Part 1—How Does Your Garden Grow
The little bible was the envelope for the two-dollar bill (issued in my birth year and signed on the reverse “Mary Boyle, 1963″), a present for my 10th birthday from my mother’s lover and housemate, the woman I consider the best father I ever had. It’s been neatly folded in there ever since just as it should be. Mary pressed me to excel in school, sitting with me while I did my homework, helping me with the ‘new’ math (god save us all from ‘new’ anything), reading my history reports, correcting my grammar, instilling the desire to learn, “it’s your ticket out into the world,” she’d say, her ham-hock sized arm laid across my shoulders, buddy-to-buddy—almost to the point of passing on the hetero-male secret handshake, which I’m sure she knew, she was that masculine. Also, she Brylcreemed her hair, wore men’s short-sleeved shirts with the sleeve rolled up twice, the better to show off her guns. This is a woman who would go toe-to-toe with any man, fearless in her love for me and my mother. She was my college-prep tutor, years before I had even considered where I’d go and by the time I did go to college, she’d been long gone from our daily lives, but not so far as to not be concerned about my academic standing—a buck an ‘A’ every year from grade school through high school.
She taught me how to load a gun, shoot it, and how to clean it; how to change the air filter and the oil in a car, and when my mother wasn’t around, she’d let me drive her motorcycle–at least to the end of the block and back. I felt safe and scared with her, the contradiction intentional as far as I could tell and perhaps a reflection of her own life. I can’t imagine it was easy for her, especially when she was young, but as she aged, she cared less what other people might think of her and cared more about how she lived her life. A fine example in spite of my bitter tears of indignation when she’d dog-whistle for me (the two-fingered whistle) from our back porch and the other kids would snicker, “you let her call you like that?” But her heart was filled with love, and in the end that’s all that really mattered.
I’d forgotten that the two-dollar bill—one used to say, in the days before political correctness, that someone was “as queer as a two-dollar bill”. There’s a metaphor for you—was in the little bible and when I pulled the odds and ends out of the jewelry box–the debris from my life–it surprised me and as I sit here now at the keyboard, I must admit that my eyes filled with tears at her memory. I was a pretty lucky kid to have had such a great dad.
Part 2—With Cockle Shells and Silver Bells
Sometime in the early 1960s my mother met a woman, Mary, on the right in the photo, at work and sooner than you can say ‘lesbian’ they were co-habitating. I was 8. I don’t recall a courtship like I do with the process my mother and my stepfather went through a few years later, I don’t believe I ever saw them kiss each other, although they touched each other—arms around each other, perhaps hand-holding in that it’s-okay-they’re-women-holding-hands kind-of-way. Heterodoxy being what it is.
Mary was a butch. Hunting, fishing, camping, motorcycle-riding, crack-the-whip, whistle with her fingers butch. She loved me. She pushed me to excel academically—a way out of Dodge City, as foreseen by her…she knew what road laid ahead for me. She was loud, brash, roll-up-your-sleeves, men’s-clothes-wearing butch, with a honking laugh and although I never saw it, she might have farted and re-arranged her privates in public butch. Men quaked when she entered the room (bar doors swinging behind her, spurs clanking.) She brooked no nonsense, got it?
You could tell she loved my mother a lot. She would watch my mother put on make-up and do her hair, Ponds cold cream her face at night and put on a nightgown, Mary wore pajamas, all this with some kind of envy and love emanating from her. They would sit at the kitchen table and murmur at each other or stand at the kitchen sink, mom washing dishes, Mary drying, just like they had always been meant to do so.
Mary left us, but she never really left our life. Even my step-father liked her and she would come to visit my mother and he, and they her before my mother died. Mary and her final companion, Violet, came to visit Michael and I one summer in Chicago. They drove their ‘rig’ (lesbian-speak for pick-up with a camper shell) from Colorado and the afternoon they arrived, Mary walked into our house and said, “I need a safe place to put my gun. You know how it is, two women alone on the road just aren’t safe anymore.” I loved Mary too.
