My Sister and I
sister, Libby, burst out laughing
as she turned over an album cover in the light. "Someone
kissed his picture!" she said, then went on laughing.
cringed, feeling my face turn hot.
Just a turn of the picture in the light revealed the impression
of my lips on the cellophane. The album was my copy of Herman's
Hermits, with a close-up of the group's lead male singer. I was
afraid she'd turn and ask if it was me who did it. Just a bit
more reasoning by her about whose album it was, who had access
to it, and she would have flung open my closet door, with me cowering
such a thought would not have
entered her mind back then. It was 1965. She was thirteen; I was
seventeen. We lived on a farm near Deming, New Mexico, with our
parents and a younger brother and sister. We were so naive and
sheltered that neither of us had a word for the way I felt about
a visceral way I knew, but I didn't
know to say, "I'm gay," or "I'm homosexual."
I never told Libby that it was me who kissed the singer's picture.
When she laughed about it, without realizing my secret, I was
relieved but also ashamed. It was laughter of surprise, not of
meanness, but it made me realize that laughter was one way people
might react if they knew about me.
didn't think in terms of closets
and being something other than what I felt, which had no name.
I just happened to like boys—a lot. Libby and I were normal,
active teenagers as far as I could tell. She had many girlfriends,
best friends she had gone to school with all her life. We were
both "good" students; the teachers liked us.
both dated, both mooned over boys,
but she didn't know that. She could talk to me about her crushes,
especially when they were on some of my male friends; but I couldn't
talk about mine. So I retreated to safety, pointing out girls,
saying that they were pretty. That was the only way I could talk
about such feelings.
get close to boys I found attractive,
I begged my parents to allow me to throw parties. My whole purpose
in giving them was to invite the boys I was in love with. But
because that might be too obvious, I invited as many people as
I could think of.
Libby didn't know my motives,
she was my ally in convincing our parents to let me throw the
parties. She was also a familiar, helpful face among the crowd.
With her reddish hair and a spray of freckles across her nose,
her otherwise creamy complexion and good Irish looks attracted
many of my male friends. And even though she wasn't yet in high
school, she mixed well and was kept busy dancing with them. So
for both of us, the parties were enjoyable. For me, however, the
enjoyment was bittersweet. I would have been in heaven if one
of those boys whom I secretly longed for had snuck away with me
and confessed his same longing for me. But I didn't share my secret
with anyone—not even Libby.
I had frequent contact with
most members of our large family, there was an internal struggle
within me about being homosexual. We were a gregarious bunch.
Family vacations were always spent among relatives. We could travel
across the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas—some fourteen
hundred miles—and spend every night at some relative's house
along the way. And in all the contact I had with my male cousins,
there was only the most cursory sexual experimentation—pissing
in the toilet together, comparing penis size, or "jacking
off" out in the field while moaning about girls. In all my
extended family, I heard no hint of the proverbial uncle, of whom
no one spoke, nor the suspect male cousin who spoke with a lisp
or had been caught in a dress. I was the one, the only one, I
and I were close enough in
age that we played with the same cousins and, before one of our
trips, we made plans as to what we'd like to do once we got to
Waco or Lubbock, Texas, or Apache Junction, Arizona—depending
on which set of cousins were there, which ones had a car we could
ride in. As we grew older, she began to wonder, "I hope they
(meaning any number of our cousins) know some cute boys I can
meet." I hoped the same thing, but I couldn't say it. With
a pal like my sister on those vacations, I enjoyed myself, and
I felt welcome in the family; but I was still alienated as a result
of a self-imposed fear of how Libby or others might react to my
burgeoning homosexual feelings.
I started college in Las Cruces
in 1966, only sixty miles east of Deming, I still dated women
but longed to date guys. By then I liked calling myself a homosexual.
I sometimes looked at myself in the mirror and repeated a litany.
"I am a homosexual. A homo-sexual." For three more years,
I may as well have told myself I was the only homosexual
in New Mexico. I still had not met another gay person.
those years propelled me into
many directions at once. I blossomed as a student "leader,"
which meant being a student senator, the state president of a
nationwide organization of education students. In that capacity,
I once spoke before five thousand teachers and, for three years
in a row, attended national conventions in Houston, Texas, Washington,
DC, and San Francisco, California. At the same time that I outwardly
appeared to have goals and plans, my inward life was still one
of doubt and confusion.
was unable to ignore the increasing
realization that dating women was a sham and that I had to do
something about my inner feelings. I searched in those dark days
for other gay people, but could still find no real evidence that
there were others, except for reading about them at the university
I became familiar with Las Cruces
and El Paso, Texas, farther south, I drove to Deming to get Libby
and, with pleasure, did what a big brother is supposed to do.
I took her to the "big city" of El Paso for a Coke and
to drag its main streets. Both being true hicks, we gawked at
the lights, the bustle, the El Paso teenagers at their Sonic drive-in,
which seemed bigger, brighter, and better than anything Deming
had to offer. I took Libby to a couple of the college football
games in Las Cruces, a dance or two, hoping she'd decide to follow
me on to college.
she didn't. Like our two sisters
before us, she married right out of high school. By the time she
graduated in 1970, I was dropping out of college, due to massive
changes in my life.
began in 1969 when I was a junior
in college and attending a Student Education Association convention
in Washington, DC; there, I finally entered one of the gay bars
I'd read about in Life or Look magazines, lost my
virginity during a one-night stand, and felt lucky for it. When
I returned to Las Cruces, I knew for sure I was homosexual. I
guess it showed, oozed from the pores of my skin, attracted other
gay people to me, or I to them. It turned out that my roommate
was homosexual, that he had secretly longed to tell me, but it
wasn't until after I returned from Washington that he confessed
took me to a gay bar in El Paso
where I soon became a regular on weekends and sometimes in the
middle of the week. Shortly after that, I had my first male lover.
My friendships in college began to change. My new friends were
guys in other dormitories I'd met in El Paso and older men who
weren't associated with the university.
didn't regret the turn in my life
toward the gay world, but as my focus shifted more and more toward
it, my relationship and thoughts about my family became fuzzy.
As I got more involved in the gay scene, I stopped making those
frequent trips home. I stopped taking Libby to the places where
I hung out. By that time, she was busy with her own friends and
dating. I recall one weekend night when I was at home, in Deming.
She was on a date with the man she would eventually marry. When
she got home I happened to be just inside the living room door,
where her boyfriend kissed her goodnight. It seemed odd to see
her kissing this man, and I realized with regret that her life
was changing, too, and that she was no longer my kid sister, but
a young woman.
still visited Deming occasionally
but cut the time short so I could get back to the night life in
El Paso. For about six months, I was happy having finally made
contact with others like myself, having a place to go where I
could be with them. My grades soared. Years of anxiety fell away.
But this new gay life I had discovered was in the backwash of
the gay world. Eventually, I began to feel sad at the condition
of the gay life in El Paso and Las Cruces. And when Libby asked
me about things, I pretended I was dating women from El Paso.
I felt the need to lie, I
felt even more alienated and, as soon as the newness of finally
being a sexual person wore off, I got weary of the "gay"
life. It began to go in circles. The bars were the only places
where gay people in this part of the world congregated. The emphasis
was on having sex, falling love forever for an evening, breaking
up tragically, and doing the same thing again one weekend later.
The normal life Libby had, of dating, of bringing her fiancé
home to meet the family—all seemed so much better. I listened
to her with mixed feelings—at once happy for her and yet envious
that I could not bring home Bob or Tom or Dick, or whoever my
current fling was at the time.
the middle of my plunge into the
gay world, I turned abruptly and married the first woman I found
attractive, nice, and willing accept this terrible secret of mine,
someone who would help me to change myself. Rather than thinking
in terms of trying to change the gay world, I became disgusted
with it. In getting married, I was trying to go from being homo-
to heterosexual, to repackage myself, to padlock and chain my
closet door shut. It became dark and dank in that part of my mind,
again a secret—even from myself.
got married perilously close to
April Fool's day. Libby married a man from Las Cruces a few months
later. I think my parents sighed with relief when I got married
at age twenty-one, which was getting a little late in my family
for the men to settle down and have children. Libby's marriage
was approximately right on schedule for the women in our family.
