Why I write . . .

diaryI must have been about 11 or 12 when I started writing in a diary.  Each page was gilded with gold edges and there was a tiny lock and key that secured the tab that wrapped around them, creating a private sanctuary for my deepest thoughts.  Dear Diary, I would write in my large loopy script, and I’d be off and running about my day, my world, my life.

By my teens, aside from writing about boys, I shared with my diary how upset I was over my parent’s divorce; the moments I missed my dad and the ones where I didn’t want to see him ever again. Like most teen-aged girls, I was a hormonal stew just bubbling with all the flavors of my adolescence; a need for self-expression, understanding and attention, to name a few. Finding out Dad was gay during that time boiled me right over the top.

Writing my feelings of betrayal and confusion provided a relief unlike any other. My parents were coping with their new lives, and didn’t realize I might need to talk to someone about how it felt to hold a secret that was bigger than my understanding of it. My shame went onto those pages in my diary, a container to hold the loathing I felt towards my father who dared to be so different from everyone else’s.

As I sought out counselors on my own, I learned the power of my feelings, and my words, and put more of them on paper. Filling dozens of journals over the years has been my therapy, helping me to sort out the flood of thoughts in my head. Each entry creating a snapshot of a moment in time that allows me to remember vividly the tears, or the victory, or the embarrassment of the captured event when I have some distance from it.

Eventually, I became brave enough to share my words with others. I wrote slice of life essays on everything from motherhood to life purpose, rarely going into any depth about my family of origin. Dad loved my writing and it was the one thing I did that I knew he was proud of, although writing anything about him was tricky as he loved to debate our versions of how an incident unfolded. Arguing to defend my truth against his was too hard.

Then he died.

Like a capped well that has been opened and allowed to see daylight, my father’s death unsealed in me a deep reservoir of memories, assumptions and beliefs that I had held tightly inside for decades. Aside from a few rants to my mother, or even directly at Dad, my feelings about being his daughter had been kept in a dark, hidden place. Sure, I could talk about what I thought of having a gay dad, but how it felt? That was another thing entirely.

Rich with raw emotion, the journal entries since that time have become essays, and I’ve felt emboldened by my desire to speak out loud about this family secret. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality I knew, on that day, that my relationship with my gay father would be the thread that ran through my book, a story that had been growing in me since I was a girl. I sought out other Rainbow Kids and found Laura and the Gay Dad Project, adding my voice to the growing chorus of gay families.

It feels safe to tell my story now, so I write for all those who struggle with family secrets, but even more so for those who struggle with accepting themselves and the people who brought them into the world. For when we have acceptance we can find peace.

My hope is that others will find solace in the truth of my struggle for acceptance of my parents, and the choices they made. And maybe, just maybe, my son accepts me and the ones I’ve made, too.

 

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Love Trumps Hate

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The day after the Women’s March on Saturday, an event I was extremely proud and humbled to be a part of, I went to see Hidden Figures, the story of the incredible African-American women of NASA who helped put men in space. It truly humbled me further. I sat squirming in my chair, so uncomfortable to see the racial prejudice that black people endured in my own lifetime. It’s not like I didn’t know this, but seeing the incredible injustice of segregation was staggering to me. I am glad to be reminded.

The women portrayed in the film, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, were extraordinary American individuals whose gifts and commitment were responsible for one of our finest hours of the times. Not only as women but women of color, they represented the dawn of a new era of inclusion by white men of those not like themselves. Their reluctance to include us is portrayed in the film with consideration of their own needs at the helm of this inclusion, not as a desire to offer an opportunity to women or people of color. This is important because it amplifies that these women could do what they could not. Their brilliance was the key to the success of that program.

gettyimages-498635002At 97 years old, Katherine was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama for her contribution, an amazing testimony to how far we have come. Seeing a room full of white men making decisions for women just yesterday shows how fragile that progress can be.

My participation in the Women’s March was driven by love, acceptance, and freedom, wishing not to protest against our new administration but to raise my voice for those freedoms we have already won that must be kept in place. There is no room for hate in this process. For Love trumps hate.

As I continue my support of these efforts by taking action where I can, I see that I need to turn my attention to the work I am here to do, to follow the lead of Katherine and Mary and Dorothy and deliver my own gifts. I have spent way too much time here debating with 7db499ae9img_0090-jpg-mobilethose who feel our March was silly or unnecessary, who don’t see the world as I do, and it is chipping away at the time I have to sharpen my own pencil and put my head down to work. I have a book to finish.

We all need to see Hidden Figures and rejoice in the beauty of our diversity, our talent as a nation, as a people. To remember how far we have come and work to keep those freedoms we have fought for so diligently. And then sharpen our own pencils and get to work.

