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Even A Dead ChildI’m walking alone in an unfamiliar neighborhood, pulling a child’s bicycle along beside me. I find Ash along the way, playing with some little girls. I turn over the bike, like I came specifically to deliver it, but Ash shoves the bike away and it clatters to the ground. Clenched jaw and defiant eyes. Oh yes, I know that look.

Like every mother ever, I grab an arm and pull my child away from the others. I hunch down until my face is level with Ash’s and I growl. “Look kiddo, in my real life, you’re dead. So I come all the way down here to spend time with you and THIS is how you’re gonna act?”

The odd thing is, I can’t remember what happened after that – if Ash responded, if the mad mood broke or if I realized how funny and sad it was to say such a thing to a child. Even a dead child. Even in a dream.

 

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092008

 Ruby and I are blocking a coveted parking space at the edge of Graceada Park just for you,” I tell my mother, as my sister pantomimes a bizarre yet brilliant space-holding dance a few feet away.

Through the phone, I can hear the tension in her voice even though all she gives me in response is, “Um Hum.”

I glance over at Alice, under the awning of the Pride Center’s festival booth, handing out Prop 8 stickers and brochures to a middle-aged couple.

Alice’s booth is ten feet away from this space,” I say in response to the strained silence on the other end of the phone. “It would mean so much to her if you came by to be supportive.”

Ruby stops dancing and shoots me a worried expression, knowing what’s coming.

You know, your Pops and I have prayed about this, and it’s just not something we can do.”

A tight little fist clenches around my heart. I know there’s no reaching her at this point and yet I continue to bash my head against this particular wall. It’s not that my mother doesn’t love Alice. It’s just that she can’t see her, and so she keeps waiting for this distasteful phase to end.

Nobody’s asking you to wave a rainbow flag, Mom. Just to let your granddaughter know that you support her on a day that’s important to her.”

Well, of course we do.”

Just not enough to show it in public?”

I’m sorry that you’re upset, but I’m going to get off the phone now.” She adds, “I love you,” before the line goes dead.

Alice has been looking forward to Modesto’s Pride Festival for three months. She shoved her way onto the organizing committee and took to carrying around a notebook into which she scribbled ideas, suggestions and plans to propose to the group. I get the sense that they tired of her “in Santa Cruz, they do it like this” suggestions but then these are people who understand Modesto’s queer history in a way that Alice does not. The fact that there’s a festival at all is progress for the traditionally invisible LGBT community.

But here we are in one of the town’s best parks, with its sprawling oak trees and full amphitheater where The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are camping it up, its tennis courts, its BBQ pits and, for today only, a Bounce House and portable waterslide set up near the play equipment. There is a nice mix of street food, and a whole slew of booths selling art, books, and crafts. Mixed in among the vendors are a smattering of non-profit organizations, a couple of churches and a booth for the Democratic Party of Stanislaus County.

I don’t know why you try,” Ruby says as we abandon the empty parking space and return to the park.

I know she has that whole ‘love the sinner; hate the sin’ thing but she acts like I just invited her to an orgy,” I say as we head towards a booth full of books. “It’s terrifying to her that someone might see her here and assume that she approves of…festival food and hula hoops.”

Ruby laughs and starts digging through the books on one of the tables. Within mere seconds, she’s selected three and is handing her cash to the bookseller. I grab the books from her and check them out as we move on to the next booth.

You realize this is gay erotica, right?” I ask, holding up a copy of Teleny.

Oh!” she blushes. “I just saw Oscar Wilde’s name and snapped it up.”

Not that I’m judging.” I slip the books back into her bag and step into the jewelry booth after her. Ruby is a fiend for jewelry so we’re in there for a while.

Finally, she holds up a big fat heart on a long silver chain. “Should I get this for Alice?”

Absolutely.”

With heart in hand, we make our way back to the Pride Center booth where Alice and Georgia from her support group are lounging in plastic chairs, making daisy chains. As soon as she sees us, Alice jumps up and comes out from behind the table.

Did you see Davey yet?” she asks excitedly.

No. He made it?” I’m delighted.

He was over there with The Sisters a few minutes ago. Is Grandma Jo coming?”

Nah babygirl, I’m sorry but she’s not.”

Is it the big gay army thing?”

Kinda, but check out what Aunt Ruby found.” I step aside, shifting the focus to my sister, who holds out the heart-shaped bauble.

