In June, during my freshman year at Ohio University, 1972, I left stacks of unfinished term papers on my desk and grabbed a sweater for a walk uptown.
Since I wouldn’t get home to Columbus to see my father before Father’s Day, I walked to my local card shop to pick out a card to mail. I glanced over brown covers with footballs and baseballs on them, skipped glossy photos of men in suits and ties. I irrationally opened a card with a golf theme, even though my father didn’t play golf. No traditional card “fit” my father. I was looking for a card for a water color artist, home decorator, or designer of exquisite floral arrangements.
Apparently, Hallmark made thematic cards for everyone else’s father. My father, who worked in the registrar’s office at Ohio State University, had recently changed his everyday name from Charles to Mac. His friends were changing, too. The back porch that once vibrated with the male banter of neighborhood men drinking highballs and talking about their work in insurance, marketing, and small businesses had faded away, and these friends were replaced by a small handful of men who laughed easily, expressed emotions fluently, and were fully out with each other and the people around them. My father stumbled toward the gay community, all the while maintaining his marriage to my mom. Stuck between what she’d call “a rock and a hard place,” she welcomed the new crowd over for drinks and food with curiosity and tentative affection.
Five years earlier I had picked out a generic card to fit my presumably straight dad, the dad who carefully disguised his gay identity to protect the family from total collapse. But his life had changed, and mine had, too. With a high school diploma in hand, I left my parents to make the best of a bad situation and took off for a liberal education. Father bought a pair of peace symbol Birkenstock sandals and joined an emerging group of gay men on the campus at O.S.U. Then love changed him even more. By the mid-seventies my father had fallen in love with an economics professor, a man named Walther, who moved into his virtual closet with him. While I cannot say exactly when or where they met, I know that he fell into a deep love for an adventurous intellect known on campus as “a confirmed bachelor.” I wonder what cards they sent to each other and then quickly destroyed so that none of us would find the evidence.
Until quite recently, no one made Father’s Day cards with rainbows on them. Nor cards with RuPaul jokes in them. Nor cards with two fathers lounging in the living room—not even in cartoons. Recalling my card picking dilemma, I must admit that I don’t recall what I picked that year. A blank card would have raised more anxiety. I’d have to either pretend again, as the whole family had been doing for years, or make up something too honest. “Dear Dad, Come out, come out, wherever you are.” Or perhaps, “Thanks for staying with the family—I know the pain and sacrifices you made.” Sticking with the adage that the less said the better, I may have simply said, “Love always.”
My father’s been dead for many years now, but like everyone’s parents, he remains an active psychological player in my adult life. I not only had a hidden gay dad beneath the exterior straight dad throughout my growing up years, I also had his second true love hanging out in my emotional field. It took me many years to find all the clues that led me out of My Father’s Closet. I never got to send a card to Walther, the professor he loved. I never met him. He died in a sudden tragic accident, and grief led my father to his own premature death. I lost two men, who in our modern age might have been my two proud and happy fathers. I would have sent two cards.
In a little while, I’m going down to the card shop to see how far the card makers have come with diversity. Maybe I’ll pick out a card for Walther. What does the post office do with cards without real addresses? I’ll address it % God, Heaven. I’ll even spring for the stamp. My ideal card will have the silhouette of two men leaning into each other from the back of the house at a Broadway musical. Inside it I will write, “Happy Father’s Day Walther. Thanks for making my father very, very, happy! I hope the two of you are enjoying freedom in your next life. When every chatty detail in my head quiets down, I can hear my father’s laughter as he shares eternity with you. Love always, Karen”
More of the author’s story can be found in her newly released memoir, My Father’s Closet, Ohio State University Trillium Press, 2017 and at karenmcclintockauthor.com
(Research by The Williams Institute found as many as six million American children and adults have an LGBT parent.)