned 100, as good an occasion as I'll ever have for making the journey, and so here I am in east central Indiana. There were seventy-five of us at lunch yesterday: a handful of nieces and nephews, but nearly everyone else direct descendants or spouses, down even unto the fifth generation of great-great-grandchildren forming a moving obstacle course of toy cars and plastic dinosaurs in the corners of the Methodist church hall.

I'm flooded almost at once with the joy and the pain of being among these good people--the first time I've seen so many of them at once in I'm guessing thirty years. I gravitate toward a corner of the room with two of the nieces, my cousins. As much as I've adored my aunt my whole life, feeling at home among most of her own children and their families has always been a challenge. We live in different worlds, and theirs is as toxic to me as fresh water to a salt-water fish. I imagine mine is as unintelligible to at least some of them as coral reefs to river-dwellers. The ones I'm most comfortable with are the ones who like me have moved away.
Many of them are still local farming people, deeply rooted in a landscape they've known all their lives; many are evangelical Christians of a conservative stripe. When my aunt's grandson Tommy fell ill with AIDS in the early 90's, a few years too early for the Cocktail, many of them stiffened into uncomfortable silence, glad enough that he was cared for by an ex-lover at a safe distance in New Jersey; when his uncle, my aunt's only son, followed suit less than two years later, after twenty years of marriage, the family circled the wagons by pointing to brain cancer on the death certificate--a technically accurate cause of death that masked the unrespectable fullness of the truth.
I insisted on starting an AIDS Quilt panel for Tommy, a project I was astonished and grateful to find was taken up with unhesitating energy and dedication by others in the family. When it had made the rounds of all of us who contributed to its design and assembly, I finally delivered it into the hands of his ex-lover, who held onto it for some months before sending it to the Names Project. For his uncle, my aunt's son, it was clear a similar project wouldn't have been welcomed.
We're soon joined in our corner by another of my cousins once removed, Tommy's older sister, a soft-spoken woman about my own age, who wades into the shallows of happy childhood memories, then into deeper water, until she's confiding that among the hardest things she's ever gone through was the the loss of him; and the number of our relatives who turned their backs. And then my hand is on her arm, my voice cracking as I tell her how much I loved her brother, who'd come out to me years after our shared love of keyboard music had brought us together through adolescence and early adulthood.
From there we move on to the deep, sustained joy she's experienced in her partnership of over twenty years with a woman who's also present but whom I've yet to meet; to the feeling she tells me she always had of being off to the side, of not quite fitting in with the rest of the tribe. I share with her some of my life with Jonathan. And she refers to yet another of the extended family whose name I don't catch, whom I probably last saw as a toddler, or maybe only in photographs, and who she proposes is likely one of us outliers as well. I've already converged with him at the door of the church, a dark, trim young man accompanied by a male African- American friend. He works, my cousin tells me, in a high-end restaurant an hour and a half away in Louisville--that in itself serving as Exhibit A in our speculations. As I see him and his friend a few tables away, they seem to function as a couple, moving easily among the others, included together in the group shot of the great-grandchildren gathered around my aunt's wheelchair at the front of the hall, clearly accepted--but accepted, I have no doubt, by virtue of what's left unsaid.
I want badly to make contact with them, but I have no idea how to start a conversation without being invasive and abrupt. "Hi. I'm sure we share DNA. But I've lost all track of who you are" seems a singularly inept ice-breaker. The rest of the afternoon passes. By the time I'm preparing to leave, they're no longer in sight. I meet my cousin's long-time partner, and in the last twenty minutes before I put on my coat, we sit together, getting to know one another, feeling an immediate rapport, a big part of which is simple elation that we can bring all of ourselves to this corner table.
And I find myself asking, what would I need to feel fully seen and recognized among my people? Does the boy from Louisville even know that he's not alone in this sizeable pond of aggressively reproductive heterosexuality? Does he know about his queer great uncle, his queer cousins? What would it take for us to break out of the cones of silence that isolate us from each other? Is there some ritual, some acknowledgement that we spring from the same source, less final, God willing, than an AIDS quilt, around which we could gather without having to leave this room?