Words are powerful as love,
transforming only by taking us as we are.
I have long since discovered that I’m not alone in recalling the precise time and place when children, irrespective of age, inform their parents, usually with great trepidation, of a secret they feel compelled to share. When I’m apprised of my oldest daughter’s urgent need to tell us something, I can’t foresee, in that moment and beyond, how a revelation will propel me on a trajectory that is still ongoing. I think back to one bitterly cold night in August when language falters and I stumble. Unprepared for what I’m about to hear, I recline into the curved back of my worn armchair. My husband turns down the television’s volume; only the flickering light from the screen tells me that Jerry Seinfeld will continue to make the rest of the world laugh, while mine appears to have come to a screeching halt.
Unusually tentative, my daughter sits on the edge of the couch. She brushes her fingers through long hair falling across her shoulder; tears well up in her brown eyes. Within the space of only seconds, I mentally conjure possible scenarios for what seems to be turning her inside out. Perhaps she is dating a man a great deal older, someone not likely to fulfil our parental expectations of a suitable partner for our daughter. Or could it be that she is going to tell us that she is pregnant? Well, what of it? Quickly, I console myself, concluding that although she is only 20 years of age, we are here to love and support any decision she deems suitable.
But I’m about to learn that even though my speculations are farfetched, I would give anything in that moment for them to be realised; that those earlier, imagined predicaments would have been considerably preferable. I don’t anticipate the declaration ‘I have a girlfriend.’ Nor do I comprehend its full import. In my unwillingness to digest this new-found knowledge, a meek query—‘Doesn’t everybody have a girlfriend?’—is, however, met not with disbelief or anger on her part, but with patience, and an attempt to explain. It falls on deaf ears; I choose not to hear. An unfamiliar ache, a strange feeling of disquiet travels through my body. A child’s declaration marks another of life’s beginnings. A child’s declaration generates unanticipated detours.
Until now, there have been periods of calm when I’ve been lulled into complacency by time’s quotidian rhythms; but on this night they are disrupted by unpredictable turbulence. In that split second before I think I’m going to crash, all I want to do is take her in my arms and assure her of unconditional love. I ache for her because I know this is also what she craves; inexplicably, I am incapable.
Twelve years later, I persist in wondering why language is so elusive when I need to rely on its accessibility. Strangely, I know what I want to say, what I need to say, even what I’m supposed to say. Yet nothing comes. I remember feeling ‘as if all you know and all you don’t know / have changed places’1. I remember circumventing important truths about my child, allowing no provision for clarity, and I remember very little of what I say to her, because I am afraid to revisit language that might be laced with rancour. If I think I have missed some significant knowledge about my daughter, I also don’t recognise myself—for I am the mother who chooses words carefully and with restraint. Even in exasperation, they are delivered gently, deliberately, as if I’m coaxing a pebble into a pond rather than hurling a cluster of rocks that will create a surge of fear and anger.
• • •
A lifetime ago, I am a child who loves staring at lovers. I can be anywhere, seeking them out as I walk along the pier at Elwood beach with my father or shop for food with my mother in Acland Street, when it is still known as the Village Belle. I carry this preoccupation into my teens. One evening my parents take me to my first grown-up play, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, at the old Russell Street Theatre. We sit in the mezzanine, where my view is obscured by a couple in front of me. She is wearing a fashionable 1960s pillbox hat; his hair is styled like a rooster’s comb. They spend the duration of the play kissing and laughing delightedly at each other. There is enough theatre-making between them to keep me thoroughly absorbed and I miss the real performance. When I’m older, I understand that my youthful fascination with outward physical affection is a yearning for signs of joie de vivre, its absence palpable in my childhood home where the business of life is serious. My parents direct me towards literature, poetry and music, to learn about the world. As it turns out, this is one of their greatest gifts. I find that I can hide in a book and unearth countless possibilities. They also teach me about appreciating the sanctity of life through food. Luckily, I develop a penchant for thick, dark rye spread with white, solid mounds of butter; at an early age I’m taught that bread, even when stale, must never be thrown out. Intuition tells me to refrain from asking too many questions. I accept the principle that unnecessary waste is an affront to memory and to the act of bearing witness.