Part 3—and Pretty Maids All in a Row
We are going to move toward the subject of this photo from behind, so let’s talk about me first. See that speed racer parked at a jaunty angle in front of the camper? [A side note: the camper was a pop-up tent that when opened looked just like a Conestoga wagon — you know, a prairie schooner and the only time we seemed to use it was during unexpected cold snaps, deer-hunting in the Black Hills or grouse-hunting in the Badlands, it offered no real protection, but fuck that, it looked awesome.] But your attention, please, to the bicycle; the handlebar grips were decked out with those multi-colored, plastic strip hangey-down things (what’s the word? oh, yes, streamers) and on occasion or as often as possible, I would have a playing card clothes-pinned to the back wheel in imitation of Mary’s motorcycle—a Suzuki that my mother is astride in this photo.
Mary promised me that I could have a Lambretta Vespa scooter as soon as I was 14, the legal age for a motorbike license at the time. Although a few years away from turning 14, I was nonetheless in love with motorbikes. What boy isn’t? Many years later, in Chicago, I dated a man one summer who was a motorcycle-driving, leather-wearing bearded daddy whom I had snagged at my local neighborhood leather bar when I was wearing a white mohair sweater and yes, I rode bitch, at least for the summer of 197_.
When this photo was taken, helmets were not the law of the land and Mary and my mother would take off from our gravel driveway with a little pouf of dust and grinding of gears, and hard rubber scattering loose stone, take the dip to the street and fly off for a ride of indeterminate destination and length of time. They’d return, sunglasses bug-splatted, a little sweaty and dusty, my mother slightly uncertain on her feet after dismounting, head for the kitchen and maybe have a beer (or not.) Sometimes, after they returned, I would get a short ride from Mary and I would wrap my skinny nine-year-old arms tight around her amplitude and revel in the thrill of being so exposed and traveling at what seemed the speed of a rock thrown at furtive movement in the lilac hedge that ringed our neighbor’s backyard. I loved it.
As it would, as if foretold by a mystic, my mother wanted to learn to drive the motorcycle. on the appointed day and with the stars in alignment, Mary rode the Suzuki and we followed in the car to an abandoned (or seldom-used at any rate) go-kart track east of town—out by a trailer park of a town named Underwood, South Dakota, which always made me think of Underwood deviled ham, a canned meat product of dubious distinction, yet surprisingly tasty and exotic to the palate of a nine-year-old—regardless, Mary, a natural leader, took my mother through the steps of ignition, shifting, braking, banking, acceleration until it was certain (at least to me) that mom was all set to take her first solo ride on the motorbike.
Kick-stand up, pop and roar of pistons firing, engage the clutch and she was off
for about 20 feet when the bike abruptly stopped and hesitated for just a moment but for what, in retrospect, now seems like minutes, while my mother calmly sat atop the leather seat and in slow motion fell over to the left, my mother’s leg trapped against the racing engine.
End of story. Actually end of story of my mother ever getting on another motorcycle. End of story of my ever having the promised Lambretta Vespa scooter. And I suspect the end of many other stories,
But one. A few years after Mary had left us, and I was still too young to drive, we were traveling east on Omaha St. in Rapid City, waiting to turn left onto 6th St. to cross the bridge and go up the hill to home. As we turned there was the sudden crunch of metal on metal and mother screaming “I hit a motorcycle!” We stopped, she jumped out of the car and ran to the cyclist who was standing, dusting himself off, “ma’am, I’m just fine.” Now, that’s the end of the story.
What does a nine-year-old know about love? You’re fed, and pampered, and guided, and cajoled, and encouraged (all of this, if you’re lucky, it’s certainly not a given,) and that’s what you think love is.
You’ve seen your grandparents, your aunts, uncles, adult neighbors and you’re told that they are in love or you assume that they are, because that is the ideal, you may even, at this tender age, talk about love with your friends, but it still seems a thing that is immensely far away from your reality like poor Pluto to the sun.
No adult ever told me that two women (or two men) could not love each other. At least no one ever said out loud that they could not love each other like a man and a woman love each other. When you’re nine-years-old, you are only interested in stability, consistency and attention—positive preferred.
Early in their life together, I imagine (it’s all I can do, imagine) that Mary and my mother were in love, undaunted by the murmurings and whisperings that I can only imagine, knowing now what I do of my disapproving aunt, her cowed husband [cow, coward] and the unloving step-father, my grandfather provided an undercurrent, a rip-tide of innuendo and subterfuge, that finally and successfully drove them apart.
But before that, there must have been times when their world revolved around the sun of their love. And I think that must have been a very special world to have lived in, to have survived in, to have drank in the sunlight and the rain, to have walked and danced, to have sung out, to no one in particular, their love.