While she and I lived in Las Cruces and saw each other occasionally,
my marriage began to unravel right away.
wife and I and her two girls from
a previous marriage moved into married-student housing on the
campus. With this marriage and the psychological pressure cooker
my mind had become, my grades in college sank to their lowest
ebb. The next semester was my last. I began to feel alienated
on almost every level of my life.
wife seemed to have an innate
ability to add to that feeling by taking up the banner of changing
me from a homosexual, but she chose degrading ways to go about
it. She began instructing me in my overt behavior. "Hold
your wrist stiff," she urged when I took her hand during
a romantic moment. I wanted to withdraw my hand from hers at such
a remark, but I dutifully tried to stiffen my wrist, ignoring
the shame coursing through me. "Come up on the balls of your
feet," she'd say as she watched me walk away from her. These
comments came from the blue and were hellishly effective in making
me feel like a freak, even in her supposedly loving eyes. I often
thought I saw mockery in them. In comparison to Libby's marriage,
where she and her husband were buying a house, mine was continuing
a downward spiral. It was the loneliest time of my life.
what point it became unbearable,
I don't remember. But I followed the mistake of my marriage with
another one. Suddenly, out of college with only a year left before
I could graduate, married and feeling lonely, I left my wife,
my family, and Las Cruces, and stepped off the planet Earth, and
was going strong in 1970
when I dropped out of school. No longer a student, I was threatened
with the draft, so I abruptly joined the air force. It was also
a convenient way to temporarily step out of my marriage.
basic training, however, my
wife and her children joined me, and I felt doubly trapped. We
picked up fighting where we had left off a few months before.
To "save" our marriage, we conceived a child. We lived
together for four more months in a shabby house outside Wichita
Falls, Texas. Our lives continued to deteriorate. Getting letters
from Libby about her apparently happy, but childless, marriage
only made my pain more acute. When I was sent to Brooks Air Force
Base in San Antonio, Texas, my pregnant wife and her two daughters
moved to Colorado. A few months later, she wrote to me declaring
was delighted. Although I had not
cheated on her, nor even considered it, her letter suddenly made
me feel free. I went immediately to my closet door and flung it
open to have another look. My absence from the gay world had made
me grow fonder of my previous experiences, now recalled with
clarity and, once more, I entered the gay world.
time, with the new gay activism
that was spawned at Stonewall Inn in New York City, I decided
to work on my pride. My military life became irrelevant and I
would soon use my homosexuality and the military's stance against
it to get out. Before I did, however, I met the man with whom
I would spend the next decade and a half of my life. I became
happy again, this time with a vengeance.
when I called home and spoke
with Libby, our roles had reversed. While my life was on an upward
spiral, hers was beginning to decline. I listened to her small
voice on the telephone as she told me of the draconian way her
husband's family lived. Her husband, like the rest of the men
in his family, considered himself above reproach. Libby was his
slave, his chattel, like his mother was to his father. At every
meal, the men at first while the women stayed in the kitchen;
then, if there was anything left to eat, the women were permitted
to sit at the table and eat the leftovers. Libby told me that
when her husband took her to a restaurant, she had to keep her
eyes on him or on her plate. She told me of the bills that were
piling up; while she was expected to work steadily, he permitted
himself the luxury of quitting a job whenever he wanted.
best I could tell her was to
treat the debts like a game and not to let them overwhelm her.
About her marriage, I could only listen with sympathy and ache
for her, recalling my own failed marriage.
my lover and I finally got out
of the air force with honorable discharges and were living in
our first apartment in a gay ghetto of San Antonio, I wrote to
various members of my family to tell them that I was gay. I still
didn't have the courage to tell them over the telephone. Oddly,
I didn't begin with Libby. I wrote my first confessional letter
to one of my older sisters. She maddeningly referred back to my
failed marriage by saying that my ex-wife was probably not the
right woman to turn me into a heterosexual and that two sick people
couldn't make a marriage. When I told Libby, she seemed to accept
my homosexuality rather than trying to argue me out of it. She
was the only one who invited my lover and me to visit if we ever
made it to Las Cruces.
my own experience I had found
that being gay was not a choice to be made. She seemed to understand
that, too, when I told her that acting on my gay feelings was
a choice—but being attracted to members of my
sex was not. In my letters to her, I tried to explain it in terms
anyone could understand, whether they were heterosexual or gay,
by saying I had no choice in finding sunsets beautiful. I just
do. But if someone told me it was wrong to love sunsets and I
believed them, my only choice would be to refuse to watch
parents were silent on the matter,
but when a few years later, I brought my lover to Deming to meet
them on one of our first vacations together, they seemed to know
we were more than friends, though no one, including Libby, could
quite treat us as if he and I were married. My mother had always
made a point of setting up her daughters with domestic items when
they got married. That usually entailed a complete set of dishes,
everyday silverware, bedding, and such as that. There was none
of that for us.
as the years passed and my lover
and I stayed together, there was still none of the legitimacy
of a marriage, even as far as where we spent our vacations; neither
his family nor mine thought it important that we switch back and
forth for the holidays, so we frequently spent them apart. There
was just silent ascent that they knew what was involved, and they
preferred not to talk about it.
my lover and I moved to Las
Cruces in 1977 and opened a bookstore, we began having a lot of
contact with my family. During that time, Libby was working at
a department store and her seven-year marriage to her first husband
was coming to a close. When it ended, she moved in with my lover
and me. This was the first time in years she and I had lived in
the same house. Here, it was as roommates. She paid her portion
of the rent, her portion of the groceries and utilities, and pitched
in with the housework.
arrangement only lasted a few
months, until she was able to get on her feet after the divorce.
But as I remember, it was pleasant, and this time there was none
of the alienation I had felt when we lived in the same house as
teenagers. In that sense, I felt free. If there was any talk among
the rest of the family about my lover and me, Libby could report
back to them with some authority that we shared a fairly ordinary
existence, doing such mundane and everyday things as taking out
the garbage, cleaning house, and working to make ends meet.
was the seventies, the decade
when gay liberation began, after Stonewall, and after the APA
or some such changed its official position of what homosexuality
is—whether it is a disease that needs to be (or can be) cured
or a developmental problem that the afflicted can live with. Members
of my family, mainly my siblings, went along with the shift, having
my lover and me as examples to show that homosexuals come from
the same environment they do.
has simply worn down the barriers
between me (as a gay person) and my family. In 1987, when my lover
and I parted ways after fourteen years because he said he was
heterosexual, my family knew I was going through a bad time. My
mother asked me one day if I thought Jim and I would ever get
back together. My father asked about him occasionally, wondering
if I ever heard from him. My two older sisters offered a little
sympathy for the breakup, one going so far as to say that it was
like a real divorce, adding, "Isn't it?" Libby, however,
was the only one of my family I could talk to, the only one to
whom I could give the gory details of our breakup. But beyond
the initial sympathy, even from her I kept my real pain, the years-long
hurt that came over me.
the publication of my first
novel came another step for us as a family, far beyond those feelings
of alienation I had as a teenager.
1989, Libby and my brother came
to a party given for me at a lesbian friend's house, upon the
publication of my novel. Close to a hundred people attended. Former
professors of mine, a lawyer friend, their spouses, people from
my job at the local university, and droves of gays and lesbians
attended. Libby brought her second husband. My brother brought
his girlfriend and a male friend of his from Deming. My brother
and sister were curious, kind, glad for the turnout. That's as
close to celebrating my homosexuality as they have ever come.
family doesn't approve or disapprove;
they know I'm happier as a gay person. I doubt that any of them,
including Libby, will ever be glad or celebrate the fact
that I'm gay. But now that I have met another man, after almost
five years of being single, I am confident that Libby is glad
for me. Whether this pairing will last is the same crapshoot that
it is for her.
the subject of our marriages to
men, Libby has often complained (with some justification) that
men are selfish creatures. Of the six children in our family,
and of the four of us who have been married, we've collectively
had five divorces.
has just gone through her second
divorce. Her first one she often said was a happy occasion, as
mine was. But her second one was just as bad for her as mine was
for me. Unlike me, however, she went to a counselor for help and
was able to charge back into life. She once asked how I got over
my divorce to my lover without counseling. I told her I handled
it by wallowing in abject self-pity for a year or so.
times I can look at Libby and
recall the little girl I was once the big brother to; at others,
all I can see is the woman she has become. In ways, her experiences
have made her more mature than I am. She says she is glad to be
single, again, now that the shock of her divorce is over. I still
wrestle with the fear of living alone again, one day.
are still vestiges of anger
in Libby at the shabby way her second husband went about getting
his life in order before asking for the divorce. But I understand
her anger, her need for counseling, and I admire her strength
to pick herself up at thirty-eight to yet again go through the
dating scene (I was more weary of that than she is).
she and I rummaged through
the male photos of a gay magazine sharing our delight in the pictures;
it could just as well have been Playgirl. I told her which
men attracted me. She told me which men she liked. As our discussion
widened to include singers, we agreed on country-western singer
George Strait, disagreed on Randy Travis. I gave her a pinup poster
of Clint Black. I wonder if, when she turns that picture of him
into the light, she will burst out laughing, or smile, seeing
the impression of my lips on his picture? My bet is she'll laugh
warmly and hang it in her bedroom as she said she was going to
Back to Top of My Sister and I
January of 1987, my lover came
to me one night and said he wanted to break up, that he was
and before he got too old he wanted a chance to get married and
have children. At the time, we were living in Arlington, Texas.
