This year my partner Brian and I drove down to my hometown of Shullsburg to visit. We called my brother Kerry who lives in Madison and doesn’t drive and asked if he wanted to go along, and he was very thankful for the offer. My sister Coleen and my oldest brother Kevin and his partner Ken live with my mother in the house in which we all grew up, in the town where Mom grew up and where generations before her grew up, going all the way back to 1827, the year the town was founded. My father’s side of the family arrived during the potato famine of the 1840s, so both sides have been there since before Wisconsin became a state.
Whenever I drive from Madison and start getting into the driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin with its rolling hills and valleys I feel the pull of the earth and the pull of my heart in the land. It looks like Ireland and it is easy to see why so many Irish settled in the area. My blood runs deep in the soil there and I am moved by it whenever I go. Even without snow this year Shullsburg itself is like something out of a Currier and Ives painting and is an idyllic place to celebrate Christmas. Coming close to town we passed several Amish buggies and it made it seem like we were viewing Christmas from a century or more ago. Christmas trees were in virtually every house as we drove into town. If home is where the heart is I was definitely at home on Christmas Eve this year.
When we rang the doorbell at the house and my sister opened the door she was genuinely surprised and delighted to see the three of us. She opened her arms wide for hugs and invited us into the house. Kevin was downtown but we were told he would be home shortly. My mother has dementia, is about 70 or 80 pounds, and has been bedridden for a long time, so the first thing we did was go to her bedroom to say hi and wish her a Merry Christmas. She did not know it was Christmas Eve until we told her. Some days she doesn’t know who we are and doesn’t remember much of anything. Other days her mind can still be pretty sharp. It was one of the sharp days. She remembered us and beamed with happiness throughout our visit. She remembered I was the youngest. She talked about her mother from a picture on the wall. We got some pictures with her and all the siblings, the first time all of us had been together for about two years. She smiled, a lot. She joked around with us. She always had a great sense of humor and it shone through as bright as a Christmas star that evening. At one point when Brian had stepped out of the room she said, “He’s really a nice guy.” We agreed and then she asked his last name. Coleen and I both answered “Wild.” She took a moment and then very slyly said, “Oh, my.” It was clear she wasn’t just saying things that made us laugh at her, but was making jokes and understood the humor and the timing of them. I remember so many times at the kitchen table or in the living room where she would make me laugh so hard I couldn’t stop, and then she would get laughing and when she did she would start snorting, which would make us both laugh even harder. Our laughing jags could go on for fifteen minutes or so.
Besides humor Mom also instilled a sense of right and wrong, a sense of justice and the importance of standing up for it, the importance of honesty, and more in me. It was because of this that I was able to come out thirty-five years ago in another southwestern Wisconsin city, Platteville, join the newly-formed campus gay organization, and begin to advocate for gay rights at a time and in a place where that was not always the safest thing to do. But it was the right thing to do. It was also the right thing to do to come out to my mother once I had figured it out because I had always been honest with her and wanted her to know the full me. I also knew that being out publicly that it would get back to her eventually and I wanted her to hear it from me, not from some gossipy neighbor.
One night I came home drunk and told her that I needed to talk to her. We went downstairs where we often sat and played Yahtzee until the wee hours of the morning (Mom was a Yahtzee addict and could play for hours at a time). Coming out to her was very scary because she was a devout Catholic and the teachings of the church were that homosexuality was wrong. I knew she would love me even if she hated my “sin”, as that is what the church taught, but I didn’t want her to hate the essence of who I knew myself to be. In my mind that would be akin to hating me. I always desperately wanted my mother to love me and to be proud of me. As a result I wasn’t sure how to approach the subject but eventually I came out with it.
The first thing she said was, “Do you want to see a psychiatrist?”
I responded with, “I’m perfectly fine. If you can’t deal with it maybe you could make an appointment to see someone.” I didn’t mean for it sound snotty. I meant it. I didn’t believe I had reason to need to see someone, but felt that it might be helpful to her to understand things better and I wanted nothing more than for her to understand and accept me in the fullness of my being.
We talked about it a little bit and the last thing she said was, “Do you want to see a priest?”
The last thing I wanted was to see a priest. I answered with, “No, I don’t. I can’t believe in a religion that won’t believe in me.”
Mom pretty studiously avoided the issue after that. For Christmas, 1980 I bought her a book called A Family Matter: A Parents’ Guide to Homosexuality. I wrote a note on the inside cover about how I wanted her to read it to get a better understanding of me. I didn’t want to lose the close relationship we always had, but I felt it might be lost if we didn’t talk about things and if she didn’t try to learn more. Several months later, after hearing nothing, I asked if she had read it. She said she had tried to but that she couldn’t, she just didn’t understand it all.
Some time later I got my ear pierced as a political statement. Back then the only men who had their ears pierced were gay men, an occasional sailor, and those few who just liked it and didn’t give a crap what anyone else thought. Mom got upset over that. After a couple days she finally exploded and said something along the lines of, “I don’t mind if you’re that way, but do you have to advertise it?” I told her yes, and why it was important for me to be out. She didn’t really get that either.
As time went on more family members, children of friends of hers, and public figures came out and while she still never really talked about it she seemed comfortable when I would introduce a new boyfriend, except for one who was a jerk and about whom she didn’t mince any words in letting me know he was no good. She was right about that. She met Brian years ago–we have been together for going on 24 years now–and liked him immediately. She always treated him like one of the family, as she did with my brother’s partner after he came out.
All of this is background to sharing a moment from this year’s Christmas Eve. As Brian and I stood at the end of the bed she did not remember what our relationship was; I think she may have thought he was just a good friend. So she looked at us both and asked if we were engaged yet. It took me by surprise because I didn’t realize at first that she was asking if we had girlfriends, but when Coleen explained to her that Brian and I did get engaged this past year and that we were together she seemed confused. Coleen told her, “Men can marry men and women can marry women now in many states.” We told her that included Wisconsin.
She looked at Brian and me and said, “Oh. Well, in that case I give you my blessing.”
Thank you, Mom. I can think of no better gift than your blessing and your love. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.