Rainbows Across the Years

Posted on June 27, 2010. Filed under: Culture, Health, Philosophy |

I was reminded that in most parts of the country, there are Gay Pride celebrations this weekend. I felt a little ashamed that I hadn’t remembered, as I’d been active in Civil Rights for a long time, and still am, on certain issues. We have our Pride Day here in Southern Arizona in October, because people with sense (like, not me, for instance) 🙂 are gone at this time of year. (Temperature is 109 today!) I generally follow the events in San Francisco, though, having attended in the past.

Gay Pride Day is an amazing, exhilarating celebration and exposition, with people ranging from the outrageous to the more mundane. Here are some of the things now going on in San Francisco; there are events all over the country. They celebrate the lives, accomplishments and contributions of gay, bisexual and transgendered people, and have a mission of education and joy.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since the Stonewall Riots; the official start of the gay rights movement. To make up for not remembering the occasion, I’ll share a story from my youth.

I’ve written elsewhere about how grateful I am that I grew up in a multi-racial; multi-cultural community. I also grew up with the notion that “gay is OK”. A girl in school lived with her uncles. She’d sometimes be questioned: “Your uncles? Are they brothers?”
“No” she’d sigh, as if answering this question for the hundredth time, as she probably had, “Uncle Fred is my mother’s brother, and Uncle Martin is his lover.”
“Oh.” pause “Why don’t you live with your parents?”
“My father ran away when I was a baby, and my mother is in jail for the third time on drug charges.” —This girl was unstinting; she’d look you right in the eye as she said this.

Jennifer grew into adolescence in a stable, loving home with her uncles. Many times, kids will taunt those who seem to be different. Somehow, that never happened with Jennifer. The kids rallied ’round, and wouldn’t take any guff from anyone.

My father, though very conservative in some ways, was socially progressive. When I was about 8 or 9, my parents’ business was destroyed by fire. This had been the work of an arsonist, targeting not the storefronts, but the apartment building above them. A person died in this fire; it was a neighborhood tragedy. While the buildings on both sides were scorched, my parents’ store was the one completely burned on the inside. I’d heard the fire truck in the middle of the night—we lived around the corner from the store—and I awakened my parents, as I knew something was horribly wrong. By the time my father got there, not only was his store reduced to charcoal rubble, but there was a good four inches of water from the fire hoses, and a terrible, acrid smell.

As soon as the building was declared safe by the fire department, my mother, father, a neighbor we knew well, my father’s employee and I were there sweeping, cleaning, and mopping up water as best we could. The only things left were those locked in the fireproof safe.

A few neighbors and customers poked their heads in, and said things like “So sorry, Mr. V. Let us know if there’s anything we can do!” and then, walked away quickly. After a couple of hours, two of my father’s favorite customers, Lenore and Lisa, walked right in. They wore rubber boots against the standing water, and carried a large tote bag. Lisa had two camp chairs under her arm, which she set up in a relatively clear space.

“You need some lunch!” Lenore said, and proceeded to take out a thermos of coffee and some sandwiches they’d brought. “We’ve got to keep going,” said my father, but Lenore insisted my parents sit down. “It can wait ten minutes for you to have some food!”

My family drank their coffee black, but the thermos they’d brought contained coffee with sugar and cream. Nothing had tasted better to me in my life. My parents, afraid; overwrought; didn’t have much emotional energy to spare for me. The magnitude of all this was sinking in—this was our family business! I burst into tears. Lenore put her arms around me and held me as I sobbed on her shoulder. At the same time, Lisa patted first my mother, and then my father on the back, saying things like “It’s OK, honey, you’ll get through this, you’ll see.” I knew that some of the neighbors referred to them as “those women”, and rolled their eyes. My father had explained to me that they were a couple, like mom and him, they just happened to fall in love with each other, instead of with men. Good enough for me.

One thing I remember is the look on my parents’ employee’s face. He’d brought his own lunch, as when he left home he thought it would be just another work day, so declined Lenore and Lisa’s sandwiches. He watched as we gratefully bit into the peanut butter and jelly, as if he thought we’d catch gay cooties from them, or something.

The business was rebuilt; I grew up and moved away, having only occasionally seen Lenore and Lisa. They must have passed on by now; they were older ladies at the time. Today I wonder: Were they able to visit each other in the hospital? Had Lisa, perhaps, lain there alone while Lenore stayed home, waiting for a phone call? Had she an opportunity for a few last words with her companion of 40 years?

To find love is a rare and precious thing. To love where you will, and celebrate how you will, seems basic to me.

Lenore and Lisa, you are in my heart today. And thank you P., for reminding me to remember.


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2 Responses to “Rainbows Across the Years”

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I was going to comment ‘what a lovely story’ but it really isn’t – a fire, devastation, loss. But the sentiment you express IS lovely: Respect and kindness in a tragedy.

Actually, I’m touched you do think it’s a lovely story, Care! Yes, a lot of loss—you should have seen the melted clocks—but, yes, respect and kindness, just as you say. Thank you.

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