Only a few months after my sixth birthday I make the terrible discovery that both my mother and my father have lost everyone they love. I learn about a time of devastation, murder and concentration camps. I am a little girl born eight years into the aftermath trying to remain afloat under the mantle of grief pressing heavily on parents who are still emerging from the war against the Jews. Sometimes I feel as if together with them I’m being pulled into swirling currents of sorrow, unable to give voice to their loss and to mine.
Fifty-four years later I can still picture the tableau that we make: mother, father and child huddled together in the small vestibule of our flat in Eildon Road, St Kilda, where my parents bend over protectively, fastening unwieldy brown toggle buttons on my duffle-coat in preparation for our customary Sunday-afternoon outing. Drawing on words that are available to me only at that time, I choose this intimate family moment to tell them what I’ve been thinking about—that perhaps something good came out of the khurbn.2 At first, they are quizzical. ‘Me,’ I exclaim. ‘Me! … If it wasn’t for the khurbn, I wouldn’t have been born.’ My childish yet carefully considered attempt to rationalise my presence in the world is met with unanticipated cries of horror. A shrill reproach from my mother—‘How can you say such a thing, do you even know what you are saying?’—while my father’s abrupt shift in body language renders him suddenly and uncharacteristically distant. He stands there rigid, silent, his arms hanging by his side, and I know then that I cannot possibly repair the obvious rupture I have unwittingly wrought. I plough on, though, trying to appease, but seem to make things worse by asking them to take into account what is already obvious. ‘Didn’t the khurbn bring you together, otherwise you would never have met?’ I am already aware that their respective parents, my grandparents, would consider their children’s match questionable, even unlikely, since my father came from a Bundist, working-class background, whereas my mother was brought up in an Orthodox, middle-class home. I am lost, tangled in a maze of words. My endeavour, with all the energy I can muster, to explain my existence as a flicker of light after the Catastrophe, has collapsed in monumental failure. Soon I am filled with remorse; I cannot stop weeping, all the while pleading for absolution. The day passes. We never speak of it again.
I don’t share my daughter’s disclosure with my parents, at least not for months. Harbouring a secret becomes a herculean undertaking, mainly because of familial rituals practised with unremitting regularity. The protocol is a daily conversation with parents before work; on Wednesdays, lunch at a local café where it’s not uncommon to greet several acquaintances. Friday night, a decidedly secular Sabbath, is the culmination of the week. Only the hurried lighting of candles, together with the recitation of two quick blessings over wine and challah, demonstrate homage to tradition; but as always it marks the time when we, a small unit of seven, gather around a long wooden kitchen table to eat, talk and just be.
I can’t possibly know what it will be like for me when that demographic alters: I can’t know that I will move onto a different tempo—first when those phone calls cease after my father’s death, and then again 18 months later when my mother enters a nursing home. Without him, after 62 years of marriage, she is bereft. It is obvious to all that she has dementia. From the earliest signs of this insidious disease, my father has been adept at covering up for her. Without him, the physical and mental symptoms are amplified. Yet remarkably, her facility for language remains. She does not always remember his death, and is liable to ask if I’ve seen him lately. Sometimes I tell her that I see him in my dreams. In the same breath she asks if her granddaughter has a boyfriend. Deterioration notwithstanding, she knows the answers.
In the wake of my daughter’s announcement, not much changes in the external trappings of a day’s activities. We attend to personal responsibilities regarding work, school, university. But on the inside I am raw, as if my heart has been scraped with a sharp blade. Without provocation, I struggle against shedding involuntary tears. I feel exposed, convinced that everyone can see the pain that surely must be etched across my face. It takes time before I understand that what I grieve for is a future I have envisioned for her, one that is now unlikely to come to fruition. I dread our schedule of organised social arrangements. I avoid idle chatter at lunch in the staffroom at the Jewish school where I teach students in their final year; my efforts prove redundant, for it seems that in and outside the classroom many are already aware of my daughter’s current relationship. I know this should not surprise me: Middlemarch is universal. My community, replicating others, comprises an army of self-authorised dignitaries who in holding court at dinner parties happily dispense wisdom about other people’s children. I know this to be true when several colleagues and friends on separate occasions ask me how I am managing in view of my daughter’s propensities. They tell me that sexual experimentation and who chooses to sleep with someone of the same sex are considered fascinating topics of discussion. Much to their surprise—and, it seems, to everybody else’s—not only is my daughter’s name mentioned but the reasons for her ‘new’ interests are analysed at great length.
