It’s 1956. Sunday in July. School has ended. My grandmother hands my mother a small card—two-and-a-half by four-and-a-half inches—with Our Lady of the Highway printed in red ink to the right of an image of The Virgin, whose arms are folded in an X across her bosom. On it, there’s a prayer. The sweet corn is almost ready for harvest. My mother enters the back seat of a priest’s car as her siblings and parents stand in front of their blue house and bare wood barn, waving goodbye. As the priest drives off—his car a black dot on a red dirt road under a blue Wisconsin sky—I imagine my mother, a fourteen-year-old child, leaning into the door fingering the corners of her prayer card, unable to see anything out her window but the corn.
South Bend, Indiana. 1944. My father, four years old, has slept over at Mrs. Carmichael’s because his mother, Isabelle, is in the hospital. Soon he’ll be able to return to his own apartment, his own room, he thinks, but for now, he climbs onto one of the two chairs at Mrs. Carmichael’s kitchen table and watches her smoke as he eats toast. It’s dripping with butter and topped with cinnamon and sugar. She’s a widow because her husband is dead. “Dead? Not gone, like my dad?” my father asked his mother the night before. Isabelle didn’t answer. Instead, she moved her otherwise tiny body with its enormous globe belly around the center of their small kitchen. Knife in hand, she stopped in front of a brown bag and two bowls. Peach after peach she pulled from the bag, then skinned and sliced them until the bowls were full. “Where is he?” my father asked when she sat down. His mother ate her peaches without looking up. “Dead to us,” she said, and forbade him from asking again. When my father finished his peaches, his mother said, “Go get ready for church.”
If I ever make it and they ask me where I’m from, I’ll say MARs. Moving, AIDS, and Religion.
1980 is Westford, Massachusetts, but ten years before that, I was born in Pennsylvania, and my family has just spent nine years in the Bay Area, in what’s now known as Silicon Valley, where we jumped around to a few towns. Soon I’ll return to the Bay, but for 1980, it’s Massachusetts. We have grass lawns, big ones, in the front and back of the house. And trees. I like playing soccer with my two brothers and the new neighbor kids, but I love even more my own games.
“Want to play?” I ask the boys. I hold up a large plastic container, the one my art teacher let me take home.
“Play what?” my older brother asks, his new friends gathering around.
“Throw glitter into the sky and watch it sparkle as it falls down.”
1981. We’ve been in Massachusetts a year, and my mother is now a daily attendee of Mass at St. Catherine’s, where she also serves as Eucharistic Minister.
That day, I made it through the hounding at school unharmed; finally home to our kitchen: the island and the table and chairs are covered in white linen. I love the smell of spray starch and the hiss of steam and watching my mother’s face as her lips move in prayer.
My mother’s original call, to marry Jesus, was followed by “a call back,” she joked, “to leave the convent, become a mom, a nurse.”
My mother irons one batch of the altar cloths, then loads another into the washer. I grab the largest one that’s already dry. Its scalloped edges are embroidered with gold silk thread, and I use it as a cape to fly through the kitchen. Midflight, I feel a sharp slap against my face.
She apologizes. Explains that the cloths are used out of reverence of the Lord; his body and blood.
My mother finishes the folding, brings me chocolate milk.
1983. I’m obsessed with roller-skating and the movie Flashdance. I cut the toes off my tube socks, turn them to legwarmers. I open the neck on my sweatshirt, make it one-shouldered. I wear them with my sneaker skates and head outside.
In 1945, my father’s younger sister is born, but my father does not get to go back to his room, his apartment. Instead, Mrs. Carmichael drives him to the orphanage so Isabelle can move to Pennsylvania, where she’ll be farther away from my grandfather, closer to her eleven siblings. Her plan is to secure an apartment and a job.
I imagine my father staring down at the bowl in front of him, the juice viscous and sugary, splayed around the peaches.
Today I ask my father how long he stayed in the orphanage. He says, “Just while Mom got back on her feet.”
“How was it explained to you?”
“It wasn’t,” he said.
I asked him what he remembers.