With a squeal of delight, Alice reaches for it. “For me?”

For you,” Ruby answers.

Just then, someone bear-hugs me from behind and I turn to find Davey, decked out in a tight red t-shirt and a rainbow-striped faux-hawk.

I’m so glad you made it!” I say, hugging him fiercely. When we separate, I make a sweeping gesture towards the rest of the park. “What do you think?” I ask him. “Too quiet? Too sedate?”

Girl, you forget where I come from. In comparison to Amish country, this is practically a gay mecca.”

Just then, Fiona’s Crown Vic slides into the recently vacated parking space just behind the Pride Center’s booth. I wave in her direction and Alice runs over to the car, reaching through the passenger window to grab the yappy little dog off Dotty’s lap. At the same time, a group of giggling girls descends upon the booth and Alice rushes back with the dog at her heels.

I know everything about the Pride Center.” Alice waves her arms, like a carnival barker in front of the girls. “What can I tell you, sell you or do you for today?”

We leave her to it and move on towards the food vendors in search of a good taco truck. When we’re out of earshot, Ruby leans in to whisper: “Are you going to tell me what the ‘big gay army’ is?”

Just one of those things Mom and Pops are terrified of … the so-called militant homosexuals.”

Militant homos?” Davey pipes up. “Show me, show me! I do so love a man in uniform.”

I link arms with them both as we walk on through the park.

Alice isn’t angry that her grandparents didn’t drop by to support her. She’s sad, and yet she spends the rest of the day grinning and laughing and flitting around the park like a newly formed butterfly, the big fat heart bouncing against her chest as she goes.

I’m the one who’s angry. I let it go on the surface, but it burrows deep and stays with me because once again my mother has chosen a belief system over her own flesh and blood, hiding behind a god who tells her exactly what she wants to hear. There is so much shame in this world. What does it honestly cost us to instill a sense of acceptance and pride in those we profess to love?

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revelationWe’ve been waiting for you.” Linda says ominously as she opens the door to her inner office and gestures for me to follow. It is February 2008 and Jordan has been in therapy with Linda for nine months, but this is the first time that she has ever invited me in at 4:48 rather than usher Jordan out at 4:45.

I head into the office and sink into the comfy chair across from Jordan, who doesn’t look up but continues to roll a squishy water-filled tube between his palms. While Linda steps out to apologize to the waiting client for the delay, I pick up a plastic frog from Linda’s basket of fidget toys.

The frog belches a big pink pouch out of its mouth when you squeeze it. The wet sound it makes is oddly pleasing and Jordan sneaks a sideways glance at me when I belch the frog three times fast. His mouth twists up like he’s holding something in but he looks away too quickly for me to gauge what’s hiding behind that expression or guess at what new ill is about to befall us.

Finally, Linda comes back, closes the door and folds her lanky limbs into her own chair. She gestures towards Jordan and says, “The floor is yours,” but the child mutely shakes his head and points back at his therapist.

Well then.” Linda turns towards me and smiles uncomfortably. “Jordan has something to tell you but now he seems to want me to do it.” She squares her shoulders and exhales deeply. “When Jordan came in today, basically he sat down and said, ‘I know why I’m always angry. It’s because I’m sad. And I know why I’m always sad. It’s because I’m a girl.”

All of the air goes out of the room and her words hang in the void at the center of our little triangle. The frog in my hand belches unexpectedly and Jordan giggles.

She giggles.

I look at her and then I look at her.

Everything I ever thought I knew about my child has changed in an instant.

I cannot yet see the girl-child peeking out through the Boy Suit. True, she’s let her military buzz-cut grow out over the last few months so that her hair now lays flat, just barely starting to curl at the base of her neck, but all in all she still looks much like she’s always looked: a sturdy child with ash-blond hair, gray-blue eyes, a generous mouth and strong bone structure beneath a lingering layer of baby fat. An ordinary boy. Except that she’s not.

The oddest things come to you in moments like this. With Linda’s recitation of Jordan’s words still hanging in the air, I think of all the times I’ve said, “All I ever wanted was two sons,” which is the kind of thing that the mother of two sons will say casually though it is no more true than any other bit of revisionist history a parent passes along. It is this thought, and the realization of what that repeated statement must have felt like to the child who is apparently not my son, which prompts me finally to break the silence.