Late into the night after the revelation, my husband and I go to bed in a miasma of tears, but each for different reasons. Holding me close he conveys his fear, tells me that, surely, we cannot ‘lose’ her over something as primary as sexuality; and that if there are continued proclamations of anguish and disappointment, estrangement is inevitable. He sees as much in his workplace, where many staff members are gay. Stories about an emotional and physical divide between parents and children unable to bridge long-established requirements fill him with dismay. If I don’t hear anything at all during the course of the night, I hear … him. His entreaty resonates, but I don’t need to be told: love is unconditional. In this I’m resolute, although during successive hours when sleep will not come I compile an inventory of all the likely dilemmas we might encounter. They don’t correspond to the unspoken list of expectations I’ve amassed throughout the labyrinthine journey of motherhood—I will not begin the process of decoding for some time; I’m not yet ready. It will take years to admit that as the mother of three daughters, my comprehensive catalogue of hopes and dreams might have little bearing on their lives, despite holding such great significance for mine.
Beginnings are not always clear. As if meeting the first glimmers of dawn cloaked in dense fog, I’m unable to forecast the direction that will bring streams of light. I don’t know what it means to ‘have a girlfriend’. In truth, I’m not sure my daughter knows either. A path yet to be uncovered, she will explore it openly. And instead of acknowledging her courage, I plead for discretion, beg for collusion, hope above all for a pact of silence. At least, that is, until the whole episode blows over—when I will surely breathe a sigh of relief, relegating this period in our lives to but a phase, a deviation in a young person’s life.
I cast my mind back to a different place and time when I’m a young mother of two little girls, living in upstate New York. Our third has not yet made her appearance. To her chagrin, later, she can’t share memories set against shifting, northern seasons. She can’t reminisce about those raw January mornings when the neighbourhood is submerged under drifts of snow and her sisters know there is nothing to do but engage in theatre-making with their treasured collection of misshapen teddy bears positioned in meticulously conceived set designs.
I spend hours watching them, convinced that, together with their father, I’m instrumental in orchestrating a carefree, picture-postcard childhood during which I wholly commit myself to hearth and home. When we are finally able to acquire furniture after having married with 35 dollars between us, my husband and I love nothing more than foraging through antique shops in nearby villages. I’m always eyeing old American vases and dressers; they carry a history that has little to do with mine. While I know absolutely nothing about vintage, I covet these pieces: there is something about them that reflects permanence and solidity. Children of survivors are not bequeathed heirlooms of this kind.
I research country-living magazines, eager to decorate the girls’ rooms. A four-poster bed, painted wainscot railings and a wooden chest of drawers fulfil my fantasy of a child’s sanctuary untouched by hovering spectres. Our children are surrounded, as they will always be, with books, music and art. They will choose individual career paths in life, and although these professions, based as they are in the arts, will hardly guarantee financial stability, I conveniently surrender feminist principles in the hope that a sensitive man, the proverbial shining knight, will support their vision. Of course, I can’t possibly know what I was thinking then; only in hindsight can I question my younger vainglorious self, a mother in her mid thirties who genuinely believes she will revel in the fruits of her labour. Never one to view myself as an empiricist, I thrust aside any thought of the role of biology or nature; why wouldn’t I? Instead I choose to stack all my cards on the ‘nurture’ pile. Feeling the gravitas of responsibility and the force of love, I prefer to think of myself as mother—the artist-in-residence who moulds, shapes and creates. Surely, our children’s adult lives will confirm their upbringing: a fusion of self-determination and traditional family values. Unquestionably they will emulate us, their parents…
Sometimes, in the stillness of daybreak when everyone is sleeping, I walk through light-filled rooms of our grey timber-frame house, thinking how everything I want is here. Contentment is an unexpected gift, yet I don’t trust its quiescence. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the ebb and flow of suburban life unfolds a short distance away from urban areas rife with poverty and violence; in spite of our idyllic surrounds, I become increasingly uncomfortable with friends and neighbours seeking acceptance in the rarefied world of the country club, that world so expertly drawn in Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus. I’m uncomfortable with what I perceive as the erosion of families; small children sent off to camps for an entire summer, sons and daughters, one by one, depart for college and often don’t return. For many, or so it appears, the likely fragmentation resulting from enforced separations between parents, children and siblings is accepted as a normal sequential pattern. I begin to doubt my commitment to building a white picket fence around our lives.
