“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?”
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?
(Pride and Shame is an excerpt from Jules Vilmur’s upcoming memoir “The Complicated Geography of Alice” due out December 2014.)