Christmas in October

December 25, 2020   •   By Nancy L. Conyers

WHEN I WENT HOME to come out to my parents in 1986, I drove down to West Chester, Pennsylvania, from Brooklyn, New York, hunched over the steering wheel, clenching it tightly and sweating bullets the whole way. I was 34 years old and had come out late in life, even to myself, which made telling my parents I was gay all the more difficult. The screen door slammed behind me when I went into the house on Street Road and my mom, Mary, yelled from the kitchen, “Dinner’s almost ready!” I could tell she knew something was up the second I walked in the door. Mary always knew. We could never pull the wool over her eyes when we were kids.


After I put my suitcase in my old bedroom, I went downstairs and sat at my old spot at the dining room table. Mary had prepared roast beef, mashed potatoes, and peas for dinner. I hadn’t eaten red meat in almost 10 years, and the sight of it made me want to barf. Three times I picked up the steak knife and stabbed at the peas instead of cutting the meat.


“What’s wrong with the dinner? Why aren’t you eating it?”


“Mom, how many times do I have to tell you I don’t eat red meat anymore?”


“Oh, for God’s sake,” she huffed and snatched our dinner plates away, then came back with chocolate cake for dessert. I took a bite and still wanted to throw up. It was now or never.


“Mom, Dad, I want to tell you something. I’ve been wanting to tell you this for a long time.” I could see Mom shaking her leg under the table, something she’d been doing the whole meal, as if she was shaking off what she knew I was ultimately going to tell her. “I’m telling you this because I want you to be included in my life, not excluded from it. I’m gay.”


At that time, I was involved with a woman who was seven years older than I was. She, too, had never been involved with a woman before. We had been living with each other for a year, and I didn’t want to have to hide our relationship from my family anymore.


After I said, “I’m gay,” the silence was deafening. Right when I was about to say, “Isn’t someone going to say anything?” Mary stood up, slammed her hands on the table, and shrieked at my father, “Kit, I told you not to buy her those cap guns when she was five!” then ran into the kitchen.


Dad had just taken a sip of coffee and he spit it out all over the table in front of him. He and I sat there and howled our heads off. “Your mother never disappoints, does she?” Dad said with a wink and we howled again.


Then he said, “You should go get her.”


“Maybe you should go get her,” I told him. I didn’t want to face her just yet.


“No, you go get her. I’m not the one who fired the shot.”


“Yeah, but you’re the one who loaded the cap guns,” I said, and we howled again.


When I walked into the kitchen, Mom was standing at the sink, holding on to the rim. Even though her back was to me I could tell she was crying, and I felt terrible. I knew this wasn’t the future she’d wanted for me. Previously, I’d been engaged to a guy whose family was involved in Philadelphia politics, whose father was the head judge of the highest court in Pennsylvania. Mary had visions of a society wedding and of me bringing legitimacy and recognition to our whole family. When I told her I’d broken up with him and would never marry him, she thought it was the worst mistake I’d ever made, that my life was over. She kept wanting to know why we’d broken up, why didn’t we get back together, what could possibly be wrong. I told her it just wasn’t going to work out — that I’d loved him but I didn’t want to marry into his family. At that point I didn’t realize I was gay.


I went up to her, put my hand on her shoulder and gently said, “Mom, are you okay?”


She spun around and smacked my face so hard it left a purple imprint on my left cheek for days. “You disgust me,” she said through clenched teeth, “Get out of my house.”


“Fine,” I said. “You disgust me more.” Then I went upstairs, got my suitcase, and drove back to New York.


¤


When we moved to Street Road, I was nine years old. It was the seventh time we’d moved, but this one seemed more fraught than the others. Maybe it was because I was more aware. Maybe it was because the place we’d lived before was the third time my parents had been evicted for not paying the rent. The other times they weren’t actually evicted, they either got out before we were kicked out, or we were living with my grandmother. My mother sat on the porch during the move and said, “I can’t take this anymore,” and sobbed while my father stood in the yard taking a cig break from carrying our rickety furniture into the house.