I’m sorry for anything I ever did to make it worse or make you feel bad.”

Jordan still won’t look at me, but Linda is gawking, open-mouthed, as if I’m a dog who just performed some trick she hadn’t even thought to teach me.

The rest of the meeting is a blur. I agree, without considering the full weight of doing so, to some stipulation about not mentioning this revelation to anyone until Jordan is ready. Linda asks tentatively if we are going to be alright until we see her again next week.

Oh yeah, of course,” I say quickly, and then there we are, descending the stairs and climbing into the car, me sneaking sidelong glances at this stranger and Jordan still awkwardly smirking and staring out the window.

“Of all the things,” I tell her, as I pull out into traffic, “I never would have imagined this.”

“I know,” she whispers.

“You’re not just fucking with me?”

“I am not just fucking with you and you can call me Alice.”

“Okay then Alice,” I say, and we are on our way.

 

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Stuck“A father for six years, a mother for ten and for a time in between, neither, or both … a parental version of the schnoodle or the cockapoo…” Jennifer Finney Boylan’s parenting credentials are unusual to say the least, and her newest book Stuck In The Middle With You; A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders is extraordinary.

The book explores Boylan’s experiences as both father and mother to her two sons and as daughter and son to her own parents. Within that framework, she examines parental roles on a wider scale. The naked adoration and accompanying holy terror shared by most parents is evident and immediately relatable.

The flow of the book is broken up by three sections of conversations with other writers (Richard Russo, Ann Beattie and Agustin Burroughs among others) and a handful of other parents with extrordinary stories to tell. I expected this format to be jarring but found it quite the opposite as she weaves these conversations into her own narrative with a deft hand and they inform the bigger picture rather than detract from it.

I’ve read all three of Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoirs. My mother-in-law gave me a copy of I’m Looking Through You; Growing Up Haunted shortly after Ashlie died and we both read on through She’s Not There; A Life In Two Genders. Boylan’s quirkiness and honesty coupled with her ability to paint a picture so clearly that you can smell the coffee and taste the waffles solidified her as one of my literary heroes. That she, like my daughter and a number of dear friends, is transgender, is incidental.

Stuck In The Middle With You builds upon the foundation of Boylan’s earlier books, but doesn’t depend on them for context. Those who have read her previous memoirs will enjoy catching up, while those who are reading her for the first time may well be motivated to delve into the backstory.

I expected this to be one of those books I’d recommend to a small circle of friends – specifically my trans friends who are, or hope to be parents. As it turns out, Stuck In The Middle With You is one of those books that I’d recommend to every parent I know.

Throughout the book and explicitly in the afterward (a conversation with Anna Quindlen, Jennifer and Deedie Finney Boylan) the question arises whether Jenny’s personal transformation has effected her children negatively. In the deepest part of every parent’s heart, a similar question burns – How will my children survive my own failings or complications?

For me it is a question which will remain unanswered – unanswerable. Would my daughter have had a penchant for pharmaceutics if I didn’t drink so much? Would she still be alive if I’d paid more attention and guessed her true gender sooner? Does my son have a chance in hell of surviving this family and going on to thrive in the outside world?

Every parent has some fear they keep under wraps – that this thing or that thing in their lives will negatively affect their children. It’s one of those things we don’t talk about and yet Jennifer Finney Boylan dares to openly address hers, allowing us to do the same. She is not a parent with all the answers but she’s asking the right questions and that’s half the battle. This may well be her most intimate book and I recommend it with all my motherly heart.

[Buy it HERE and check out Jenny Boylan HERE.]

 

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SpriteA few years ago, I gave my father a fat stack of stories that I’d written about our family, hoping to connect with him by sharing a bit of myself. What I didn’t know for years after was the stories hurt him deeply, each one feeling like a condemnation when I had written them as love letters. This is one of those stories:

 

There’s this tiny alcove at the mechanic’s shop, with a garish gold recliner and a soggy box of National Geographics. I am actually delighted with the room and curled now into the recliner with both feet tucked beneath me while the mechanic changes my tires. His sweet, smelly golden retriever has been following me around since I arrived fifteen minutes ago, and now, he sits beside me like a fuzzy end table, mumbling an ancient tennis ball and practically purring while I scratch his head.

This is one of those moments when I am most my father’s daughter, content amid the wrenches, oil filters and battery cables. Read the rest of this entry »