(another chapter from The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage)
Relative City Comes to Us
There was a party happening at our house, and we weren’t even there. From the front seats of our minivan we could see Jannine’s brother, Erik, setting out beverages on our front porch. Aunt Maureen was putting a wide pot of flowering annuals on the front steps with her son, Russell, and his family. Cousin Tom, who lives up to his nickname “Moose,” was parking his truck. We were suddenly nervous.
Graeme defied all expectations by staying asleep during the walk into the house (he normally wakes like a shot if anything is going on), during which we greeted relatives, gave hugs, and exchanged kisses with kin. Astoundingly, he remained asleep during a transfer to Grandpa’s arms, where he spent the first hour of our reception, sleeping like the proverbial baby.
I didn’t know what to do with all the freedom to mingle and use both hands, and Grandpa had the ideal excuse to lounge on the couch in a semi-prone position. Several people offered to take Graeme off his hands, but he jealously guarded his opportunity to snuggle a sleeping little guy.
All the other grandkids were getting big.
Jannine got busy dumping more ice into the metal tubs, digging out the Costco offerings that had yet to be unearthed, and finding the gross of paper napkins we’d stored in the basement, after she’d made appreciative noises over the cake, greeted my mother, hugged the rest of the assorted arrivals, and thanked Laurie for the beautiful flowers.
The party had barely begun when Jannine’s three aunts: Bunny, Gayle, and Paula, walked in the door after the three hour drive from Eastern Washington. They came bearing gifts and Jannine’s cousin, Ally, a year younger than Anna. Ally quickly located Anna, who took her upstairs to the kid zone, while Bunny and Paula cornered Grandma in the kitchen for a rare opportunity to catch up on the latest family gossip. These two aunts would face the three hour drive again that night, while Gayle stayed on to visit with her sons, Eric and Tom, who were standing in the kitchen trying to guess the age of our pink double-stove from the fifties known as “Big Pink.”
Jannine’s aunts are feisty, fun, and tough as nails. Thirteen years ago, when her three teenage boys questioned her about how I’d managed to get pregnant (and be a lesbian), Gayle explained, “They A.I.’d her, like the cows.” They said, “Oh, OK,” and were good to go, since they knew all about bull semen, and mentally adjusted the mechanics. Since then, we’ve seen this side of the family regularly, attending the weddings of all three of Gayle’s sons, and getting the chance to help a little when Gayle’s husband, Carl, went through chemotherapy before succumbing to cancer over three years ago.
Gayle and Carl taught us a lot about being in a family, and raising one. They have been part of our life together ever since that first Thanksgiving I spent with Jannine’s folks, which coincided with a rare visit from Gayle and family. Their son, Eric, sat wedged in next to me, a fourteen year-old wise man, and while passing the potatoes gave me the wink that he knew, even though at that time I was allegedly “just a friend.”
Years later, when I was insanely pregnant with Anna, and feeling huge, harried, and overwhelmed, we went for dinner at their house. I looked at Gayle and Carl’s long kitchen table, where they had fed scores of their boys’ friends over the years, supervised homework, and worked through the tough times, and saw that it could be done; family life with multiple kids could work.
Their sons helped us move into our house. Carl came out and supervised, making sure his teenage boys earned the modest amount we paid them. Carl was a tough guy, but a gentleman.
It was never an issue, our being lesbians. We were just folks, like them, trying to raise good kids. Carl treated me like a lady, which is a stretch, and Jannine like one of the boys, which isn’t. Even in her teens, he was an influence, taking her on her first motorcycle ride, kick-starting her love affair with speed on sunny afternoons.
It was in May, when out of the blue, he had a seizure and doctors discovered the brain tumors, and the lung cancer, and the rest. He didn’t feel sick. He didn’t believe it could be true. How could someone who felt so good have six months to live?
He came to Portland for treatment, and we were able to offer Gayle and Carl the use of our basement apartment for as long as they needed it.
It was really only a couple of weeks in all, but hard ones for them. Carl became sick with the radiation and never really bounced back. I tried not to hover or interfere, worried that I wasn’t doing enough. It was only when they were getting ready to go back home that Carl talked about his seclusion. He was feeling better that day, chatty, and while the kids were rolling on the floor talking to Gayle, he turned to me. He said he was sorry he hadn’t seen us more, but that the radiation affected his moods, and he didn’t know if he could hold it together in front of the kids, that he might say something… He didn’t want to do that. He had tears in his eyes, the cancer taking away all the emotional filters we use to keep our vulnerability at bay. At his most vulnerable, he was thinking of others.
He’d have gotten a kick out of our reception.