Street Road was beautiful and magical outside to my nine-year-old self. There were 600 acres of corn fields behind us, wild raspberries that we ate in August, daffodils that miraculously popped up every April, and peonies in July. The sunsets in winter were deep red and purple over the snowy fields and made me feel like I was living in a mansion, rather than an old farmhouse with no washer and dryer hookup, no shower, and six people crammed into 800 square feet. Inside, we all hated each other, Mom was always screaming, we kids were always fighting, Dad was always in the living room reading a book, smoking a cig, and trying to ignore us. Mostly, I guess, he was trying to ignore himself.


If we were growing up today, we’d probably be homeless. Back then there were no credit checks, no ways to track someone’s ability to pay. When the sheriff came and tacked those big yellow eviction signs on the door, there were no bodycams to capture it, nobody filming Mom screaming and crying, “Not again, not again,” no quick look online. There was just a verbal reference from a kind friend, a different friend every time who took pity on Mom and loaned her the money for the security deposit for next place we’d eventually have to get out of.


Street Road was different from the other places we’d lived. There was room to run around outside and get away from all the fighting inside. The people who owned it were rich. They had seven other houses on the 600 acres, including theirs, and they didn’t need the money from the rent. They just wanted people living in the houses. When we moved in, the rent was $50/month. Mom told Dad, “I hope we can afford this because I just can’t move again.” Thirty years later when they retired and went to Florida, the rent was $130.


¤


The next time I went back to Street Road after coming out to my parents was about six months later. I had to come to Philadelphia for work and decided to go visit my parents. My mom had been calling me for months, leaving messages for me at work because she had no other way of getting in touch with me, which I’d been ignoring. But I called her the day before I left for Philly and said I’d swing by the house tomorrow, “Just to say hi. That’s it.”


Of course, that wasn’t just it. Mary started screaming and crying the minute I got there that I was ruining my life.


“No, I’m ruining your life, not mine,” I screamed back.


“What’s wrong with you? How can you be a homo if you almost married a guy?” Mary yelled.


Part of me wondered the same thing, but I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of being right, so I yelled back, “It’s your fault, you moved us to a place called Street Road. No wonder I’m confused!” then went outside to talk to my dad, who was always one to avoid conflict and was watching the sunset while he was having a cig.


“Your mother just wants the best for you, you know,” he said and then took a drag.


“No, she doesn’t. She just wants the best for herself. She’s not thinking about me, she’s thinking about herself. Just like she always does.” When he didn’t answer, I told him he should listen to David Bowie’s song “Changes,” and make Mom listen to it too. Then I left and drove back to New York.


¤


Every single day was a battle in our house on Street Road when I was growing up. Outside of our house too. My parents scrabbled daily to survive, to feed us, and to pay the bills. When I was in grade school and junior high school, they both usually had two jobs, which was a blessing since that kept them out of the house most of the time, though it meant that my older sister had to always babysit three much younger siblings, which she hated doing and which was completely unfair to her. We kids fought all the time. That’s the only way we knew how to communicate. The only model we had was our parents’ constant arguing.


When my parents were home, they didn’t talk to each other. Mom yelled. “Kit!” she would scream from the kitchen at my father who ignored her. “Kit!” she’d scream louder again and again. “Kit!” I realize now my mother would ratchet up her haranguing when the finances were the worst. I spent my childhood wondering why my parents stayed together, wondering if they actually even loved each other, wishing they would show a little tenderness toward each other and toward us. Mostly I wondered what love was.


¤


When I was 11, a little over a year after my biological grandfather died, my grandmother married John. John was the kindest, gentlest, sweetest man, and he ultimately brought peace to our entire extended family. He was a short order cook at the Llanerch Diner, in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. The Llanerch was, and still is, a classic American diner and is where the movie Silver Linings Playbook was filmed. It had a long counter with swivel stools, a counter that housed a couple pie boxes filled with lemon merengue, peach, apple, and blueberry pies that spun around. John was one of those guys who could crack 100 eggs open with his left hand and flip 100 pancakes with his right. Nana used to sit at the counter after church on Sundays, and John would flirt with her while he was cooking. I went with her a few times, and he’d always send our orders out with extra food on the plate. Nana would feign surprise and giggle, and John would look at me through the window from the kitchen and wink and say, “Hokie Nellie!” I didn’t know what that meant but I remember thinking it must mean something good. When Nana and John married in February of ’64, I remember telling my younger sister, Judy, “I think this is what love is.”


