This photo of my grandparent’s home was taken around 1939 when my father began writing a journal he kept for two years while dating my mother. Grandpa stands proudly on the front porch—a man who was orphaned as a young teen and raised three younger brothers by selling newspapers. We are a family of “making do,” and “getting by.” Grandpa’s success was bought through his sacrifice and it left him bitter and distant in the family. His pride was rarely evident, but he enlisted his son in the army and let them take pictures of him for the Ohio State University newspaper. My father learned that the “look” of normalcy is nearly as good as the real thing.
Independence Day was hands down our favorite family holiday. On our post-war block in Upper Arlington, a suburb in Columbus Ohio, even the most reclusive neighbors spilled out onto the streets for weeks surrounding the holiday. As the big day approached, people kept busy building floats on flatbeds parked along the street. Kids didn’t sleep the night before, windows open, listening to late night hammering along with occasional cuss words their father’s never said when the kids were around. My sister and I could hear our parents laughing while they finished sticking tissue paper into barbed wire forms, decorated our bicycles, and anchored our American flag to the house just to the left of the front door. We heard neighbors practicing their parts on the Tuba, Trombone, or French horn for the next day’s marching band.
In the late fifties, we kids weren’t motivated by overwhelming patriotism. The great wars were over, and prosperity promised a future not previously imagined. We believed in America as we believed in God—it was culturally brewed. Our parent’s souls and our nation’s souls were inseparable. This was a time before America lost its way and political discourse and civility disintegrated. We said the pledge of allegiance every day till school let out in June and then we waved our little wooden-handled flags along the parade route on Independence Day.
This is how I describe our parade day in my memoir, My Father’s Closet.
“My beanstalk father hoisted me up on his shoulders, and we strained our necks looking down the street. For three miles down Tremont Avenue, the sidewalks bustled with kids and their parents wearing red, white, and blue and waving little American flags. Little kids spilled out of their folding chairs into the street. Older kids rode the route to show off their crepe paper and glittered bicycles. We were all looking for the clown truck, a huge semi with open double doors in the back. All along the route a dozen clowns would soon emerge with fistfuls of helium balloons to distribute—one to every kid on the route. I started bouncing eagerly when we saw the distant truck, and dad grabbed my ankle more tightly,
“Whoa there par-dner,” he said, Texas style, “Settle down or you’ll buck off this horse.”
My sister Marsha laughed and began hopping up and down. I grabbed his forehead and leaned over his head until I saw them.
“The clowns are coming!” I shouted. Balloons galore.
After the clowns passed by, everyone on the whole street settled down because in the distance we could see three guys coming toward us. They were young, barely in their teens, wearing soiled and torn Revolutionary War uniforms. The guy on the left had a bandage around his head, caked brown with dirt and blood. He played a steady solemn beat on a leather drum. The middle soldier waved a flag with thirteen stars in a circle frayed and pockmarked by bullet holes. The one on the right played, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” on his tarnished Piccolo. My father wiped his eyes with one sleeve, and beginning to cry in earnest. He hoisted me over his head and handed me to mother so he could pull out his handkerchief. Every year the parade started in this way, and every year he cried.”*
My father had a complicated relationship with America and the war. He was a proud veteran but felt guilty that he didn’t serve overseas in combat due to a vision problem. He found his sexual identity becoming clear while working and serving with fellow soldiers in New York City, and his difference weighed him down. He served in a military that would have given him a dishonorable discharge, or sent him to a psychiatric treatment center, if they had even suspected that he was gay.
Just a few months after Pearl Harbor he wrote in his journal, “God, can’t you come up with something better than this?” referring to war and its devastation. By the early seventies, he went to the hometown parade wearing a pair of leather Birkenstock sandals with large peace symbols on them. As a child I never understood dad’s tears on the happiest day in our family holiday traditions. Today, writing this down, I feel empathy for his mixed-up feelings about the nation. I feel proud that our nation has so often stood for freedom, safe harbor, and justice for the oppressed in the world. And I feel ashamed that we so quickly shun and oppress those whom we fear. This week we closed our borders, engaged in military actions that killed civilians and sent even more refugees fleeing for their lives without bearing responsibility for these actions. Like batterers, national leaders place all blame on their victims while asserting their right to privilege and power.
As I sit by the route of my home town parade here in Ashland Oregon this year, I will experience my father at my side. I too will be overcome by gratitude for this nation’s vision and ideals and feel sadly powerless to turn us back toward them. Susan Johnson writes, “I never met an emotion that didn’t make sense.” This year that emotion is expressed by tears.
Portions of this blog are copy write protected excerpts from My Father’s Closet
I spent my childhood Decembers in the dark, dank, basement of our Ohio family home. I was watching my father make intricately designed silk-screen print Christmas cards. Years before he married my mother, his journal (1939) began with a Christmas card list. He’d only dated my mother Alice once, but her name was at the top of his list that year, foreshadowing their marriage.
Spending December in a concrete block basement sounds gloomy, right?
It wasn’t. My father welcomed my older sister and me to stand near him and watch him work with a little fine carving tool to cut green print stencils. Out of nothing came carolers, tree-lined lanes, a reindeer prancing.
He let us into his secretive world during the month of December. Once the stencils were adhered to the silk screen we could carry each freshly inked card from the workbench to a card table and lay them out to dry. Many times this ritual was repeated with several colored overlays.
He kept up this ritual for twenty years, until the year my sister’s baby was dying and the whole family fell into chaos. (Read the chapter on Stephanie in My Father’s Closet. ) I was already grown and out of the house that year.
Right about now, the second week of December, I yearn to be back in the basement with my father. Here’s a bit more from the chapter called, “Our New Basement” from the memoir:
“Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the basement came out of its doldrums and entered the cheerful spirit of the holidays–and so did my father’s alter ego. Dad posted an invisible welcome sign outside the basement door. We were hired on as elves to work at the McClintock family Christmas card factory.
In the month before Christmas, we got a whole year closer to Dad. He called us “his girls.” We got to be alone with the crazed genius mixing his concoctions in the basement. We were his co-creators, left to smell the ink and his cologne and see him smile–big broad smiles that were so fleeting at other times. As winter days darkened, the basement and my father came alive with light and joy. The old dingy place was transformed, and so were we.”
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 c/o 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”
(Research by The Williams Institute found as many as six million American children and adults have an LGBT parent.)