I had just lost my job; he had been promoted and was being transferred
to El Paso, Texas. He said this move was a good time for him to
end our fourteen-year relationship. At first, I felt lost and
angry, but by the end of the year, I began to realize that such
a change in my life was good for me, too. I had to return to my
hometown of Deming, New Mexico, however, to find this out.
my lover and I managed an equitable
separation of property and pets, I moved to Las Cruces, New
miles east of my hometown—where I had gone to college years before
and had got my start as a technical writer. I hoped that by returning
there, I could get another start. Instead, for the ten months
I lived in Las Cruces, I was lonely and felt isolated. I kept
telling myself that my circumstances would change. In December
of 1987, they did. My mother became ill and was hospitalized,
so I moved from Las Cruces to Deming to help my father while my
mother was in the hospital.
after her operation, when she
was brought back to the hospital room, I watched her sleeping.
My father was in the room with me. We spoke in whispers and agreed
that, without her teeth, my mother looked like her mother had
as an old woman, and I wanted to cry.
week or so later, when we brought
her home, my father and I tried to keep up with the housework.
He cooked and I did dishes—mundane things that go unnoticed when
someone else is doing them but that pile up and become reminders
that the person in our lives who had always made a home was down
the hall, in bed, recovering and probably worrying about us rather
than herself. Then one day, my mother got up and cooked lunch,
or swept the kitchen, and insisted that she could walk on her
own. Her improvement seemed slow, at first, then accelerated,
and I began to relax.
might have gone away, then, resumed
my life as a newly single adult, but as soon as my mother began
to recover, my father had a heart attack. It seemed mild. Under
his own strength, he walked into the hospital, but once he was
admitted and placed in ICU, he grew worse immediately. He was
there a week, his condition seeming to worsen every day. So the
family was called in.
oldest sister came from Colorado;
my brother and other sisters came in from elsewhere in New Mexico.
Relatives from up in the mountains in south-central New Mexico
came in, too. We had not seen them since the death of one of them
several years before. Soon my parents' home was filled with people,
and I thought I was witnessing that time of life most adult children
must face, when one's parents grow frail and ultimately pass on.
I wondered if I would be up to this seeming imminent dissolution
of the family home.
watched it all, recalling times
in my childhood, when my aunts and uncles were young as I am now.
There were funerals for which the extended family gathered in
one small town or another to bury their parents or their elderly
relatives. There were many other times when these people gathered
for the holidays, or gathered because their farms or ranches could
run themselves during certain seasons of the year, when the nights
were filled with fiddle playing and laughter. This time, there
was no fiddle playing as in years past, none of Aunt Eva's cobbler.
There were hushed whispers at the hospital and, at home, the saddened
recalling of other days, and I thought that even the rememberers
in this family would one day be gone.
my father took a turn for the
better, and the relatives left, making us promise to call if anything
went wrong or if there was anything that needed to be done. Eventually,
the rest of my siblings had to leave, and it was just me and my
mother at home. She and I traded vigil at the hospital. Daily,
we got reports that my father's condition was improving, but the
nurses told me he had to walk to get his strength back. When I
helped him out of bed, he gripped my neck; as we walked the length
of the corridor, both of us taking small, interdependent steps,
both sweating from the effort, I felt awed at my father's strength
of will, even in his frailty.
began to see that there was something
of great value at home. Besides helping my parents through their
illnesses, I was beginning to feel serene, happy in a way I had
not been since I lost my lover. I wasn't yet ready to plunge headlong
into some gay social mix without him, who was off plunging headlong
into some heterosexual mix. Besides discovering that my parents
needed me, I found I needed to be here as well.
was also waiting for word from
a publisher about whether a novel I had written would be accepted
for publication. The contract arrived in the mail in August of
1988 and I asked my parents if they minded if I stayed for a while.
They said of course not.
here I am, living with the help
of my parents' generosity, able to spend the time I need writing.
We've worked out an equitable agreement; I do the yard work, raise
a large garden, summerize and winterize their home, do maintenance
work on their vehicles and, in exchange, they've let me move into
a small one-room building on their place for minuscule rent. It
has electricity, but no plumbing, a bare concrete floor, unfinished
walls, and two naked windows looking south. Yet this room is a
blessed place, where I can work when the desert is a blizzard
of sand or snow. I've got a bed, a coffeepot, my computer, my
books, and a musical keyboard upon which I make music of my own
weird composition. In the evenings, when the sun is setting, I
can watch the spectacular and long-lasting sunsets. The colors
span the sky from west to east, and when the sun has sunk to the
horizon, the Florida Mountains to the east become brilliantly
lit, multicolored and dominant.
I knew my novel was going to
be published, I began to talk about it, forgetting that its theme
might cause distress to those members of my family who didn't
know I was gay. To some of my nephews, cousins, siblings, the
idea of someone in the family being a published writer was a kind
of event, as was the notion that someone in the family would go
to college. In fact, on the day my book arrived, the dining room
was full of relatives (coincidentally there). When my father opened
the UPS box with his pocket knife and pulled out a copy of my
book, it was passed from hand to hand. I was about fifth in line
to touch it.
nephew was the first to buy an
autographed copy from me. He and his wife read it to each other
each night. An elderly aunt with cataracts took a copy I hesitantly
loaned her. My parents know I'm gay as do my brother and sisters,
but I didn't think many of my relatives did. My aunt read it within
a week and returned it smiling, saying with a giggle and a wave
of her had, "It's a good book, for the kind of book it is."
Her daughter also read it and told me she thought it was time
such books were published and wished me success with it.
one day as I came into my parents'
house, my mother, who was in her usual spot at the dining-room
table, turned and looked at me with a bright smile, her eyes lit
Ron, I'm glad you're back.
The Deming Headlight called and they want to interview
you about your book!"
felt anxious about the local paper
doing an interview. It may be self-repressive, but I didn't want
my family to suffer any ostracism from people in Deming at the
expense of my "coming out of the closet" in my hometown—their
town, really. I could pick up and leave anytime I wanted. I worried
about the reaction of the family friends, distant relatives, and
old classmates of mine still in Deming once the news was out.
when the article was published,
I read it before anyone else had seen it. Right there in black
and white, it said, "Donaghe is gay, and..." I sweated
bullets that day as I knew many of Deming's fifteen thousand residents
were reading the article as they settled down for the evening.
What if the telephone suddenly began ringing off the hook? "Hey.
You the Donaghes with the faggot son? Yeah? Well, you know what's
good for you, you'll..."
telephone rang once. I rushed
to it, going a little dizzy with anticipation. My mouth was dry
when I answered it. It was somebody from the Deming Center for
the Arts wondering if I'd like to do a book signing. The voice
on the other end was female. She said the council had decided
that the book signing would go well with an art exhibit currently
running at the center. "But we've decided that your signing
will be financed by contributions from the community, rather than
with funding from the state—ah, considering the objections many
people had to that recent Mapplethorpe thing."
understood. But I was amazed. "You
do know that my novel has a gay theme?"
Will Sunday be all right?"
agreed, was eager for it, but still
couldn't relax. Where was the flack? The threatening telephone
calls in the middle of the night? The invitation to be the guest
of honor at a queer bashing?
was used to being afraid of
of that coming from places like San Francisco, where the ex-cop
murdered Harvey Milk, or like Houston, where a gay man was castrated
one night in a city park. My lover and I were visiting a friend
there the weekend it happened. He knew about the park as a cruising
area, said it was only a few blocks from where he worked. Such
violence always hit home to me. Maybe its randomness gave it a
sense of pervasiveness; the message from such terrorists: "If
you're openly gay or flamboyant, you're likely to get attacked."
This act of violence reminded me also of the perversions during
the Anita Bryant campaigns in Dade County, Florida, where the
message went out on bumper stickers: KILL A QUEER FOR CHRIST.
thinking about homophobia and
the worsening rampage of the self-righteous, I couldn't relax
about the book signing. I doubted that a crazed, gun-wielding,
fundamentalist minister of some sort would walk into the arts
center and, in front of a small crowd of arts lovers, blow me
away, but I fully expected some member of some church to be among
the audience and, during my reading of passages from Common
Sons, to jump up and spew biblical quotes and self-righteous
spittle. But that didn't happen either.
