Friday, September 29, 2006

Dear Ruth

A two years ago, my great aunt died. I never said goodbye. I was afraid to ever let her know I was a lesbian. It is the greatest, deepest regret I have. Below is a letter I wrote to her. I learned, the hard way, there are times you cannot change a decision.

I am leaving for Rochester today. I am going to say goodbye. I am certain of my decision. I don't want to write another letter like this again.

Dear Ruth,

There is something I have needed to say to you. For a long time. I’ve been afraid, I’ve been ashamed, and I couldn’t. My mother told me you would simply die if I ever did. Now, it’s too late. You are dead. And I am filled with remorse and regret- I should have taken the risk. I should have tried. Now you’re gone and I will never know if you would have embraced me, immediately or over time, or my children.

You see, Ruth, I’m a lesbian. I think you know that, as my brother told me you carefully looked at his wedding pictures, and saw me with Jeanine. You took note of her, mentioned her beautiful eyes. You asked how long we’d been friends. Long enough, Ruth, to have three beautiful boys. What you didn’t see in the pictures, as they were carefully edited out, were my children. Benjamin, who is ten, Zachary, who is seven, and Jacob, who is five. Three boys we have birthed into this world. Three boys who asked wide eyed, who was this great, great aunt of ours and why didn’t we ever meet her?

I explained to them how you were my grandmother’s sister, and lived in the house you were all born in, the house that your father built. How when my grandmother died so young, my mother still in college, you and your sister, Ginsie, stepped in and were really mothers to her. Jake was very excited, “Grandma had two moms! Just like me!” Indeed, she did, in some ways. But my oldest son wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to know why he never met you. What I wanted to say was because his grandmother was ashamed of me. And maybe you would have been, too. But I never gave you a chance to work it out, to struggle with it, to, as she herself did, throw all negativity out the window when holding the newborn Benjamin in your arms. I couldn’t answer him. Because I knew the shame wasn’t just my mothers, but my own. The shame that runs through our family history, lurking in the shadows of the great stories told in the small, tin roofed house, when the heat and humidity of the Virginia night wouldn’t allow sleep.

What a history they have been denied. You and Ginsie were the ultimate bearers of the family stories, and artifacts- the house holds over a hundred years of family life. Items dated back to the Civil War. And how will they ever learn about the Civil War? I cannot believe they will grow up and never be called a Yankee the way I was as a little girl in your living room. How you and Ginsie would talk for hours about the lives of everyone for generations and generations before you. And then open a trunk and show us their dresses, or the Mason’s vest, or the wax flowers from the funeral of the Civil War Vet still kept in the house. I’m forty-two years old and when someone talks about the Civil War being about slavery, I jump in my seat and give a blow-by-blow description of the War, why it started and how it ended, not from a Yankee’s perspective, but from yours. (I, however, thought the end of slavery was good, something we did not agree on, and I learned to stay quiet from my mother’s insistent eye across the dinner table.) My boys will never visit Appomattox as a place where honor ended with the drunken Grant in his muddy boots ignoring the gallant Lee’s offered sword. My children will never eat at your dining room table, with fine linen and crystal glasses filled with ice and fresh tea. They will never understand how every time I drink a glass of iced tea, I think of you looking over the table at me and asking if I was having a little tea with my sugar. How listening to you and Ginsie on the phone, with my mother on the other line interpreting your thick southern drawl, made me feel more worldly than my friends. I was, in fact, part southern. I still am.

I sit and dream about what my boys are missing and then I’m brought back to the reality of why I never said a word to you. I’d love to blame it on my mother and walk away, but I was equally at fault. I took her instruction and, unlike my brother, followed it. I did because I couldn’t bear the thought that you would be mean to me. I couldn’t bear the thought that you would hold me with the kind of contempt you had for Black people. It was in your town the Lynchburg Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded existed, where Blacks and poor Whites were systematically sterilized, for years, with the community knowing. You knew, and were sorry when they were closed. In those discussions I heard as a child, where my mother would argue, and then simply stay quiet, I learned to fear you. As gentle as your voice was, as sweet at the twinkle of your eye was, I knew you held deep beliefs that were scary to me. And I was always told never to argue, never to disagree, to stay quiet and be pleasant, even when I was a teenager, and aching to take on every word. I didn’t. So, when I knew I was a lesbian, when I came out to my mother, she said to never say a word to you. And, just as when I was a child, I did as I was told.

When I was pregnant with Ben, Ginsie had just died. My mother, again, convinced me to not say a word. You were so fragile. You were almost dead, so what did it matter? It wasn’t fair to you, why did you have to suffer for the last moments of your life? I agreed. Deep down, I was afraid you would hate me. I had recently lost my loving image of my grandmother Lucille in witnessing her hateful attack of my brother for being divorced. I didn’t want to lose you. The irony is I ultimately did. I lost you completely. I couldn’t call, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t visit, because I had a horrible secret. I had three children, a loving wife, a beautiful home, friends. I stayed home for almost ten years with my kids- I didn’t know what else to talk about. I felt like a big lie when I thought of you. And so I lost you.

Now you really are gone. I can’t come hold your hand, as I so dearly wanted to when you were sick, and just see you smile. I’ll never have a chance to introduce you to my children, to have a picture of you holding them as infants, the way we have pictures of your mother holding us. The line of family history has been lost. My boys will never be southerners the way I am. I realize the edge of hate you lived comfortably holding is what kept me away. But, I will always wonder what would have happened to all of us if you had the chance to hold my first born in your arms. Somehow, I desperately want to believe, we would have come back together again.
I’m sorry. I will try to teach my boys about the War, about the family stories, about you and Ginsie, and all the McPherson’s. I will, mostly, try to find a way to talk about you without the shame, the way you told us stories about the family- on long, hot nights, with a glass of iced tea in hand.

I cannot change my decision, but I had to let you know that I loved you.



Post a Comment

<< Home