I miss my parents and I miss my children not having grandparents in close proximity. Growing up, I’m deprived of experiencing a grandparent’s unreserved love, and even though I’m not alone in this regard, I go through stages where I’m obsessed with wondering whether I might share traits with a grandmother, a grandfather or an aunt. Without photographs, I’m not given any clues; instead, throughout my life I continue to draw mental portraits. I feel particularly connected to my father’s family, perhaps because he spends his evening hours, after long days in the factory, spinning dreams and memories through metaphor. In Melbourne he and his granddaughters observe each other’s creative growth; he refers to them as his ‘spiritual heirs’; from him, they learn about perseverance. At his most prolific during the last ten years of his life, he becomes known to the world. My father’s creative urgency, however, does not outweigh the hope of living long enough to witness a granddaughter’s wedding.
Throughout childhood and adolescence, I invariably find myself at the receiving end of the Yiddish expression ‘Me’t shoin bei dir.’ Loosely translated as ‘May it soon be for you’, it’s much more than a mere turn of phrase. Central to our lexicon, it is a heavily laden statement of faith—a pronouncement of hope in a future that will see parents escorting their children to the marriage canopy. ‘Me’t shoin bei dir,’ says my father, kissing me softly on the cheek, whenever we learn of an impending wedding. I don’t take him literally, for he has never been literal. Rather, I accept his gesture as custom, for this idiom gives voice to parental aspiration, trusting that a child will find its place in the world. Yet, aware of subtext, I also know that his perception of how I will find happiness stems from the way memory has shaped him. Having inherited his narrative, his palimpsest of dreams, I wonder how it would be if I could only distance myself from memory’s darkest shadows. Even though I am now past 60, I sometimes still think of myself as that six-year-old child who seeks to assuage her parents’ pain.
During our daughter’s mid twenties, invitations arrive with alarming regularity. Every few weeks, overstuffed, oversized textured envelopes fill our letterbox. Attending weddings of young men and women who, by and large, meet each other within the confines of my community becomes an exercise fraught with misgiving. It’s not as if I am not delighted for the bride and groom (I am); and it’s not as though I wish for my own children to announce plans for an imminent betrothal (I don’t). But as the festivities commence, I always try to prepare myself for the inevitable surge of emotion that will spill through me like a tidal wave. Caught up in the poignant melodies of klezmer and frenzied hora dancing, I move between celebration and longing, reflecting on the promise of continuity I silently make throughout my life to absent grandparents—silhouettes forever suspended in reveries. Unable to step out of their history, I carry my pledge like an Olympic torchbearer, ready to complete the handover to the next generation.
By the time I realise my youngest child is also attracted to the same sex, the world has changed—many of us would say: not enough. I too have changed: but, it appears, not enough. This time, the scenario plays itself out somewhat differently. On the verge of walking into her room, ready to deposit a bundle of laundry, I hear furtive whispers and snatches of conversation behind a closed door; they engender an inexplicable foreboding. I creep away like a fugitive. Shortly thereafter, I glean that she has long since confided in her two sisters and a few close friends about a relationship spanning a considerable period beyond her high-school graduation. I regard her reluctance to include me as a betrayal—only afterwards do I understand her dread of my distress and displeasure. She has good reason. Presented with a second chance to declare unqualified love, I once again forfeit the opportunity. I become unhinged. In subsequent months my child and I tumble through the upstream air that hangs between us. ‘This is about me, not you!’ she cries out. Listening with half an ear, I am not able to absorb her pain. Wordlessly I rage against the veracity of new self-definition—a mother of two gay daughters. During brief interludes when she shows interest in men, my heart soars. And when it’s clear that she can’t make a permanent shift, I revise the already familiar list of questions. Whom do I tell, how do I tell, what will they say, does it matter, will they feel sorry for me, do I care, why do I care?