I sold a few more copies
of my book. Among the well wishers at the book signing were a
local high school teacher, members of the arts council, a dozen
or so strangers, and three former classmates, one of whom was
buying a copy for herself and a couple of copies for other people
I had gone to school with thirty years before.
a week later, I had lunch with
one of the classmates to discuss my book. This woman, Donna, whom
I'd known from the third grade through high school, and then hadn't
seen for twenty-three years, was unchanged to me, except that
we were now in our forties. After we ordered and were waiting
for our food, I asked if she minded if I smoked. She smiled and
said she'd been waiting to ask me the same thing. The conversation
became relaxed as we lit up. We talked about diet and being older,
changes in the town.
seemed to have given a lot of
thought to those of us who had moved away from Deming as soon
as we left high school. She had become the keeper of the memories
for those of us who went to the same country school—"our
old gang," she called us—the entire eighth-grade graduating
class of 1962. There were fourteen of us. She told me about those
who stayed in Deming as she had, those who had prospered in the
way their parents had, by hanging on to family property and changing
methods of farming with the technology. Donna has been married
for twenty years, has two adopted children, and lives fifteen
miles northeast of Deming at the foot of Black Mountain. When
I knew her in grade school, her family lived fifteen or so miles
south of Deming at the foot of the Tres Hermanas Mountains.
husband and I liked your
main character's religion," she said. Over the telephone,
when we made our lunch date, she'd surprised me right away when
she told me her husband had read my novel. "Our religion
is kind of like Joel Reece's in your story—except that we think
God is in everything."
my writing, she said two things
I recall vividly. One was that she thought I was going to be a
"great" writer one of these days. The other was that
at first, in reading my novel, she couldn't quite stomach the
sexual scenes between the two male characters, until her husband,
who'd finished the book first, told her to think of it as "love."
That, she said, made the rest of the novel go down easily. I was
flabbergasted—not that a heterosexual woman would have difficulty
"stomaching" a sexual scene between two males, but that
her husband could key into the essence of the affection between
them, rather than just their sexual intimacy.
liked Donna after all these years.
We touched on my homosexuality. I told her about my lover and
an ex-wife, my son going on eighteen. About my lover she said,
"I imagine it was like a death, losing him."
past visits to Deming, when I'd
run into people I knew from school, our conversations were restrained,
maybe because I had felt it necessary to keep my gay identity
to myself. Now that people knew, as with Donna, we were both free
to talk, although I still felt very conscious of being newly "out
of the closet" with her.
were other indications that
people from my past who still lived in Deming knew about my book,
my coming out. My mother kept me abreast of the reaction. Two
women I'd dated in high school had read the newspaper article
and when they met my mother at the grocery store, asked for copies
of my novel. Later, one of them said she'd read it several times,
and parts of it had made her cry...
is my hometown? Doesn't conventional wisdom have it that the smaller
the community, the smaller the minds, and the higher the rate
of homophobia? I get the impression that it's possible to be openly
gay and "happy" here in the 1990s. Let me rephrase that;
it's possible to be as open in my hometown as it is in most parts
of most cities. It's definitely not possible to be as open in
Deming as it is in the gay ghettos of New York, San Francisco,
or Houston. But even though I came out in the local newspaper,
I find that people are not hysterical about one of their native
sons being gay. I haven't a clue why, unless it's something in
the water supply.
than having a colorful history
as a coal stop for the railroad in the 1800s with a collection
of cat houses, saloons, and hotels for the railroad workers, Deming
is not unique from it sister towns in the Southwest. The name
is less poetic than those towns with a Spanish heritage. It is
less rich in history than Las Cruces, which was founded in the
1500s by the Spanish. In fact, there is no particular Southwestern
heritage responsible for creating Deming; although, today, Deming
is at least half Hispanic. The other half of the population is
usually referred to as "Anglo," but it's a conglomeration
of races and nationalities. The people share the same goals—just
staying alive in this valley, making a living as they can while
the world continues.
of the settlers came to Deming
in the early 1900s. They populated the town and the county and
established ranches and farms and businesses to deal with
farm equipment, ginning cotton, and shipping the county's products
by rail to other places.
agriculture is surging, and
Deming is the seasonal home of what the locals call "snowbirds"—people
from other states who make their winter home in this desert valley.
It is also a retirement community, home of the Great American
Duck Race, whose winner was once a guest on Johnny Carson; Deming
is, well, a tourist trap, a quick stop off the interstate with
one all-night truck stop, a McDonald's, an Arby's, a Pizza Hut,
and a Kentucky Fried Chicken. There are local hamburger and taco
joints, too, and a host of family-run restaurants. There are motels,
gas stations, and bars along the main street, and off on side
streets. There are all-night garages, where the traveler with
car trouble can get repairs and get back on the road. That's about
it, except for the businesses that stay afloat if the farmers
and ranchers do.
are at least fifteen hundred
gay people in Deming, if one accepts statistical probability,
yet I've only met a handful of those. After the newspaper article,
I expected that several gay people would call me, if for no other
reason than to make contact. One seventy-year-old man did call
several months after the newspaper story. He said it took him
that long to work up the courage.
I haven't changed history by
making my gay identity public in this small town, haven't given
others much courage to follow suit, either. I'm left with the
conclusion that there's no particular reason I should feel free
to be gay here. Just like anywhere else, were I to go into a straight
bar (there are no gay bars within a hundred miles of here), I
would be a fool to attempt to make a date with another man. And
I have found quiet discrimination I could have predicted. I was
substituting at the various schools—until the article came out
in the local paper. I haven't been asked to substitute since.
But then there have been no hot-headed book bannings; no teachers
that I recall were ever expelled for poisoning a child's mind.
And I have not experienced any overt hostility.
far as I know, Deming is just
an average Southwestern town, with average citizens. But like
ceasing to care what "makes me gay," I've ceased to
wonder what makes this town so casual about whether it has homosexuals
in it. In the newspaper interview, I told the readers that there
were many homosexuals among them. That didn't seem to rock the
town with scandal, either.
home, getting published, and
especially coming out as a gay person has changed my perspectives—or
at least made me question some basic assumptions I held about
Deming and small-mindedness. I've discovered that my parents,
my elderly relatives, and other people here have things to teach
me about being judged and judging others, about neighborliness.
I've also discovered that being in the middle of nowhere, having
little contact with the outside world except through letters and
telephone calls is about all I need at the moment. I'm not ready
to go back to a city, even though there are things I miss.
home to help my parents through
their illnesses has taught me a great deal about personal reward
and gratitude. Other elderly relatives around Deming also call
on me to drive them to the doctors in other towns, to pick up
appliances needing repair. I've become a reluctant mechanic but
an enthusiastic carpenter. Six months after my father's heart
attack, he and I built a free-standing roof over a mobile home
down the road. My father outworked me, and I'm still learning
about patience from him.
also a general maintenance man.
Calls for my new skills as a handyman have increased. These elderly
people need younger people like me who are willing to help
them with the heavy work they are no longer able to do. They take
an active and generally good-natured interest in me and each other.
was lively when I put in
a garden. Several people stopped by when I was working there and
asked the obvious. "What's that you're doing?" Later
on, the regular drive-bys would stop to offer me horse or cow
manure, seeds from their gardens, and of course, advice. Later,
I passed the vegetables around as they came off. All mourned the
worm infestation in the corn patch. All agreed it was a bad year
also become the letter writer
in the family. Since I've written a book, my family and friends
seem to think I must know something about dealing with almost
anything having to do with words—from writing résumés
for my nephew and his wife to writing legislators and filling
out Social Security forms. When the U.S. Congress was talking
about a pay raise, I had half a dozen senior citizens telling
me what they wanted written on the subject. I got tickled at one
point at an elderly uncle's suggestion that the senators and
should serve one term, then we should "cut their heads off."
His answer to everything is "Cut their heads off." Yet,
he's really very astute, reads Time, Newsweek—a
whole spectrum of national publications—and always votes Democratic.
He knows I'm gay, too. But like others in my family, that doesn't
prevent him from wanting to spend time with me, nor to get me
to drive him to town, nor to take the opportunity to give me advice.
many of the people I run
into in Deming know about my novel and its theme, they are more
concerned with the price of cotton, farm subsidies, and Social
Security than with someone being gay; in their private minds they
may still equate my homosexuality with someone else's alcoholism.
They excuse it because it doesn't concern them, maybe, or they've
seen it all on television and it doesn't surprise them anymore.
