This is a story about the Christmas that my ex-cop, Southern Baptist stepfather found out that I was gay.
It begins with a hand-off.
Specifically, a hand-off from my mom to my stepfather, whose name was Tommy or Thoso as I called him. The hand-off came sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2002. I had been dating the man who would become my first husband for just about six months. I had flown home to Texas from Boston (where I lived at the time) for Thanksgiving.
Flown home alone, I should say. Without my new boyfriend.
Because Tommy did not know I was gay.
Mom and I had long ago decided that he didn’t need to know. His background as a former Dallas cop, a lifelong Southern Baptist and an all-around “good ol’ boy” all told us that he was not likely to be very accepting. Besides, by 2002, Tommy was 81 years old. “There’s just really no need to upset him now,” Mom and I had agreed.
This arrangement worked well for some time. Tommy never knew of any of my exes, not even the ones I lived with. When the holidays or birthdays or weddings or funerals showed up, I simply showed up solo, lived a little lie for a few days and then flew home to the truth. It wasn’t even really a lie, Mom and I would tell ourselves in true southern fashion. We just didn’t discuss my love life when I was home.
But the arrangement stopped working in 2002. The man I had met six months early was, very clearly, “the one.” We were almost instantly in love, a love I had never experienced. A love that told me, after spending just one Thanksgiving away from him, that I would never make that choice again.
“I’m not coming home for Christmas,” I told Mom soon after Thanksgiving was over. “I’ve never been in love like this. I can’t walk away from that to pretend like I’m not in love, to pretend like I’m not gay, just so we don’t upset Tommy.”
And that was that. Until my phone rang in Boston and Mom handed the phone to Tommy down in Dallas.
The call went like this:
“Hi Willo,” Mom said. “Tommy is very upset that you’re not coming home for Christmas. He kept asking me why. I couldn’t take it any more so finally, a few minutes ago, I told him, ‘Because Will is gay and he’s met someone and he is afraid that you won’t approve.'”
“Um, Mom,” I said, “What did Thoso say?”
“He said, ‘Call Will right now,'” Mom said. “So, I did. Anyway, here’s Tommy.”
I, literally, gulped. Then I stood up from my chair and waited, frozen in what seemed eternity, as Mom handed Tommy the phone.
There were no pleasantries. No small talk. Just, “Listen Will, your mom tells me that you’re gay and you have a boyfriend.”
“Yes sir,” I said, feeling my throat tighten and my face flush.
“Well, I just want you to know that you’re my son. I love you and you’re supposed to be home for Christmas. If you have a boyfriend, then he should be home with us, too.”
With that, Tommy handed the phone back to Mom.
“Mother,” was all I could say.
“I guess I’ll be setting two more places at the table,” was all she could say.
I hung up the phone and called my boyfriend.
“I’m not going to Texas,” he said. “You told me your stepfather wouldn’t like me.”
“He wants to meet you,” I said. “It should be ok” (thankfully he did not ask if I was 100% sure).
A few weeks later, my boyfriend and I landed at DFW. We walked outside and saw Mom’s car (Tommy’s Parkinson’s had by then made it impossible for him to drive). The passenger door opened and out came Tommy. All 6’5″ of him. He walked past me and went directly to my boyfriend.
“Hi, I’m Tommy,” he said. “Welcome to my family.”
And that is where this story ends.
With a handshake between two men who would grow to become incredibly close and, up til Tommy’s death, delight in giving Mom and me grief for making too big a deal of things or taking too long to tell a story. Speaking of which, I guess I should wrap this up.
Now, why am I telling you this story? Well, because it’s a good story. And who isn’t looking for a good story these days?
Also because it’s a story about our very human tendency to sometimes be so certain about the way someone else will hear our story that we don’t even let them hear the story for themselves.
And how very blessed we are when those moments come that, despite all of your best laid plans, someone hears the story you did not want to them to hear.
And responds…with love.
Which is, in the end, the greatest story of all.
This-n-That is just that (and this!): A collection of words that don’t fit elsewhere, but that I still want to share.