Sunday, June 28, 2009

“Me and Little J-O-E Will Be Goin’ Away”

Yesterday while I was clearing out my closet and drawers in preparation for moving next month, deciding what among my mementos to throw out and what to keep, I found some of my father’s old papers. His girlfriend had sent them to me after my father died in 2001 (the day after 9/11—harsh). A large envelope contained photographs and some legal documents, one of which was his divorce paper.

I had known my father had been married before he married my mother since I was maybe 14 or 15. My father never mentioned his first marriage at all. My mother simply told me that he had married a “bad woman” once, quite a while before she and my father had met. Uncurious and phlegmatic as a teenager, I must never have asked any questions about the matter—maybe it never occurred to me to ask what the woman’s name was, or, if I did, I was never told.

My mother died in 1995, and for almost six years I was able to get a little closer to my father, who, although he never had a bad word to say about my mother, rather astoundingly opened up, loosened up, in short came alive, after her death.

When I got the packet from his girlfriend late in 2001—they had just started dating about three months before his death—I saw the divorce decree and noticed that the first wife’s name was “Betty.” Interesting. But a lot was on my mind at the time—my father had died, the small medical-training company I was working for had gone belly up, and one of my best friends had moved across the continent—so I tucked the envelope away and never looked at it again, until yesterday.

Here’s what I found out. My dad and Betty divorced on March 14, 1950. For a few seconds the date did not sink in, but then I realized—as confirmed in another document in the same envelope—that my parents married on March 29, 1950, just 15 days later.

It’s possible that my father had been separated from his first wife for some time before he (or she) sought the divorce. And, sure, it may have taken a while to get around to filing for the divorce or the court’s finalizing it. But even so that would mean my strongly judgmental and conservative Christian mother had dated a married man—even if he were “only technically” married, and even though (to be fair) she was not born again until after she started dating my father, in fact while he was stationed overseas in Japan.

(A digression: The story here, as I recall, is that she asked Jesus into her heart while listening to a Back to the Bible radio broadcast. Then she wrote my father to break up with him, since she would not then consider dating an “unsaved” man, but, coincidentally—miraculously!—my father just so happened to have asked Jesus into his heart right about that same time—and it’s possible that this is when the divorce idea popped into his head, as well. By the way, my parents first met at the Black Cat Bar on Miami Beach, a detail I heard from my father, only after my mother died. And before she turned her life over to God, my mother was a bit of a hellion—she used to hang with Hank Williams, which should tell you a thing or two.)

So, where was I? Well, after the digression, I guess there isn’t much of a story to tell … just to say that for years my mother railed against loose women and, in the 1970s, she teamed up with Anita Bryant to “Save Our Children” from the homosexuals, who were destroying the family back then, as we reportedly still are.

Back in 1976 she even confronted me, asking me directly (for the first time) whether I was gay. I lied and said no, and she responded, saying that if she ever found out that I was gay, she would put a bullet through my head. (I didn’t tell her the truth for seven more years—when she wasn't packing heat—and my outing kind of slipped out when we were arguing whether the new AIDS thing was God’s judgment on the queers, as she affirmed at the time.)

So, my point is (if there is a point) that I am now kind of reeling in shock that my self-righteous mother had what looks like a closet of her own that she was hiding in, for all my life with her.

And while for 10-15 years I lived in guilt because I was not letting my father and mother know the truth about who and what I was, I didn’t know that my parents were keeping a secret too.

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