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Dad’s Ashes

“I’ll take his brains and heart,” I told my sister when we were given the divided remains of our dad. My half is enshrined in a pale blue box and hers in a tube resembling a wine bottle gift holder, a photo of a golf club adorning the outside. My father never golfed a day in his life. His interests were more suited to belting out show tunes or shopping for drapes.

dad&lisOur share of Dad’s ashes is really a bit less than half each as a handful of him is forever trapped inside a golden rose his partner chose from a catalog at the funeral home. He will keep this on his dresser alongside other mementos from their nine year relationship. Since my sister and I will both be scattering Dad’s remains, we chose between the two free temporary containers Sax-Tiedeman had laying around.

I picked the one Dad would hate the least.

Now that box sits on a credenza beside my TV where an elderly Frankie Valli is singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”, a song that flowed from the stereo in the dining room of my childhood.

I’m pretty sure Dad sang this song in a talent show on the stage at Nippersink Manor Resort in Wisconsin when I was 12. Handsome and confident, he sang with gusto, his shaky hand holding the microphone while my mom, my gram, my sister and I applauded from the audience. We were his biggest fans.

That was the summer before I found out that my dad was gay.

No one actually told me this, my parents having been very careful to keep it a secret, instead I sort of figured it out by osmosis. Being gay wasn’t even widely called that yet; queer was the term I remember, or fairy or homo or fag. There were a few references on television shows like All in The Family and even those were vague or steeped in shame or bigotry. Perhaps there was a dialog about being gay in the early 1970’s in New York or San Francisco, but in the Midwest suburbs of Chicago, no one talked about it. And especially not in front of the children.

My suspicion came a year after my parent’s divorce when I noticed Dad wasn’t dating. Instead, he had a constant companion in Terry, a cute young guy in his early twenties who joined us for Sunday visits and then moved in with Dad.

Add that to my father’s pickiness about cleaning, never watching sports or wrenching on cars and his love of musical theater. It didn’t take much to start asking questions.

For the next several decades we took turns rejecting each other and longing for one another, each of us wanting something that didn’t come easily. I wanted a “normal” dad. He wanted me to accept the dad he was.

Tears flow as it hits me again that he’s gone. For someone I spent many years despising because he didn’t love me the way I wanted him to, I am devastated that he has died. Even though in the past few years there were many signs his health was failing, the reality of his body reduced to ash is startling.

Yet here he sits inside this boring blue box.

A decorating diva, my flamboyant father could barely stand to see a wall with more than twelve inches of blank space on it. This plain box just will not do until his next birthday when I scatter him across the lagoon behind my home. There he will rest for eternity, floating beside the painted ladies he loved during his years living in San Francisco. Until then he needs something with a bit more flair.

Pouring myself a second glass of wine, I begin pulling out magazines. Pictures of hearts and clocks get ripped out along with a tampon ad filled with butterflies. I tear out clichéd words of bereavement and inspiration. Threshold. Serenity. Memories. Wisdom. A love that can endure. The things I want for him and those he left behind for me. They all land in a pile on my lap.

Gluing the words and images to the box, a large and colorful Feeling Good is front and center on the top. This is the thing he wanted most and what had eluded him for the last decade of his life; so many years were focused on numbing his pain, real and imagined. Like a ransom note, I piece together the words remember your family all love you. A message to be deciphered in the afterlife since I’m not sure he really knew this when he was living, at least not all of us at the same time.

By now the tears and wine are really flowing. The bottle is almost empty. My memories of my dad soften with each stroke of the glue stick. My love for him and who he was are reflected in the quotes chosen for the sides of the box, the things that he may not have directly taught me, yet I learned from him by all the same. Things about believing in yourself and doing what you love.

Flipping through the last magazine I find the letters RIP on one page in an elegant, curvy script, an exciting find. I cut them out and carefully glue them beside a purple heart.

Rest now, Dad. You lost the battle but you’ve won the war.

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Dear Lisa . . . Dad does love you

When asked to write a letter to my 17 year old self, beginning with a four word title of what I most want her to know, this is what came out:

Dear Lisa,

What a tumultuous time you are having in this, the 18th year of your life. You have so much passion in you, and so much rage, which you will come to learn in time is simply fear. Those days when you were little in the house on Elder Lane felt so warm and cozy. You were Daddy’s little star. But once Mom and Dad divorced, things changed.