After Nana married John, I couldn’t wait to go stay with them during summer vacations. Nana was a huge baseball fan and so was I. We’d sit outside on the porch after dinner and listen to the games on the radio. She loved the Philadelphia Phillies and, to my mind, was the original Phillie Phanatic. John wasn’t as much of a baseball fan as Nana and I, and he couldn’t hear very well, even with the huge hearing aid he wore in his left ear, but he loved to sit with us on the porch when the games were on. Nana and I would listen intently while John would sit with a large cold bottle of Schlitz beer that he poured into a glass. When he’d see us get excited about something, he’d say, “Hokie Nellie!” as if he knew what was happening and give me a wink.


I remember watching Nana every night cut a grapefruit in half, section all the pieces, sprinkle sugar on top, put a maraschino cherry in the middle, cover it in Saran Wrap, and put it in the refrigerator. The next morning, she’d get the grapefruit out when John got up. She’d let me take the Saran Wrap off, and I loved seeing how the maraschino cherry had bled into the membranes of the grapefruit. John would sit at the small kitchen table in his pajamas and tousled hair while Nana would pour him coffee and put the sectioned grapefruit in front of him. He would always say, “Thank you, dear,” and look into her eyes and she would bend down and kiss him. That’s when I learned what love truly was: a sectioned grapefruit.


¤


After I broke up with the woman I’d been living with in New York, I could tell my mother began to hope that was just a momentary lapse and soon I’d marry a man. When I fell in love with Libby, I knew it was the real thing and I wanted her to meet my parents. Libby was family from the start, and I wanted my family to know that. When I took her to the house on Street Road to meet my parents, my older sister, Meg, came with us to serve as a buffer. Meg had met Libby already and she understood how we felt about each other. When my mother was resistant to meeting Libby, Meg told her, “If you’re going to make Nancy make a choice between Libby or you, you better be prepared for the consequences.” That first meeting wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t the disaster I thought it might turn out to be either.


Every Christmas Eve, my parents had an open house for all our family and friends. My mother cooked for days and anywhere from 40 to 80 people would show up. Christmas was the only time of year we all got along because no matter how bad things were when we were kids, somehow my parents always managed to make Christmas magic. On the Christmas Eve before my parents retired to Florida, they had their last open house on Street Road. My mother asked me if I was coming home for Christmas and I told her yes, but only if Libby and her sister Molly could come too. When she hesitated, I told her if they weren’t invited I wouldn’t come home because Libby and Molly would be by themselves since their parents lived in Hong Kong. Mary relented and agreed that they could come but shrieked at me, “You can’t sleep in the same room!” That whole evening Mary passed Libby and Molly off as orphans from Hong Kong. I was going to say something to her about that, but Libby said, “It’s okay. Just let her do what she has to do. We’re here, aren’t we?” Christmas Day when we opened our gifts, Mary had bought something each for Libby and Molly, and I surprised myself by tearing up. I hadn’t known that she’d done that.


¤


Having seen and experienced Nana and John’s relationship made me understand what love was and helped me look for someone who would section my grapefruit. I found that in Libby. When we made our commitment to each other in 1988 there was no road map for same-sex couples in long-term relationships. We didn’t know any other gay or lesbian couples who stayed together very long and we had no models for a long-lasting, healthy same-sex relationship. What I did have, though, was the memory of Nana and John finding love later in life, sharing that love with my whole family, and staying together for almost 25 years before they died. John bled into the membranes of our family just as the maraschino cherry did into the grapefruit and made it brighter and sweeter. So has Libby.