“Bunk beds and canned peaches.”
I imagine my father staring down at the bowl in front of him, the juice viscous and sugary, splayed around the peaches. I see him shove an entire half into his mouth at once, closing his eyes, unable to swallow.
1983. Sunday school warns us against homosexuality. The teacher hands out a cartoon pamphlet of long-eyelashed men in tight jeans lurking outside playgrounds where boys play.
A call for altar boys offers a gig with an audience, a stage. One that promises layers of skirts, the ringing of bells.
I go to the audition, get cast, and excel in the role.
My mother’s mother, Katie Bell, dropped out of school in the fourth grade to work.
Years later, in 1939, she’s a farmhand on my grandfather’s parents’ property, unmarried, pregnant with my uncle.
My grandfather offered to marry her on one condition.
Katie Bell took the name Katherine along with a Bible and rosary. She fasted and feasted through a liturgical cycle as her body prepared for birth. Her son was born with perfect tiny fingernails and the pinkest tips on his perfect tiny toes, and she fed and burped and changed him—the easiest work of her whole life—as she prepared for the Rite of Election.
The reading. The memorization. The chores. None of it was easy. But finally (finally!) Easter Vigil came, and she took her First Communion, and the church blessed her courthouse marriage. Her son, Laurence, was baptized.
In the photo of her I have framed and placed among my books, my Nana Isabelle is looking into the distance over her right shoulder, the suggestion of a smile in the shape of her mouth, wearing a white fur bolero jacket over a dress with an appliqué rose the size of a magnolia bloom at her midriff—a garment that would not have flattered a single body type other than the extremely slim.
“How was it that she never remarried?” I recently asked my father. She was a tap-dancer, beer and pretzel lover, tune singer, card player. My memories of my nana are of being in love.
“There was a dentist from Allentown—a kind man—who was very good to my mother,” he said.
“She didn’t want him?”
“She adored him. And so did my sister and me. We wanted a father.” He paused. “Today it would be simple.”
I ask about annulment. Catholics have a tribunal (a Catholic Church court) that decides whether or not a marriage “once thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.” If you’re granted an annulment, you can remarry in the church.
“She applied several times,” he said. “They said no. She had what we called a blind faith.”
Obedience fascinates me more than rebellion.
1983. My father is just back from a business trip. My mother tells me she’s lonely.
My parents seek counseling with the parish priest. They attend weekend retreats led by other Catholic couples facing the usual mix: resentments, sexless periods, infidelity.
“Your mother and I are separating,” my father tells me in a parking lot outside of an expensive restaurant. It’s the first time we’ve been together without my brothers.
I hate him. It’s not the corrections: Don’t walk like a girl. Don’t talk like a girl. Don’t throw like a girl. Don’t wear that. Don’t say that. It’s not even the name-calling or the sudden rages or all of what he doesn’t see about me.
I hate him for failing my mother.
Soon after the separation, the parish priest tells my mother she’s unfit to wash and iron, unfit to continue her Eucharistic ministry.
I don’t show up for the Mass I’m scheduled to assist, refuse to get confirmed, and stop calling myself Catholic.
1985. My mother is meeting with my father. I think it’s to finalize the divorce, but she’s wearing lipstick. It’s how I know she’s taking him back.
“If he moves in again, I’ll leave,” I say. I’m by the phone. She’s turned to the stove, her back is to me now, and she doesn’t turn around.
My mother doesn’t like threats.
A month later, I run away from home.
1987. I’m seventeen. I’m a dropout. A smoker. A drinker. I’m on drugs. I land in San Francisco. In the two years since I left, I’ve become estranged completely from religion, from family.
AIDS is a tsunami.
Reagan says nothing. Cardinal John O’Connor says love the sinner, not the sin. Practice abstinence.
The Catholic machine fights condom distribution.
“They only want us if we’re in their hospice. They only like us when we’re dead,” my friend Richard says, a year before he enters hospice.
1990. It has been five years since I’ve attended Mass, except the one time in Berkeley when a boyfriend took me to his reconciling congregation. We fought because I called the priest milquetoast, his congregants sheep.