We moved to that townhouse, found out Dad was gay, and ylisagradour world went sideways. You hated him because you loved him so much. You hated him because he wanted you to understand his lifestyle instead of wanting to understand your pain. No one understood how isolated you felt in your rage. Not Mom, who was coping with her own feelings; not your sister, since you were sworn to secrecy; not your friends who you dared to tell. Poor girl, you were so alone.

These high school years could have been such a wonderful time for you. You’re smart and love to learn, yet your rebellion draws you towards the fringe kids, the ones who like to drink Mad Dog 20/20 before school, a breakfast club of John Benders who you have fallen head over heels for because you want love so bad. The love you think that Dad took away when he went off to be with men. Sadly, you will reject any love he offers you, settle for the groping hands of teenage boys and call that love instead.

For years you will chase the love of men to replace the love you thought Dad took away. Fear of abandonment will have its way with you. But, you will never get what you crave from them, sweetheart. Never. That love is inside you. This is what you need to learn most, and it will take you a very long time to learn it, bringing you years of unbelievable heartache. Yet, as this shapes you and defines who you are, you will figure it all out eventually, and teach others to love themselves, too.

You know that feeling you have that you are here to live an extraordinary life? Follow that thread. You will do the amazing things that your heart dreams of now. You will move to California on your own soon, you will travel the world with rock stars, you will be on movie sets and produce TV, you will have a wonderful son and coach people to live true to who they are. You will write books, too, so keep those journals close and continue telling your truth in them. Most of all, know that part of the not-so-ordinary life you want began with the parents you chose; they are part of what makes your life extraordinary.

I searched all over for a picture of us at 17 and the only one I found was in an envelope I have of pictures Dad kept. There were tears in my eyes to find he saved every school picture along with every photo you will ever send him. This one is your graduation picture, inscribed: Dad, I made it! (almost) This is to remind you of my” glorious high school days” Love, Lisa 1979. It will be taken before you drop out of high school for the second time, halfway through your senior year.

Mom will be worried when you drop out of school, but she loves you no matter what. Dad will be the only one who doesn’t give you a hard time, and say, “You’ll be just fine.” Soon after, when you take your GED on a bet with a boyfriend, your 96% score will beat him by six points. Glorious, indeed.

Dad truly believes in you, but you will doubt this for years because of the numerous ways he disappoints you. Grudges held deep in your heart are hard to let go of, but you won’t feel supported until you forgive him and accept who he is, Lis. Once you do that, you will be free to feel his pride in you.

Watch for the small signs. He will smile from ear to ear as your date at Lucasfilm movie premieres and save every one of your screen credits to send to you in a video clip for your 50th birthday. He will be one of your most devoted advance readers and write the first 5-star review of your book on Amazon. He will be generous in his later years, especially to your son.

Because in spite of what you are feeling right now, Dad does love you.

Love and hugs,
Your older, wiser Self

 

 

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The family secret that was no big deal

When my son, Zachary, was 7 months old I took him to San Francisco to meet his grandfather. My dad didn’t want to be called Grandpa so we tried Granddad for a while, but eventually it was Grandfather that stuck. There was nothing but pure joy during our wonderful visit.

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Dad, Zac and me 1993

A few years later, during my divorce, my ex-husband drafted into his terms that my father would not be allowed unsupervised visits with our son. I was appalled and ashamed that I had married someone so ignorant, fearing the Southern judge would agree with him. She did not. The clause was stricken from the agreement; a small victory for gay rights in mid-’90s Tennessee.What made it sweeter still was the fact that for the first few months of my son’s life, my father and I were not in touch. I had seen him during my pregnancy and we’d had an explosive argument fueled by my hormones and his stubbornness. The result was a communication blackout that was exacerbated by not hearing from him when Zachary was born. I was heartbroken. Motherhood softened me, and by Christmas I was reaching out to him, apologizing first, so he could be a part of our lives.

I moved us back to Chicago where my father relocated shortly thereafter. Dad didn’t spend a lot of time with Zac, yet he sought to be a guiding force in his life, teaching him about money and responsibility, offering advice and reasonable expectations. He was good to him and I wanted them to be close.

Since my dad was single there never seemed to be a need to share that Grandfather was gay, yet I wanted Zac to be comfortable around the topic, especially since he was also very close to my sister and her partner. It was important to me that being gay was not viewed as bad or wrong. I let shows like Will & Grace, Ellen and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy run in the background of his childhood like subliminal messages of acclimation and acceptance. Having not been told when I was young that my dad was gay, I thought I would let Zac ask when he was ready.

That day came while roaming a Big Lots store after the funeral of my great-aunt. Dad had attended with a new man in his life and was introducing him as his partner; Zac only overheard that Benny was moving in with him. While pushing the cart through the aisles he turned to me and said, “Grandfather’s got a two-bedroom house, Mom. Is he giving up his office to have a roommate? That’s just weird.”