My father's casual acceptance of the notion of homosexuality
made me smile. One day, he and I were watching "Donahue."
My mother called out from the dining room: "What are you
watching, Cliff?" My father said, "Oh...Rock Hudson's
homosexuality is no longer
a taboo subject. And if it causes members of my family anxiety,
they don't let me see it. Getting published and going public brought
my immediate family out of the closet with me, and they may have
learned as I have that fear itself is often worse than the thing
feel free to take a lover, to live
with him, to be seen together, and to make no bones about our
relationship if asked about it. My family and family friends and
some of the people I went to school with thirty years ago, those
who've read my novel, have not only continued to treat me as one
of them, but to treat me with a little more intimacy than they
used to. One woman I met wanted to read me a poem. She said, "I
thought you would understand. You people are so much more sensitive."
I imagine that by "you people" she meant "gays
and lesbians" and not writers.
it not for being single and
sometimes lonely, I think I could make Deming a permanent home.
In fact, the town of Deming could be wiped off the map and it
would not diminish in value, because it's not the buildings, the
streets, nor even the people of this small town that make Deming
a special place to live. It's something much more valuable than
I go out into the country
miles away from the nearest human being. This is the real place,
my hometown, that will be hard to leave when it comes time. Deming
is built on the floor of the Mimbres Valley, surrounded by ribs
of the Rocky Mountain chain that rise from the desert to 10,000
feet above sea level. The high plateau upon which even the valley
rests is 4,300 feet. To the west and north runs the Continental
Divide; east and south of Deming lie the Floridas, a jagged chain
of mountains that dominate the area. It is to the Floridas that
I find I'm frequently drawn.
I drive to the foothills, then
walk a little higher up the slope of ground, I can see beyond
the mountains that surround the Mimbres Valley to another range
and another beyond that, until the mountains themselves look like
clouds on the distant horizon.
the sky is equally endless. On
a clear day, above the lines of the mountains, it's a piercing
blue and turquoise, the purity of the color never to be captured
on canvas or film, nor the depth of the color. Above me the air
is thin, and through the clear atmosphere, the color of the blue
seems to deepen, to hint at the blackness it soon becomes in outer
space. Out here, the colors blend gently from the sandy color
at my feet, to the browns of the close hills above me on the slope
of the mountains, to the purple and shadow blue mysteries of the
Floridas, themselves, their canyons and cliffs and secrets.
a youth, I roamed this same region,
but back then I was blind to the land, its mysteries, its subtleties.
Now, even though I still carry a blind civilization of industry
and commerce on my back, I've discovered a way to see this place
like a newborn, to be cleansed by the desert fire, to burn away
the debris of sadness that continues to hang over me from losing
my lover, already three years ago. By coming to this private place
as an adult, to think, to be alone for a while, I'm eventually
getting over what was once the best thing in my life.
I can remove my clothing and
stand like naked truth, exposed to the desert.
sun bathes my shoulders and back
and genitals. The wind, with an icy breath, stirs the tiny hairs
on my skin and chills it. I can open my arms and let the delicious
warmth and chill wash over me, leap and run through the broad
daylight celebrating the rush of raw energy that pumps through
I go out into the desert and
the mountains, I don't try to describe them in someone else's
terms; I don't dredge up from my literature studies classical
allusions to Nature.
as I climb out of the valley,
I feel more vulnerable than the jackrabbits and coyotes I used
to hunt when I was fully dressed and armed to the teeth, when
I wore hiking boots spiked with metal and carried a rifle for
blasting the brains out of a fellow animal. Naked as I am, I must
listen with my senses, to smell rank danger on the wind, to run
if need be, like prey.
discover that every sense, every
pore of my skin, every breath I draw, is open to the land, the
scents and sounds on the wind, the way the wind changes constantly
in swirls and eddies around me from the effect of the sun. The
sun dominates the desert, casts all in stark detail. In the summer
its fire licks the bones of dead animals dry of moisture and color.
Evidence of that power is all around me, from the bleached-out
bones at my feet to the patches of ash that were once tender shoots
in the shadows of the cliffs
when I'm hiking I can find small streams, maybe a foot wide and
an inch deep. If I'm thirsty, I can kneel and drink the water
without fear of pollution. But out here, I'm constantly aware
of what water is, how precious, how ephemeral. The sun will eventually
claim it, cause it to evaporate and rise out of sight into the
forget that I'm saddened, tense,
anxious. I become merely a dance of awareness, energy, trading
heat and cold and moisture with my surroundings.
up here, I can gaze into the
blue haze of distance. A hundred miles away the earth, the land,
looks like the ocean. In this immensity, my problems seem so minute
that it makes me laugh aloud, and the echoes of my laughter come
back eerily from the canyon walls, doubled and tripled even as
the sound dies. I am merely one kind of sentient being in this
desert, gazing out over a magnificence that defies human control.
Binoculars are useless. Infinity can grow no closer.
I hike into the shadowed canyons
amid the rock cliffs, the silence is deafening, yet I think I
must hear the same voice the Native Americans heard only a hundred
or so years before me. The soul, the magic of the place, surrounds
me; the stony silence diminishes all distracting sound of humanity,
stirs the hair on the nape of my neck, sends thrills of awe down
my spine. There is a primordial mystery here—a singing—a voice
in the wind, that says the secret of the land is freedom.
at last I feel cold, I become
aware of my nakedness, again, and return to my pickup, where I
gladly wrap myself in the warmth of my clothing, feeling refreshed.
a life, especially with the
serenity of the country surrounding me, makes me feel more
integrated than I ever felt in the city. Working in the yard on
a clear crisp fall day, working in my garden, hiking in the desert,
all these things nurture me. I didn't know that I missed this
simple life so much until I came home.
know that I risk being alone. Sometimes
I ache for the touch of a man, the comfort of sharing a home,
intimate companionship. Sometimes I wonder if I'm putting too
much importance on my serenity, rather than on interpersonal
with other gay people. I've met a few gay people here in Deming.
But other than an occasional dinner, an occasional connection,
I'm basically alone.
seems like only yesterday that
I thought of myself as an outsider when I came home to visit.
During fourteen of those years, when my lover came with me, our
bedroom was always waiting for us when we pulled in late at night
after a long drive. My mother or father would meet us at the door
and say something as casual as, "We've got your bed ready."
My youngest brother and sister were only eight and six when my
lover met the family for the first time. The youngest is now
Both my parents are doing well, these days, so there is a tension
in me about staying on or submerging myself in the life of some
city. But this time, I wouldn't leave my hometown thinking that
is holds nothing for me. A few miles from here, high above the
valley, it offers the world.
Back to Top Deming, NM Essay
parents had children enrolled
in the Deming Public School system for thirty-two years without
a break. Their oldest child entered first grade in 1950, and their
youngest child graduated from high school in 1982. When their
first child was born in 1944, there was no such concept as "family
planning," and when their last child was born in 1964, if
there was such an idea, it was in its infancy and had little to
do with my parents or the seven children my mother had given birth
to. Each child was greeted at birth as a welcome member of the
family; and although both my parents had wanted at least four
boys—my father, because he envisioned a crew of sons to help
him on the farm, and my mother, for whatever reasons she had—they
ended up with four daughters and two sons. A third son died shortly
after birth. But once we were born, room was made in the family
for each of us, and my parents committed themselves to clothing
and feeding us, providing us with birthday and Christmas gifts
and new clothes at the beginning of each school year. They also
saw to it that we did well in school.
took an interest in our grades,
were members of the PTA, participated in parent-teacher conferences
and open house, and made sure we had the books and supplies we
needed, partly because they were not well educated. My
mother had quit high school in the eleventh grade and eloped with
my father, who only had a sixth-grade education. At times, this
lack of education caused them to feel taken advantage of; at other
times, they were. So, like many other parents of their
generation, they wanted to make sure we had advantages they didn't
have. We were lucky that they considered a basic education one
of those advantages.
we children were growing up,
we did not want for the basic necessities, either. Although we
did not get regular checkups at the dentist and at the doctor's
office, if one of us became ill, as one of my sisters did with
Appendicitis, they did not hesitate to make sure we got the medical
attention we needed. Although we did not get an allowance, as
some of the other children did with whom we grew up, none of us
wanted for spending money when there were special events in Deming
we wanted to attend. And when our shoes wore out, my parents made
it a special event to go shopping for new ones.
of my parents worked hard to
raise us and to provide us with a solid, loving home. When I was
born, my father was a carpenter, and I remember that he and my
grandfather had built the house where I was a child. Later, when
we moved to the farm my parents owned, my father also built the
house we lived in there. By that time, he had quit his carpentry
job and his night-time job at the cotton gin to become a full-time
farmer. I don't remember when my mother went to work as a waitress,
but it was sometime after her first four children were enrolled
in school and before the last two were born.
and waitressing were my parents'
two main careers for at least twenty years but, when necessity
dictated, they took on extra jobs to make ends meet. When my father
retired from farming sometime in the sixties, because ill-health
would not allow him to contend with the worries that owning and
operating his farm entailed, he still worked for other farmers,
traveled out of state to work in a cotton gin, and even became
the janitor at the grade school where all six of us children had
from running their own farm
successfully and ending up debt free, neither of my parents were
embarrassed by the low-paying menial jobs they had to take afterward
because of a lack of education; they only demanded respect for
their hard work, which they did selflessly and with excellence.