The next Sunday I carry a sign at a rally. It reads SILENCE = DEATH on one side and O’Connor Has Blood on His Hands on the other. As I march down Market Street, I imagine the volunteer sign-makers at a table scattered with giant Sharpies, Elmer’s glue, and tiny scissors. I see their palms pressed into red paint, drops landing on the floor as they transfer it to the poster board.
As I yell ACT UP, FIGHT BACK, FIGHT AIDS, I wonder about the last time the sign-makers transferred paint from a palm to a poster board. They were probably children.
1992. There’s a straight line connecting sex with death. Pleasure and desire are dilemmas. My first boyfriend, my best friend, friends from work, from the bars and clubs, from the neighborhood café, are dead. Jeff, Richard, Chuck, Sweet Dean, Frenchy, Albert, Val. The names: the longest poem in the heaviest book.
Some of their families cite cancer or pneumonia or died in his sleep as the cause of death in their newspapers, but we say AIDS in ours. We write and edit and print the Bay Area Reporter with their headshots. We say florist and hairdresser and orchestra performer and artist and woodworker and executive secretary and media-relations liaison and landscape architect and front-desk hotel manager and nurse and baker.
We press Caps Lock or Shift and type those four letters again and again and again.
We sometimes mention their mothers and fathers and siblings. More often, we say they were survived by their lovers, their caregivers, their hospice workers, their friends, their cats, their dogs, the angel figurines hanging all over their apartments. We use adjectives like feisty and biting and courageous.
Complications due to AIDS, the obits read. AIDS. AIDS AIDS AIDS. We press Caps Lock or Shift and type those four letters again and again and again.
2000. By now, my mother’s nursing practice has turned to full-time hospice. She’s spent the last several years sitting with people with AIDS, holding their hands, bringing straws to their lips, helping them die. She wears the ruby cross my friend Chuck gave her when he was sick and she visited. She planted a rose bush in his memory after he died, and sends me dried petals from the blooms each spring.
By now, my mother has survived breast cancer, even after refusing the radiation, the chemo. She has finally divorced my father.
Both of my parents meet women named Peg.
“I’ve always told you that you and dad wanted the same thing,” I say to her. “A woman who golfs.”
My father marries his Peg, but only after the church annuls his thirty-year marriage to my mother. It’s important to him that Isabelle know that he has the church’s blessing.
Mom and her Peg last seven years. They visit me in San Francisco, make out in the back seat of my friend Vera’s car, walk hand in hand down Castro Street.
By now, I have a GED and a BA, and I’ve just finished graduate school, where I’ve written a novel manuscript about a teenage runaway who leaves Massachusetts to come to San Francisco to get AIDS on purpose. He courts the virus like someone else might a partner. He wants something permanent but doesn’t believe in people. I borrowed the epitaph from James Baldwin. From Giovanni’s Room: “What a long way…I’ve come—to be destroyed!”
Easter has just passed, and the Orthodox church near the apartment I share with my fiancé—a microbiologist in the field of immunology working on a cure for AIDS—is ringing its bells again.
The Our Lady of the Highway card my grandmother gave my mother is framed on my coffee table, next to the couch where I sit and type on my laptop. I need to finalize an agenda.
I’m a university lecturer and a writer, but I also work at a non-profit that brings arts residencies to kids who wouldn’t otherwise get them. My job is to work with the teachers to make sure the students are given the opportunity to learn the elements of composition in the art form. I’m not interested in follow-the-leader studio classes or lectures where adults tell kids what to think. I’m on fire with my belief in the art forms. If kids can learn how to use them, they can tell us (and each other) who they are.
The phone keeps interrupting. I’ve spoken to both of my brothers and both of my parents and one of my four nieces today. Not about Easter, but about the wedding, which will take place at City Hall. After the ceremony we’ll have a taco party in a building on the historical landmark registry in San Francisco; the same building where I attended Richard’s memorial.
As I’m talking to my dad, I’m thinking, I’m lucky to be alive. I’m HIV negative. I’m a godfather. An uncle.