“Do you really want to know?” I replied, watching his 12-year-old sensibilities put the pieces together until he saw the big picture. Here we go, I thought.

“Eww,” he said, with mock horror, though not with real disdain. He smiled and said, “Actually, it makes sense. I can totally see it.”

We continued our conversation in the car, answering his questions about when I found out and what that was like for me. I wondered if I should have told him sooner, yet it seemed right that he should learn through his curiosity, the way I did. Especially since my family wasn’t offering him this information about themselves.

“So, Mom, this thing with Grandfather, it’s cool, I mean, I’m glad I know. But, I do have just one question.”About an hour later, Zac came into my home office and sat in the chair across from my desk.

“What’s that, honey?”

“What about Auntie Dina and Auntie Doreen?”

The grin on his face told me he knew the answer, and it was all okay. The Big Family Secret that had been such a part of my story was finally out in the open to the person who mattered most to me. Whatever shame I felt growing up would never be his to bear. By raising him with tolerance and understanding, he didn’t have to be judgmental of the people he loves.

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Believing

dad&lisAt 12, I believed . . . I wanted to marry a man just like my Daddy.

He was handsome and smart and took good care of his family. He knew everything and was my mom’s best friend, shopping with her and decorating the house instead of watching football and fixing the car. I wanted to marry a guy like that.

At 22, I believed . . . that my dad was a fraud for getting married and having kids because he was gay.

When Dad came out, and my parents divorced, our lives turned upside down. All through high school I hated him for not being like the “normal” dads everyone else seemed to have. I punished him for being different. Sworn to secrecy, I couldn’t share this burden with my younger sister, leaving me not knowing a single soul with a gay dad. I took all my anger and shame out on my family. Then I left them to live my life out West, on my own.

At 32, I believed . . . that my marriage to a man who was the opposite of my dad would last forever.

When  your father is a gay computer whiz genius who do you choose to marry in rebellion? A redneck hillbilly truck driver from the South, who don’t know much but looks real good and makes you feel real smart, that’s who. After the birth of my son, and the inevitable divorce, I landed back where I started from, back near my family,  creating a new life near the very people, and place, I ran from. I kept Dad at arm’s length, fighting my desire to be close to him.

At 42, I believed . . . that because of my Daddy Issues I would never find a man I could be happy with, yet I exhausted myself trying to find one anyway.

The years spent raising a man without one around kept my dream of a family life alive; believing that was what I wanted, and my son needed. I dated several men, most of them selfish and immature. After a number of near misses, I married one of them, then divorced him for those very same reasons.

A dramatic career change, changed me. As I became more connected to who I wanted to be in the world, I became more committed to being accountable for my own part in my relationships.

Sometimes I was tolerant, then resentful, of others’ bad behavior,  eventually seeing I was drawn to the dynamic I had grown to know with my father. Being low on the priority list wasn’t comfortable, but it was familiar. Sometimes I was the selfish or immature one. As I changed the way I showed up in my own life, I realized more and more my part in the rift between Dad and me.

At 52, I believed . . . that, as a parent, my dad did the best that he knew how and I forgave him for not being the father I thought I wanted. Then he died.

My offer of forgiveness, sent to my dad in a birthday card several years before his death, was never acknowledged by him, yet it freed me to love him again, with acceptance. The stark truth that his narcissistic tendencies kept him emotionally distant, released me from the story that I was rejected and abandoned because he was gay. Knowing he never meant to hurt my feelings became key to my forgiveness, which also included accepting that he didn’t own his part in our dysfunctional relationship. As a result, those last couple years of his life we grew close, supporting one another as we never had before.

Now I believe . . . that my dad was a good man who loved me, and in the end, knew how much I loved him.

It is a powerful thing to see our parents as people, who are struggling to live their own lives, just like us. To see their humanity and vulnerability as they grow older and change, makes it easier to reveal our own. The changes I’ve made in how I see my family also allowed me to look closer at my relationship with my mother. I can see the jealousy I’ve carried over the love she received from Dad, even after their divorce. As I removed that thorn from my side, their friendship became a cherished memory instead of a painful injustice. I see it now through grown up eyes.

With each decade that passes I change a little less, and grow a little more. The man who has captured my heart is a lot like my Daddy in ways that matter to me:  he is kind and smart, thoughtful and wise. He doesn’t watch sports and can build things with his own two hands. He knows his way around a computer. And, yes, he can be selfish at times. We’re best friends, just like Dad and Mom were, and grow closer the older we get.