From Andrew Solomon’s extraordinary opus Far from the Tree, I learn that my responses are not necessarily atypical. I take comfort in reading that his own liberal-leaning mother initially has difficulty accepting her son’s sexuality. ‘The problem’, Solomon recalls, ‘wasn’t that she wanted to control my life—although she did, like most parents, genuinely believe that her way of being happy was the best way of being happy. The problem was that she wanted to control her life, and it was her life as the mother of a homosexual that she wished to alter.’3 The Talmudic maxim that we don’t see things as they are, but as we are, has not yet begun to hum on the periphery of my consciousness. As long as I don’t have to know myself, I can massage my disbelief.
My husband is nonplussed. He is taken aback by my less than expansive view of the world. Undaunted by idle gossip, he doesn’t take it to heart as I do when I tell him about the woman who earnestly decrees my daughter’s lesbianism ‘a waste’ or the psychiatrist who asks, ‘My god, how do you cope with the actuality of two gay children?’ Whether or not comments from others are well-meaning or a reflection of their limitations, as my husband suggests, it eventually occurs to me that we tend to value only that which we can measure.
At a Chinese restaurant we break open fortune cookies, hoping to find wisdom in ancient proverbs. My husband reads his: ‘While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is about.’ Gently pressing the thin white scroll into my palm, he says, ‘I think this is meant for you.’ And so when I finally choose to relinquish the dichotomy between my unequivocal acceptance of same-sex love in the world and my struggle with the one at home—when finally I resolve to walk alongside my daughters as they find their way—I try to find myself as well. The Chinese proverb is a clarion call.
Transformation is not expeditious; more like a restless night’s sleep, it arrives in fits and starts. While therapy will come to hold that crucial space in which to explore, interpret and find language for my personal narrative, I begin by reading those belonging to others. Covert browsing in local bookshops, unnerving, I turn to Amazon; I spend hours daily perusing categories relevant to the parents of gay and lesbian children. Every few days after work, I find several brown packages piled up at my front door. Before long the study shelves groan under an eclectic assortment of books that serve to educate, enlighten and sustain during those incipient years—especially since I don’t know anybody else, surprising as that may be, who has a gay child. In the years that follow I am committed to gathering material devoted to sexual diversity, particularly on how it is viewed within Judaism. When schools offering Religion and Society as a final-year subject are mandated to include a unit on a contemporary challenge to religious traditions, I spend a year researching and writing curriculum.
The study explores the plurality of opinions among and within the denominational movements with regard to the biblical prohibition against homosexuality. It matters little to me if its provenance rests with divine authority or the human voice: either way, the bold black text—‘If a man also lies with a man, as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them’ (Leviticus 20:13)—smoulders on the white page. Deciphering the author’s intent, my students and I discuss and dissect the punitive Levitical passage as if we are handling sharp, hot needles extracting a splinter embedded deep in the religious and cultural psyche. I look around my classroom and note with satisfaction that, for most, to read the autobiographies of anguished men and women whose sexual orientation will not be sanctioned despite their commitment to halacha (Jewish law), or to watch documentaries about lives closeted in fear of communal excommunication, may be life-changing. Perhaps my class will give a gay child the strength to come out when it feels right. Perhaps another child who recklessly uses homophobic language will come to understand how words can destroy; and conversely, how they can uncover new meaning.