No one should be lauded for accepting his or her child but I say thank you for loving me and we hang up.
My fiancé and I had breakfast plans this morning with my ex-turned-friend and his husband, but they cancelled last minute. My ex has nerve pain due to shingles.
A few days ago he thought it was bedbugs from a business trip. I have some bizarre rash on my head and need to see a doctor, he texted.
Upstairs head or downstairs head? ☺ I replied.
Upstairs! But lol.
Well at least we can thank the lord for that.
I remember when he found out he had HIV. We were still romantically involved. He’d been dating others, but the night before, he’d stayed with me. We got up early and went on a run. He had to stop, take a cab home. Later I found out it was fever and thrush.
Now he writes: I’m a fucking viral factory.
Nice? Good job? Well done? ((trying to think of the response that carries the right tone)) I type into my phone.
I can’t think what to type next, so I look on Facebook.
One niece gave up social media for forty days and is back on. She’s posted a pic of her sister, who went without candy: wide-eyed and smiling, her face hangs over a plastic basket filled with chocolate and jellybeans.
When I was their ages—with candy and cartoons and soda—I learned the complexity of restraint. How good it can feel. And the overindulgence that followed abstinence. Lent was my training ground.
For all of the church’s tired moralizing—their obsession with and attempts to control the sex lives of consenting adults who’re fucking outside the traditional marriage bed; their aiding and abiding and covering up for the pedophiles and rapists wearing their robes; their moral certainty and vapidity about when life begins and how that certainty justifies interference with another’s choice—it’s their idea of forgiveness as redemption that that I remember most.
I had no interest in forgiveness until I came across a definition of it I’d never considered. Where was it? A woo-woo acting class? A short story? The bottom of a Snapple bottle cap? It said, Forgiveness does not mean absolving anyone of culpability. It’s simply recognizing the offender as human, a person with a story.
I cannot give the Catholics my money or my body to count among their numbers. I cannot be married in their church and will not be buried in their cemetery. But I do love them for teaching me forgiveness. Redemption. Rebirth. Devotion.
More than all those gifts, Catholicism primed me to see the power and influence of story. Drama and magic. Bread is turned into the body, wine the blood. Statues fly, amputated legs grow back, seas part, the blind see. Their saints will suck your pus and eat your lice and scabs. They will split the skin of their backs with three hundred lashes and maim their own faces.
I found a form, a container to fill with my disillusions.
The card on my coffee table doesn’t read: Inspire in me the awe of our creator by showing me nature’s beauty. It says, “Keep me from all danger of collision, of fire, of explosion, from every sort of bodily harm.” It says, “…having preserved me from all these evils, and especially sin, guide me.”
At forty-five, I’m now grateful to have survived this oppressiveness. Many do not.
Religion shaped my imagination. Letting religion go turned me into an artist.
I am one of the lucky ones. I found a form, a container to fill with my disillusions. Writing continues to provide me a place to work with the fury. This way it does not all turn inward.
The only good thing related to AIDS in my own life is how it forced me to see beyond my own individual circumstances. I’m not sure I would have been able to feel the injustices of others so deeply had I not been forced to witness something that affected me so personally. I like to think I would have. I hope so. But I’m not sure.
Since leaving the church, I still struggle to see myself within any community, and with questions about the individual’s responsibilities to the community and the community’s responsibilities to the individual. I can’t decide. In a culture where we are bombarded with other people’s attempts to define us, are we able to make decisions for ourselves? I’m compelled by how some individuals faced with adversity seem to prevail while others seem to fail. Why? And why do we keep trying?
Procrastinating on my own work, I just watched a documentary. Larry Kramer, who started Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT-UP says, “I really truly felt that for some reason I’ve been spared to tell this story. Everybody I know is dead….I’m still here. Okay, thank you, God. I don’t believe in you, but thank you, anyway.”
Tomorrow I’ll go back to work. I’ll encourage the teachers:
Give the children dance. Give them words. Give them theater. Then listen like our teachers listened to us.
Let them save us all.
This essay was written for the anthology Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church.