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Men Love Women Who Love Themselves

Man and Woman walk on Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur at Sunset

“A moment at the lips, forever on the hips,” my dad would say when I was a kid, as I plunged my hand into a bag of potato chips or asked for a second scoop of ice cream. Even the people he loved weren’t immune to his perfectionism . My hips widened, of course, just as he predicted. The weight of his judgment becoming mine to carry.

Dad is gone now and I’d like to think that I’m no longer self-consciousness over my weight. My man accepts me in a way I have never felt before. My wide hips are held with lust in his large, firm hands; his hard body nestled up against my soft one is a natural fit.

Would he love to see a toned counterpart to his beautiful physique when he looks at his lover? Of course he would. This has been revealed in frank conversations, prompted by me, in which I coaxed out of him the truth of how he feels about the 20 pounds I have slowly added, since my 50th birthday, to my already curvy body. Yet it was offered with a boatload of acceptance, free of pressure or judgment.

“Be healthy, baby. Move around more. Menopause sucks, but you’re hot . . . and not just from those power surges,” he says with a wink, not even commenting on what I eat or how much, which he knows isn’t excessive or out of the ordinary, by any means. We love to cook and eat beautiful food.

Yet, I still feel thick in my skin, and sometimes discontented with the body I have. Why? Because of my own self-judgment over the spare tire that seems to inflate a little more each year, and the way my thighs spill over the sides of a narrow chair. And maybe I still carry the echo of Daddy’s voice in my head, the one that says I’m fat.

As women, we are bombarded daily with images of sleek, emaciated girls as the model of feminine beauty. Even with campaigns like Dove sharing what Real Women look like, we still feel pressured to be thin if we want to be beautiful. We buy into this, then eat a cheeseburger and feel like shit. We complain to each other over glasses of wine and cheese on baguettes. Devil Bread, I call it. Because bread has become a forbidden temptation. Because bread will make you fat, they say. And the last thing we want to be is fat, right?

Right. Except that fat is in the eye of the beholder.

In all my years as a curvy girl I have never had a man kick me out of bed for being fat. If we got that far, he tended to be pretty happy once we were under the covers. Because men are less aware of our flaws than we are. They embrace us with much more tolerance than we do ourselves. It seems that, to a man, having a soft, round woman in his arms is just fine with him. Most of the men I know love their women for a multitude of reasons and not because they are a perfect size 2. It’s not men who judge us, we are our own worst critics.

What matters to men, I think, is that we take care of ourselves. That doesn’t mean spending hours in front of a mirror shellacking our faces with makeup, it means taking care of our skin and our hair, finding a look or style that expresses who we are. It is having confidence, that intoxicating trait that men find so appealing, and we find attractive about them, too. It means speaking our minds and continuing to learn and grow. It means showing up as a woman who knows who she is, and accepts herself, so he can rejoice in her, too. It means being a woman who loves the woman he loves.

Just writing this takes my own misgivings about my ample ass down a notch. A reminder that we have the power to change our feelings about ourselves quite easily when we face them and see our own flawed perspective. Looking in my own inner mirror, I can see what Mark sees in me and I can appreciate her. Yeah, I’m all about that bass, but that’s not all I’m about.

Many years ago I was at a pool party at a friend’s house. I was smaller than I am now, but still bigger than several of the skinny women there, including my friend who was obsessive about her weight. After many margaritas her husband came up to me and slurred, “You are so beautiful, Lis, and smart and funny, I’m surprised you’re single. But I think if you just lost about 20 pounds you could get any man you wanted.”

I wanted to punch him in the face. This bald, paunchy, drunken jerk had the nerve to call me fat. It was disgusting and I understood now why his wife was so worried about gaining an ounce.

“You know what, Bob?” I said, struggling not to tell him to go to hell, “The right guy for me will fall in love with the size of my heart, not the size of my thighs.” That shut him down pretty quick. Driving home that night I couldn’t get his words out of my head. I desperately wanted to believe my response was true, and that good man was out there waiting for me.

And of course, he was. The man who loves me is crazy in love with my heart, and it has grown bigger and wider with time. As have my thighs, and I’m working on coaxing them into being stronger and maybe a bit leaner. So, when Mark wants to head for the gym early on a Sunday morning, I join him, and every time I feel great when we leave. His suggestion to move around more offers us opportunities for hikes and walks on the beach together. Not so I get thin, so we stay healthy.

There are plenty of guys like Bob out there, but we have to give credit to the ones who see us from the inside out, and love us for who we are, not just how we look. We need to let go of our own self-judgment and just take good care of ourselves. My goal is to be comfortable in my own skin. The skin my man says feels like velvet, and covers a body we have both grown to love.

 

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