When a student speaks to me in confidence about his sexuality, I want to wrap my arms around him and acknowledge the validity of his dreams. I can only wonder why my response differs markedly from the one I have given my own children in the immediacy of their disclosure. I think it is because, like Andrew Solomon’s mother, I unconsciously embrace ‘otherness from within a pact of sameness’.4 How easy it is to scorn uniformity, but how much easier for a parent to watch her child walk along Main Street. Holding my maternal breath during those early days, I watch my daughters take the road less travelled; through it all I see they have no alternative, unlike what some would believe. My middle child, gentle and thoughtful like her siblings, provides confirmation. I ask how it is for her to be positioned between them. ‘I’ve always felt different to my sisters,’ she tells me. ‘I’ve so wanted to be like them, and I can’t be.’ I am humbled. Her answer makes me think of my father’s aphorism: ‘In a sense we are all conscripts, summoned to a life we didn’t ask for.’5
Does incontrovertible love mean that we never find ourselves in that murky place where parents and children sometimes reside in tenebrous silence? I cannot be sure but, bewildered when a father confesses that it takes the better part of a year before he can make eye-contact with his child after she comes out, let alone talk to her, I’m grateful for lengthy, exhausting conversations with my daughters. Although one might think that hearing ‘I’m gay’ a second time would seem less consequential for a parent than the first, it isn’t. Together, my daughters and I— we cry, we yell, we hug; we speak of love and then we begin all over again.
Riding a mercurial wave, I juggle perceived obligations to generational memory and those pertaining to my children’s happiness. My parents are not forthcoming even to their closest friends about their oldest granddaughter’s sexuality, and as circumstances dictate they will have no inkling about their youngest. I imagine conversations that might have ensued between mother, father and myself had they known about multiple queerness in our little family. While my father is quietly circumspect, my mother, the most pragmatic among us, is not afraid to caution her granddaughter against leading an ‘abnormal life’. During the last few years, even as her world shrinks further into a deep chasm, she remains intractable. Homosexuality, as far as she is concerned, exceeds the norm. If her perspective has any bearing on my children, they don’t show hurt or anger. On the contrary, never in doubt of a grandmother’s consummate love, they tenderly acknowledge her aversion to what she cannot understand as an accumulation of unimaginable losses incurred throughout life.
In the nursing home, where she lies in a cumbersome bed-chair, practically blind, unable to walk or feed herself, her still-remarkable verbal capacity heightens my longing for her unambiguous acceptance of her grandchildren’s sexuality. I pine for this in much the same way as my children want me to be their buttress. Having known what it means to be the Other, my mother is not only afraid that sexual difference will invite malicious whisperings and Schadenfreude; worse still, her grandchildren could be doubly marginalised. Being both Jewish and gay, how can they remain safe? Is there any way to convince her that just as the former is not about preference, neither is the latter? But the opportunity doesn’t present itself, and as she slowly slips away from me I reflect on the persistent and primal need for parental approval. While the intensity might abate with age, the yearning for approbation never seems to vanish altogether.
• • •
Growing up, I don’t know anyone who is gay. In the late 1960s, during those highly charged years of the Vietnam War—with the burgeoning gay and lesbian movement also presaging winds of change—I’m far more aware politically than versed in matters relating to sex, straight or otherwise. I’m 15 when I’m privy to a conversation taking place in our white formica kitchen: four adults are huddled over glasses of steaming tea speaking in hushed tones about a young man who has committed suicide. The woman sitting across from my parents vigorously shakes her blond curls, leans in, her voice barely audible. ‘You know he was a homosexual.’ My mother and father are noticeably shaken, not because of a young man’s sexuality but because the act of taking one’s life is unfathomable. Yet, given the time in which we live, and despite the promise of new beginnings, effecting change will not ensure protection from society, family or oneself. The choice between visibility and invisibility proves negligible. What must it take, I wonder, to negotiate the reality and the ramifications of either? It must be akin to putting one foot gingerly in the front of the other on a tightrope swinging above a rocky gorge. I am too young, too naive and not yet bold enough to ask that question. But now, when I call upon the memory of that man, whom I know only by name, I ruminate over unfulfilled dreams and desires. Were his concealed in places too remote to access?
My daughters venture forth at a relatively early age. Even though they don’t receive the desired reaction, their forbearance demonstrates faith in a mother who will come to cherish their tenacity and transparency. I don’t pretend to underestimate the complexity of ‘coming out’; not a singular act, it is a repetitive one for both parent and child. ‘How are the kids?’ I’m asked at various intervals. ‘Are they in relationships?’ To which I usually reply in the affirmative. ‘Your daughter’s partner, what does he do?’A swift reply: ‘Actually, he is a she.’ Never skilled at smudging truth, I find it a testing moment. I shouldn’t care, but I do. Unsure of the response, I feel vulnerable, but to lie about my children will diminish what I know to be fundamental to their humanity.