My father was the subject of an article in a farm and ranch magazine,
because he was able to get four bales of cotton to an acre, when
most of the other farmers in the area were lucky to get two bales.
People requested my mother when they went into the restaurants
where she worked, because they liked the service she gave them—whether
it was someone just having coffee or our family doctor and his
ten children when they went out for a family dinner.
mention this list of jobs and my
parents' qualities, and draw particular attention to the fact
that they raised so many children, because no matter how hard
it was for them to pay their bills, keep us clothed and fed, and
to generally keep the wolf (in the guise of a bill collector or
the bank) away from the door, my parents also created an environment
that was open to relatives and even strangers who needed help.
before I entered first grade,
I realized that our house was the focal point for family gatherings
and a place where elderly relatives came to live for awhile and
sometimes to die. My father's parents lived with us when I was
a preschooler. His mother died in 1952 a few days before one of
my sisters was born. Yet before my grandmother's death, and even
though my mother was pregnant, she helped my father take care
of her. Only two things stand out in my memory about my patriarchal
grandmother. The first is that she was sickly and had to be helped
from the bedroom to the dinner table. The second has become family
lore. One windy spring day, when we were eating ice-cream with
the dining room windows open, a dust devil blew through the windows,
covering everything on the table with sand; and even though our
ice-cream was coated with sand, my grandmother continued to eat
1952, seven people lived in our
house, and I can remember that my mother never stopped working.
She was constantly cooking and cleaning, doing the wash in the
back yard with a scrub-board and running the wet clothes through
a hand-cranked wringer. The year before, she had lost a child—the
fourth in order of birth— and just barely twelve months later,
she was about to give birth again. In between, we had numerous
relatives in and out of the house, who came to visit—more than
likely many of them were my father's brothers and sisters and
their families—who came to see my grandmother in her last days.
I was too young to realize that, because of all the company, my
mother "had her hands full." Not only was she still
grieving for the baby she'd lost the year before, she was also
sick, herself, pregnant, and was constantly busy making sure the
relatives had food on the table, clean sheets on the extra beds,
and that my two older sisters and I got the attention we needed.
What amazes me beyond all this is that my mother was in her early
twenties. Today, people in their early twenties seem to lack the
maturity, the stamina, the will, or the expectation to be so selfless,
responsible, and hard working.
we moved to the farm in 1954,
my patriarchal grandfather came with us. He and I shared a bed
in the three-bedroom house my father had built. Then later, he
moved into a little trailer house that he parked beneath a Mulberry
tree close to the irrigation pond on the farm. There were two
houses on our farm and, for a couple of years, my parents allowed
an aunt and uncle and their two children to live in one of them.
In exchange, my uncle helped with the farm work.
of my uncles on my mother's side
was in the Navy, and when he and his wife were going through a
divorce, my parents took care of their two children for at least
a year. At another time, another aunt came to live with us. Her
husband had died and she was no longer able to live by herself
in Arizona where they had been living. She had never learned to
drive, was in somewhat ill health, and so, my parents took her
in as well.
my parents didn't stop with helping
out relatives. Our lives were constantly influenced by the presence
of other people in our house. When I was a teenager, my mother
was working at a restaurant in Deming that got a lot of interstate
traffic. A family had stopped there and had asked her if she could
spare a meal, before they got back on the road. She not only fed
them, buying the entire family a meal with her tip money, but
she brought them home to live with us for a week or so, until
some money they sent for arrived and they could get back on the
looking back on all this, of
course. My parents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary
in 1994. But it is still fresh in my mind that they have always
provided a healing place for people to come to. I also know, although
I was largely protected from this knowledge, that even at the
best of times on our farm, we were not well off by any means.
Yet there was always food on the table (even if it was sometimes
just Spam and Pinto beans). Somehow, though, they created an
where we knew that "things always turn out for the best,"
and hard work and persistence would get us through.
father was never afraid of taking
on a job, even if he didn't know what to expect. My mother became
more competent and adept at new lines of work, herself, when she
was no longer able to handle the constant on-her-feet kind of
work that waitressing required. When my father was first hospitalized
in 1972 with bleeding ulcers and went to Albuquerque to a Veteran's
hospital, my mother made herself drive in Albuquerque, even though
before then she was reluctant to drive in big cities and strange
places, having always depended on my father. When she needed to
bring in extra money, she sold Avon or Tupper Ware and had to
make trips from Deming to El Paso, Texas, driving in that city
in her late fifties, she took
on a job as a nurse's aide. Even though she had no experience
with that kind of work, like my father, she was willing to learn.
Then, after she wrenched her back and was hospitalized with colostomy
problems, she had yard sales to bring in extra income.
none of their own problems, or
lack of money, or their own depression (maybe) has ever been able
to daunt them or deter them from providing a place people like
to visit or where they like to stay.
did not perceive of my parents'
home as being a healing place, nor realize, until I began reflecting
on it, that they were unusual in opening their home to so many
relatives and strangers. Yet when I moved back home with them
when I was thirty-nine years old and hurting from the demise of
my fourteen-year relationship with another man, I began to appreciate
them and the kind of atmosphere their presence created. As I have
said, elsewhere, ostensibly I moved back to help them out because
they had each been hospitalized, but I was the one who was healed.
trying to discover just what it
is about my parents that makes their home so health-giving, I
realize that I must describe it and them, in order to show what
it is. Maybe I should begin with what it is not.
is not the physical structure
of their home, their yard, or even where they have lived that
creates the healing atmosphere. Our house on the farm was just
a combination wood-frame and cinder-block structure. Our farm
was nothing spectacular, either. It was a mere eighty acres of
desert, where the only things that grew were the irrigated crops
and the usual desert plants, such as Mesquite, tumble weeds, and
was not the farm-worker's house
where my parents and their two youngest children lived after they
sold their farm; nor is it the double-wide mobile home where they
now live, which is thirty years old and beginning to sag and have
is it their property along the
Columbus highway five miles outside of Deming where they have
lived for the last twenty-five years, where I came home to in
1988. This was not the place I had grown up in, yet the loving,
healing atmosphere is still the same.
layout of their present home
is stark, except for the acre of grass and trees that surround
their twenty-four-foot by sixty-foot mobile home. On the north
side of their house is a back yard with un-level lawn, with a
row of trees and rose bushes. Beyond that, to the north, is an
area where I grew my garden. They keep their three fifty-five
gallon trash barrels in this part of the yard, and have allowed
various people to park their own mobiles on the north side of
the trees—sometimes rent free. They even rented that space to
a farmer who went broke. He lived there until he got back on his
feet in another line of work. That same space was also used by
young married couples, one of whom was another farmer's son and
what is it that my parents do
to make their home a healing place?
they get up in the mornings,
they sit in their dining room, looking out the window onto the
north side of the house as they drink coffee. They watch the birds
that light in the trees, and my mother has, for several years,
been watching with delight as one long branch of her climbing
roses makes its way up, higher and higher, into the Chinaberry
tree, where the rose's pink blossoms add color to the gray-green
of the Chinaberry leaves. They watch the dust rise from the dirt
road that runs east and west beyond their dining room window and
wonder what people are in such a rush for; or they point out strange
cars that appear, declaring they don't know who that could be.
