Letters in Search of Love
Part Three
Reprises and Extensions

Part Three
  1. My Sister and I
  2. Deming, New Mexico
  3. The Healing Place
  4. Closure

My Sister and I

My 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.

I 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 inside.

But 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 boys.

In 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.

I 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.

We 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.

To 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.

Although 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.

Although 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 thought.

Libby 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.

* * *

When 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.

Yet 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.

I 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 library.

When 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.

But 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.

They 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 his secret.

He 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.

I 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.

I 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.

Because 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.

In 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.

I 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.

My 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.

My 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.

At 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 entered Hell.

* * *

Vietnam 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.

After 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 our separation.

I 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 rose-colored clarity and, once more, I entered the gay world.

This 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.

But 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.

The 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.

When 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.

By 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 own 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 them.

My 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.

Even 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.

When 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.

That 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.

That 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.

* * *

Time 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.

With 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.

In 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.

My 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.

On 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.

Libby 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.

* * *

At 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.

There 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).

Recently, 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 do.

Back to Top of My Sister and I

Deming, New Mexico

In January of 1987, my lover came to me one night and said he wanted to break up, that he was heterosexual 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.

After my lover and I managed an equitable separation of property and pets, I moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico—sixty 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.

Right 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.

A 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.

I 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.

My 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.

I 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.

Then 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.

I 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.

I 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.

So 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.

Once 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.

A 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.

Then 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 with excitement.

"Oh, Ron, I'm glad you're back. The Deming Headlight called and they want to interview you about your book!"

"They do?"

I 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.

So, 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..."

The 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."

I understood. But I was amazed. "You do know that my novel has a gay theme?"

"Yes. Will Sunday be all right?"

I 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?

I was used to being afraid of homophobia—much 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.

So, 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.

Instead, 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.

About 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.

She 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.

"My 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."

About 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.

I 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."

On 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.

There 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...

* * *

This 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.

Other 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.

Most 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 agriculture—selling farm equipment, ginning cotton, and shipping the county's products by rail to other places.

Today, 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.

There 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.

So, 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.

So 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.

Coming 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.

Being 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.

I'm 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.

Curiosity 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 for tomatoes.

I've 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 representatives 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.

Although 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 lover."

Certainly 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 feared.

I 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.


Were 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 that.

Sometimes 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.

If 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.

And 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.

As 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.

Here, I can remove my clothing and stand like naked truth, exposed to the desert.

The 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 me.

When 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.

Instead, 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.

I 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 of grass.

Yet, 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 blue.

I forget that I'm saddened, tense, anxious. I become merely a dance of awareness, energy, trading heat and cold and moisture with my surroundings.

From 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.

When 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.

When 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.

Such 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.

I 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 relationships 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.

It 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 twenty-five. 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

The Healing Place

My 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.

They 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.

When 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.

Both 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.

Farming 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 gone.

Aside 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.

I 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.

Even 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 hers.

In 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.

When 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.

One 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.

But 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 road.

I'm 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 environment where we knew that "things always turn out for the best," and hard work and persistence would get us through.

My 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 as well.

Later, 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.

But 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.

I 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.

1988 - 1991

In 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.

It 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 Yucca.

It 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 structural problems.

Nor 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.

The 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 his wife.

So what is it that my parents do to make their home a healing place?

When 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.

One 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 congregating. 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.

About 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.

The 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."

All 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.

All through the house, too, are knickknacks 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 got married.

The 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.

There 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.

In 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.

My 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.

It 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.

My 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.

There 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.

Yet 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.

In 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 hospitalized 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 over.

So, 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.

In 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."

I 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.

He 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.

Sometimes 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.

My 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.

So, again, what is it about the atmosphere of their home, about them, that works the healing?

When 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.

They 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.

And 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?

I 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


In 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 over him.

I 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.

If 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.

1991 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.

The 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.

So 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 sick.

I 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.

My 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."

Understanding 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.

After 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 wheelbarrow, 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.

When 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.

I 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 of loyalty.

And 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 wasn't—not quite.

But 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.

The actual burial of the cat became a symbolic burial of our relationship, and was almost the closure I had needed—but still, not quite.

When 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.

He 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.

"I'm happy, Ron. I really am," he said.

"That's great," I told him. "You deserve it," I said. Most importantly, I meant it.


Cliff 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 weekend.

Now 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
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