Odd though it may be, for a time I harbour guilt for wishing to be open about something my parents’ generation would deem private, something nobody needs to know. The Freudian psychoanalyst might suggest I am an example of filial piety par excellence. However, I’m also cognisant of my contemporaries—parents of gay children who might wax lyrical about their accomplishments but remain firmly closed on the subject of sexual inclination. I’ve been one of those parents; like them, like their children who lock themselves in the delusory closet, I deprive myself of air for far too long. I learn firsthand that taking up residence in a cupboard bankrupts the soul.
At night, sitting in the front room of my house where I write, I look for a sliver of yellow through the maple tree’s star-shaped leaves brushing against the window. Its appearance becomes a time-honoured sign heralding my father’s presence. I dream he sits in the crook of the moon, which in his poetry prevails as a metaphoric witness to the unimaginable outcomes of hatred and the evanescent kind of redemption that can surface in the presence of human dignity. He asks what I’m writing about. I tell him, half-expecting a dubious expression to cross his features. Instead he nods knowingly. I shouldn’t be surprised because my father cannot bring himself to push truth aside. He understands the toll one pays for self-abnegation and he wouldn’t want this for me nor for his grandchildren. Before he drifts away on a night cloud I want to share an affirmation with him—one I discover in my reading of Evelyn Torton Beck, child survivor and author of Nice Jewish Girls. ‘In order to feel fully safe,’ she writes, ‘I need to feel known.’6 I want to ask what this might mean for him, but he disappears before he can answer, and before I can tell him that I’m startled into recognition under the weight of Torton Beck’s admission. Though I can’t presume she speaks for my daughters, who haven’t read her work, I’m quite certain she speaks for me—a mother whose children’s candour generates a freedom she has hitherto never experienced.
Should my reader conclude that I’ve reached nirvana in my reflective journey, I haven’t. Like tugging at knots in a tightly wound skein of wool, to unravel the strands of life is arduous work. Just when I think I’ve pried them apart, there is always one that seems immovable. Out in the world, all it takes is a flippant remark or ill-considered joke to send me backwards. I’m left reeling when an old acquaintance from university days complains about her son’s choice of girlfriend. ‘But the situation’, she informs me blithely, ‘could be much worse if he was with a man.’ I’m quick to chastise, and to my regret not as forcefully as I’d like. On the occasional encounter at the market or in a café, she averts her eyes. I am pleased. Any semblance of discrimination, whether in word, deed or act, is personal. I become a woman on a mission: emailing various members of parliament, regardless of political persuasion, I appeal to them for the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Australia presently does not deem my children worthy of having the right to marry—or as academic and activist Dennis Altman argues, ‘the same right not to get married as do heterosexuals’.7 No politician responds to my pleas save one, who reaffirms his party’s platform on ‘the traditional view of marriage which can only be entered into by a man and a woman’. How can my daughters and I feel when those wielding power in our ostensibly secular government choose to adhere to what comes perilously close to biblical verse?
At the time of writing, I stumble across Mystic Medusa’s astrological column; she predicts ‘evolution’ to be my ‘new everyday setting’. Curious, how at this moment even a newsprint clairvoyant should highlight paradigmatic shifts that bear out a need to break free from inherited social constructs. Recently a mother, recounting her own difficulty with her son’s homosexuality, asks me, ‘Do you wish your children were straight?’ When I tell her, ‘I can’t imagine my children to be anybody other than who they are’, I see myself in a new light. I tell her how my daughters inspire me; I tell her how I draw on their courage. I tell her how they teach me what it means to live an authentic life, and how they illuminate a pathway that has brought me to a place of self-acceptance.
- Anne Michaels, Correspondences, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013
- Yiddish for ‘the Destruction’, that is, the Holocaust.
- Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, Chatto & Windus, London, 2013, p. 10.
- Solomon, Far from the Tree, p. 9.
- Epigraph by Jacob G. Rosenberg to his novel The Hollow Tree, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2009.
- Evelyn Torton Beck (ed.), Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology, Beacon Press, Boston, 1989, p. xvi.
- Dennis Altman, ‘Silos versus revolution’, Star Observer, September 2014, p. 12.