They know everyone within a mile radius of their home—especially
to the east, since they have sold most of their land to families
that have moved there.
enters my parents' property from
the west, off the Columbus highway. From the entrance on the west
side, the driveway runs along the south side of the house. Across
the driveway to the south is another line of trees and, beyond
that, are the five or so remaining acres my parents are trying
to hang onto, so that when they have to sell it, they will get
a better price. Their front yard is small in comparison to the
back yard. It is there where my father's cats seem to prefer
There are plastic bowls lying about that my father uses to feed
the cats in, old hubcaps for water and, on the front porch, two
rickety lawn chairs where my parents sit when the weather permits
to watch the world go by.
fifty yards from their mobile
home to the west is the building where I stayed from 1988 through
the end of 1991. My father built it about twenty years ago. It
has been used for my mother's yard sales, as family storage, as
a second-hand store that she operated, as a rental-storage building
that may have brought in eighty dollars a month at one time, and
where I stayed until I moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico with my
mate in December 1991. It has since reverted to a rental building.
interior of my parents' mobile
home is laid out so that there are three bedrooms, a living room,
a kitchen divided from the dining room by a snack bar, two bathrooms,
an office (den... whatever), and an "upstairs" that
was once my brother's bedroom. It is really nothing more than
a small space with a very small closet, a built-in chest of drawers
and a platform for a mattress. It is now a catch-all and what
my father calls his indoor cat's "apartment."
through their house, I have seen
remnants of their possessions from when I was a child growing
up on the farm. In the "den" is the safe they had on
the farm still containing a few of the files my mother kept of
the farm's ledgers, a bookshelf with doors that one of their family
friends built in shop class when he was in high school and gave
to them as a present. There is also the old telephone stand I
remember from the farm, and some of the pictures hanging on the
walls of nothing particularly significant, but which have graced
the walls of their homes for the last forty-five years. There's
even a picture of Christ on the cross—a shellacked picture on
a cross-cut of log that I gave them when I was in high school.
through the house, too, are
I remember, gifts from either us children or other children my
parents have known through the years. There are caches of photo
albums—a few in the living room in the entertainment center we
gave to them one Christmas not long ago and a few more photo albums
in the "den." The bedspreads that cover a couple of
the beds are from many years ago, one in particular that my oldest
sister made is featured on the bed in the room down the hall from
the kitchen. It has our whole family's names embroidered on it.
It is graced by stuffed animals from my stuffed-animal loving
sisters. The bed, itself, is one my parents had when they first
living room and the kitchen/dining
room are the focal points of the house. When my nephews, who still
live in Deming, come by to visit, they congregate around the dining
room table, as do my parents' friends who stop by to have coffee
on their way to or from town. The dining room is hardly much bigger
than the table that sits in the center of it. Yet on Thanksgiving,
Christmas, and on days that people just seem to keep coming, my
parents feed as many as thirty people at a time. On those occasions,
they set up a card table in the living room for the overflow and
set up TV trays at the sofas. When Grace is said, everyone tries
to crowd into the dining room, but the overflow sometimes goes
down the hall or into the living room.
is always a sink of dishwater,
dishes that have just been washed are drying in the drain-board,
and dishes that need to be washed are stacked on the counter next
to the sink. There is always a pot of coffee brewed or brewing,
left-over pie or cake, or a pan of fudge for someone to discover
and snack on. Something is always simmering on the stove, and
either my mother or father is in the kitchen cooking something
for the noon-time meal or for a treat later on.
the evenings, both my parents
sit in their usual places in the living room and watch their favorite
TV shows. When I was there, their favorites were "Matlock,"
"Murder She Wrote," and "In the Heat of the Night."
I sometimes watched television with them, and joined them during
commercials to get a dish of ice-cream, make a cheese sandwich,
or pour another cup of coffee.
father is now eighty and has,
for several years, taken an afternoon nap. When I was living there,
that was a time of day when my mother and I visited, or she played
endless games of solitaire, or read a novel I recommended. But
by mid-afternoon, when people seem to prefer coming by, my father
gets up from his nap and visits a few minutes before he changes
the oil in the car, tinkers with the lawn-mower, or runs to town
on an errand for my mother. They always make time for drop-ins,
greeting them with cheerful voices even when they might prefer
to be alone or doing some chore that needs to be done. But the
visitors never get the impression that they are unwelcome.
may be that Irish people like
my parents are naturally gregarious. They are mostly Irish, although
my mother claims that her father was half Native American. It
may be true, because although there is red hair and blond hair
in our family, my oldest sister has black hair and eyes so dark
brown, they appear black. Both my parents tan easily. On my father,
such sun burns darkened his face, beneath a thatch of black hair
that, until very recently in his eighty years, has finally begun
to turn gray. My mother kept her hair dyed various colors when
I was growing up, but in the last fifteen years or so, she has
sported a head of beautiful silver hair that one of my aunts claims
is not natural.
father is almost six-feet tall,
while my mother is barely five-five. But during the last few years,
my father has begun to stoop a little, and his once square shoulders
have become rounded. He is thin. My mother is the opposite.
is nothing in what they say
that is unusual and makes them healers. My mother is an animated
talker, and quite often becomes involved in conversations with
strangers in the grocery lines. When her "girlfriends"
from her days as a nurse's aide drop by, or even when the Hispanic,
non-English speakers came into her second-hand store, she carried
on conversations with them, hoping, I think, that by her sheer
volume of words they would understand. My father is a man of few
words. In conversations with people, he is mainly a good listener
and punctuates their speech with nods and agreements.
there is something about both
my parents people are drawn to. My father is gentle. He has always
been gentle, except when he was so stressed with worry, so bothered
by unfair things that people did to him that, when he finally
did show his anger, it was forceful and, as people like to say,
today, "gave others a wake-up call" that he wasn't going
to be messed with. Although my father is eighty, he goes out of
his way in the grocery stores to open doors for people he considers
old. He is a gentleman and will step out of the way when someone
is trying to get past him in a crowd. People notice that and return
his smiles. Young married couples—especially the boys—will tell
my mother problems about their home lives they wouldn't tell their
preacher. Yet neither of my parents dispense wise aphorisms. They
do not have ready solutions at hand or much advice to offer, either.
Still, people seem to go away a little happier than when they
arrived after a conversation with them.
other writings, I have said how
my parents came to be hospitalized and how I quit my job and came
to Deming to help them. The process of their becoming well again,
to get on their feet and to take care of themselves, was a year-long
effort. Both of them eventually felt well and took up where they
left off when their illnesses struck. Both of them have been
several times in their lives and, I think, with each illness,
they have slowed down a little more and a little more. Yet they
have never slacked off in performing what they consider their
daily chores. They always eat lunch at noon when they are home.
They always make their bed. And when one is sick, the other takes
what is it that makes them healers?
What makes their home a healing place? Sometimes, during the four
years I lived there, I thought I knew.
part, I thought it was because
my father had the patience of Job. When he and I were trying to
replace a water pump in his pickup one hot summer day, he was
bent over the engine, fiddling with a small nut, trying to get
it to start on the threads. After about ten minutes of concentration,
he straightened up. "I can't seem to get it. See if you can."
had been watching his hands, oversized
by years of farm work, too big for the area where he was trying
to put the nut, and thought that his eyesight was failing badly
because he hadn't been near the bolt at times as he tried to get
the nut to fit. So I took the nut from him and bent to the task,
thinking that the dexterity in my younger fingers, my more slender
hands, and my keener eyesight could do it quickly. After only
a minute, however, the sweat was running down my face and into
my eyes; sweat trickled down my back, and I began to cuss and
sweat and wanted to throw the nut on the ground and walk away;
then I caught the expression on my father's face.
was smiling at my display of temper.
It made me laugh and worked as marvelously as having cold water
splashed into my face. I calmed down immediately and, with a fraction
of the patience he had displayed, I finally got the nut to turn
a couple of rounds on the bolt. Within a matter of minutes, that
particular job was done.
I thought it was my mother's
unfailing desire for everybody around her to be happy that had
the marvelous healing effect. Her good thoughts, alone, might
be the answer. I noted one early morning when I was up before
either of my parents that my mother had left a small notebook
lying on the dining room table. I had seen her writing in it a
few times, but had never wondered what she wrote. That morning,
while the coffee was brewing, I sat down at the table and opened
the notebook. I saw that there were entries for almost every day,
to the beginning of the notebook. She alternated ink colors each
day and wrote one or two small-scripted paragraphs under each
date. In such simple and beautiful language that it brought tears
to my eyes, I saw that she had written prayers or statements about
what was troubling this person or that person, beginning with
statements like: "This morning, the wind has a cold breath
to it..." Maybe, in the act of writing in her diary each
morning, she is able to set her mind for the day ahead; but more
likely, because she takes the time to put her prayer-like thoughts
into words, she releases some sort of energy that spills out from
her and touches that person.
parents are not saints. Nor are
they without negative emotions. Like everyone else, they have
bad days; like other people, they note with alarm the problems
of the world. They complain about things, too, and get irritated
with each other. They wish they had more money; they are worried,
now that they are nearing the end of their lives, that they will
become unable to take care of themselves. I have seen both my
parents cry with frustration or overwhelming sadness.
again, what is it about the atmosphere
of their home, about them, that works the healing?