My mother came to love Libby. I think in many ways my mother loved Libby even more than she loved me. I’m okay with that — I appreciate it, actually — because it’s an affirmation of what Libby has meant to me and my family and an acceptance and validation of the enduring nature of Libby and my relationship. As my then 24-year-old nephew, Chris, said at our 2013 wedding when we were finally able to legally marry 25 years after committing to each other, “As far back as I can remember, there’s never been an Aunt Nancy without an Aunt Libby.”


Libby is the best daughter-in-law any mother could ever hope for — someone who is loving, caring, and full of integrity and kindness. A role model, though Libby would never characterize herself as such. She unselfishly financially and emotionally helped me take care of my mother after my father died in more ways than I can count, and in more ways than anyone in my family will ever know.


Both my parents’ and my siblings’ acceptance of Libby, and of Libby’s and my relationship, as well as their willingness to include Libby in our family, enabled the roots Libby and I began planting together to take hold quicker and fully flourish. Their acceptance, though, would not have been possible without our own self-acceptance. Self-love and self-acceptance take work, and both Libby and I worked to accept our gay selves and then to accept our relationship, which we call “homoloveable.”


¤


Two weeks after our wedding, my mother’s health began to deteriorate and it became clear that this was the beginning of the end for her. She’d slowly been going downhill for years and to make sure she was looked after during the wedding festivities, one of my sister’s friends who is a nurse traveled with her from Florida to New York City, where we got married and stayed in an adjoining room with the door open to keep an eye on her. We insisted Mary stay in the wheelchair I’d rented to keep her safe, and when my nephew pushed her down the aisle in it there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. More than one of her friends told me she was just willing herself to stay alive until the wedding was over. Instead of going back to Italy with Libby, where we were living at the time, I went to Florida to take care of my mother. I moved her into assisted living a couple of weeks after I got there and stayed with her until she passed away three months later.


During those three months, she had good days and not so good days. One day, before she moved into assisted living, we had a get-together with her closest friends in her independent living apartment. She wanted the “girls,” most of whom were pushing 90, to see the wedding videos we’d made. Until that moment, I’d never known what she told people about Libby and me. Nine of her closest friends came for wine, cheese, and appetizers, and we watched two of the three videos. When the Wedding March started playing before Libby and I walked down the aisle together, one of Mary’s friends said, “I feel like we should stand up,” and a few of them tried to get up quickly but it was too difficult so I told them, “Don’t worry about it,” and someone said, “Yeah, forget it, but could you pour me another glass of wine?” Sitting in Mary’s living room, with all her friends raptly watching the wedding and then watching them chair dance to the dance music during the reception is one of the best times I’ve ever had in my life. I wish Libby had been there with us.


My siblings wanted to have a last Christmas with Mom, so we had Christmas in October. Libby was in Brazil for work but came to Florida for our Christmas. The whole time I was with my mother those three months, Libby would call from wherever she was traveling to for work. I’d put her on the phone with Mary, and she’d always want to know where Libby was and “What’s the weather like there?”


Libby wasn’t with us the day my mother died, but she called the day before from Dubai. “Where’s that?” my mother asked Libby. When Libby told her my mother asked, “How do you spell it?” Then, “What’s the weather like there?” When my mother hung up the phone she said, “Isn’t this unbelievable? She called me from Dubai,” though she pronounced it Dew-bay. Soon after that phone call, it was clear that my mother was ready to go. She came in and out of consciousness, sometimes mumbling something unintelligible.


When my parents retired to Florida, they gave the dining room furniture where I came out to them to Libby and me. Libby and I gave that furniture to my nephew when we moved to Shanghai, but somedays, when the sun hits the dining room table we have now just right, I think I can see the stains from the coffee my father once spat out and I remember the last two words my mother spoke before she died.


“Libby. Libby.”


¤


Nancy L. Conyers’s stories and essays have been published in Tiferet, Alluvium, The Citron Review, NuVoices,The Manifest-Station,Lunch Ticket, and Role Reboot. She has an MFA from Antioch University in Los Angeles.