I came back to live with them,
I did not tell them that my lover and I had broken up. I did not
have to. For almost two decades, whenever I came to visit, he
was with me. They did not ask, but they knew something bad had
happened in my life. We never sat down and talked about it, because
it is not my parents' way to pry. It is not their way to offer
advice. But both of them involved me in their lives, immediately,
without question, without judgment. Soon I was running errands
for my mother. I would come home to peach cobbler, which she had
made because she knew I liked it. My father took an interest in
going to Mexico with me when I needed cigarettes, or going to
the rodeo at the Luna County Fair Grounds, because I said it had
been thirty years since I had been there.
loaned me their pickup or car
when I wanted to go into Deming on a Saturday night, to drive
up and down main street as I had done when I was a teenager. They
even went to the movies with me once or twice, even though they
hadn't gone to a movie since the 1960s when there were four of
us children at home.
in their quiet, non-judgmental
way, they let me know they accepted and loved me, even though
I am gay. My mother read my first novel, then said, one day, that
she didn't care what people in Deming might think, when the local
paper "outed" me. Did they cry about me when I wasn't
aware of it? Did they discuss my problems at night, in their bed,
wishing I wasn't gay? Did my mother write about it in her diary?
don't know. It doesn't matter.
The four years I lived with them, doing simple things, living
a simple life once more for a little while, being free to write,
to take walks in the desert, having home cooked meals, and getting
to know my parents once more as I had not for twenty years—all
this contributed to my healing.
Back to Top-Healing Place
May of 1991, I met someone quite
by happenstance, someone I was not looking for. My old relationship
was now almost five years in the past, and no one could accuse
me of being on the rebound. So when we started dating, it was
with a clear mind and a glad heart that I perused my feelings
for him. They were fresh. He was romantic and fun to be with.
But most important, he was not a replacement for my ex. By the
end of 1991, therefore, I believe I achieved what psychologists
(or is it divorce experts?) call "closure" on the break
up with my lover of fourteen years. By then I was fond of saying,
with a mixture of humor (real and black), that I should be in
the Guinness Book of World Records for the time it took to get
had sought closure for my "divorce"
for a long time but lacked the courage to throw away the accumulated
memories of that fourteen years—the Christmas photos, the pet
photos, the photos of him and me with his family and my family,
the photos of where we had lived; I lacked the courage to erase
the computer diskettes containing the letters written to him;
or to throw away the letters from him, which I kept squirreled
away with other useless momentos of a past as dead and irrelevant
as the spiral notebooks full of my undergraduate class notes—all
that sort of stuff stored in boxes in the cabin where I lived
in Deming, collecting dust and spider webs.
I threw all that material away,
I thought I would panic, or be responsible for killing the relationship
myself. But it was dead, dead, dead. I just had to admit it, to
bury it, to let it close.
was the final year I exchanged
letters with gay men around the country looking for a mate. And
perhaps as I reached out, giving advice to those who seemed to
be hurting or were more lonely than I, I was eventually getting
the closure I was afraid to get by some symbolic gesture, like
putting the photos and letters and such in a "coffin"
and burying them.
chance to symbolically bury my
past relationship came in on cat's feet, unexpected, yet necessary.
A cat my ex and I had shared as a pet died one day in 1991. Rigor
mortis set in before I got around to burying him. The poor thing
died quickly, from what cause I do not know. I had seen him lying
beneath an evergreen tree in the yard between my parents' house
and my one-room cabin one morning, too far under the branches
to get to him. I tried to coax him out with a bowl of milk, but
he didn't move, looking strange under there in the dark shadows.
I could tell something was wrong with him, his breathing was rapid,
his sides heaving, a look of fright on his face. But nothing I
could do that morning would urge him to venture out from the base
of that tree.
I ate lunch and checked on him
again around one o'clock. He had moved far enough out by then
that I could reach in and pull him out the rest of the way by
one leg, no doubt hurting him in the process, but it was the only
way I could gain purchase on him. He didn't resist. He was too
took him to the cabin and laid
him on the floor, looking for wounds. I regretted that I did not
have the money to take him to the veterinarian right away; so
I asked my father to look at him. I said he was acting like he
had a disease, was breathing funny and lying on the floor of my
cabin with all four legs splayed straight out from his body, his
tail a strait line from his back, his chin resting on the concrete
floor, looking pitifully like a cartoon cat that had been flattened
by a steam roller.
father loves animals, but does
not take their deaths very well. One of his dogs had been hit
by a car a couple of years before, and even though my father loved
that dog, someone else had to shoot him and cart him away. So,
my father's answer to my question if he would look at my cat was,
"I'd rather not."
that he could not stand
to see an animal suffer, I let it go at that and returned to my
cabin. The cat was in the same position I had left him in a short
time before. Only he was dead, splayed out on the concrete floor
in the same undignified pose I had left him in earlier. I fretted
about how to bury him, because once the animus has left the body
of an animal, I can no longer stand to touch it—beloved pet or
not. That is one of my quirks or phobias, which I have never been
able to get over. I had to bury him myself, however and, above
all, had to get the body out of my cabin that day.
taking approximate measurements
of the width and length of his body in its state of rigor mortis
(including his spread-eagled width), I dug a hole in the desert
south of my parents' house across the driveway and beyond the
line of Mulberry trees. Then I returned to the cabin with a
which I parked just outside the door. Wearing gloves, I got a
coal scoop from the tool shed and slid it under the stiff body,
having to push it the rest of the way onto the scoop with a gloved
hand. I could not even look for long at the animal's face. To
me, dead cats appear ghoulish. At the same time, I felt sorry
for this pet in his undignified repose and cooed to him as I prepared
him for the ground.
he was alive, I had often called
him a paranoid schizophrenic. He had never in his ten years been
a very loving cat, always seeming to be afraid I was going to
hurt him if he came too close for too long. The irony is that,
for the past few months, he and I had been getting along much
better, and his ten-year paranoia seemed to be abating. He would
get up on the bed with me in the cabin, still looking wary, but
would allow me to pet him for awhile, before deciding that enough
was enough and that if he stayed a moment longer, I might wring
his neck—some horrible act, anyway, that would confirm that his
life-long fear of getting too close would be proven true.
slid him off the scoop and into
the wheelbarrow, then wheeled him across the driveway, past the
trees and, there, on the edge of the hole, I tilted the wheelbarrow
until the body slid into the grave. It went in landing face down,
legs splayed, stiff tail sticking up out of the hole like a flag.
I did what I could to reposition the body before covering it with
dirt, but I know I sent him winging his way into the afterlife
embarrassed by the ill way he had been treated after a decade
so it ended, the last vestiges
of a warm-blooded link between me and my ex-lover had been severed.
It should have been the final closure I was looking for. But it
what was it that still bothered
me? I no longer dreamed about him at night, no longer woke up
the next morning with him the first thing on my mind. I had gone
through all the junk I had accumulated—the photos, letters, journals
wherein I wrote about him and me—and realized two things: first,
he was part of my past, just like old schoolmates, my ex-wife,
and other ex-lovers; and second, I was still young, still lusty,
in better physical shape than I had been in a long time, and my
future looked bright. I no longer thought of myself as "we",
rather than I.
actual burial of the cat became
a symbolic burial of our relationship, and was almost the closure
I had needed—but still, not quite.
he called one morning in December
of 1991, I discovered what it was that still bothered me. I needed
to know that he had come out of his own self-loathing;
that he was now sure of being gay and accepting it. When he told
me that once he finally realized he was gay and gave up the notion
of getting married and having children, and had actually been
in a relationship with a man now for several months—over a year,
in fact—I felt a great sense of relief flood through me as I
stood in bare feet on the concrete floor of my cabin.
told me about his new love and,
as he was talking, I thought about my own new lover, smiling to
myself about him as I listened to the man on the phone.
happy, Ron. I really am,"
great," I told
him. "You deserve it," I said. Most importantly, I meant
and I have been together now
for about seven years. It's surprising to note that we are already
at the half-way point in the length of the other relationship.
The difference between this relationship and the other one is
we both want the same thing: the security of monogamy, the trust
that engenders, sharing each other's happiness, bearing up under
each other's sadness, taking care of each other when we are sick
and enjoying each other when we are well and kicking back on the
that my search is over, I still
write letters of love—but this time only to my mate. This relationship
has the true feel of permanence, of value; and even though it's
just the two of us, it has the feel of family.
Back to Top - Closure
Back to Top Part Three