In Lieu of Flowers By Suzanne Lewis
Marin County 1992
From the couch, my parents give me their full, undivided attention. Dr. Groszmann arranges her thick blonde hair in front of each shoulder, crosses one leg over the other. She nods from her armchair, gives me her you-can-do-this expression. I shuffle three pages of notes, hands trembling. Eyeing the cassette recorder to make sure it is revolving, I take a deep breath as if perched on the high board. “The main thing I want to discuss today is my sexuality. It’s something I’m sure we all know but we never talk about, and that’s that I’m gay.”
My parents, who have just flown out from Austin to my home in the Bay Area, have never set foot in a psychologist’s office. They seem comfortable on the couch, Daddy in his cords and Orvis vest, Mom in a floral blouse and khaki skirt. Her black purse rests near her feet like an obedient Scottish terrier. They are, after all, doting grand-dog parents. On every trip out here, my father makes a habit of saving his airline crackers for my dog, Keeffer, exemplified by the white hairs stuck to his sweater vest.
It was Dr. Groszmann’s suggestion that I “come out” to my parents when she discovered we’d never talked about the elephant looming in the room. Being open and direct wasn’t something our family was comfortable with. It wasn’t the Southern way. I made this observation the first time I moved to California. Texas friends who knew I was lesbian never inquired about my love life or partner, whereas those in more progressive California always did.
Having already spent four years in therapy, I understood the benefits of airing vulnerable feelings, but the thought of actually having this conversation with my parents was akin to scheduling brain surgery. Instead of calling, I wrote, requesting they book a flight for something that had come up in therapy, which I needed us to talk about. Mom had quickly responded with a letter: “Rest assured we could not love you any more than just the way you are and we will be there next month.” Still, I agonized, making notes, recording myself, rehearsing with Dr. Groszmann and pulling out my lower back. During a bodywork session, my practitioner’s hands felt warm against my skin as if her fingers were guiding a planchette, interpreting an Ouija board. “I’m wondering if you’ve been feeling unsupported?” she asked. I’d never associated a cranky lower back with buried emotions. My eyes welled up. “The body doesn’t lie,” she said.
I glance at my notes and continue. “It’s taken me twenty-two years to tell y’all this, and to tell you directly because it’s something I was ashamed of for a really long time.” My parents nod, listening intently. I’m thirty-eight years old, but at the moment, I feel fourteen. The sunlit room is a comfort—one I’ve confessed my darkest secrets to for a little over a year. In particular: the difficulties of my nine-year relationship with Hallie.
My father re-crosses his legs. I carry on as his foot jiggles. “What I’ve discovered in therapy is that not talking about being gay has undermined a lot of the things I do. When you’re ashamed of yourself, it colors everything.” I stare at the typewritten pages that I’ve worked on all month. Words I longed to say since kindergarten but didn’t have the language to convey. It would’ve been easier to pen a letter, but as Dr. Groszmann said, there were no guarantees we’d get the answers that a dialogue would kindle. “I don’t blame you for my sexuality,” I continue, “but I don’t feel we can have very meaningful conversations by ignoring the issue.” I flip over page one, relieved to have made it that far. Push up the sleeves of my striped nautical top. Now that I’ve actually said the word, gay, it takes everything in my power not to fly off into a panic.
My mother clears her throat. She leans around Daddy and softens her eyes. “We just assumed that you knew we knew this, and it really hasn’t been a problem with us.” She brushes her skirt, smiles at me.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” my father drawls, directing his attention to Dr. Groszmann. “We never have been too concerned about the situation. You know in the floral business we work with a lot of sweet, good guys. We don’t understand it exactly.”
My father was an anomaly in an industry teeming with homosexuals. He may be remembering the three designers they lost to AIDS, and I wondered how that has affected him and my mother. I feel ambivalent about being compared to a gay man, but I’m grateful that my parents have worked alongside men like Reynolds for over forty years. I assumed they’d witnessed these guys’ struggles and experienced their goodness. Daddy stretches one arm over the back of the sofa, cocks his head at me. “Long about the time you moved off to Dallas, we went to a minister friend a few times, and he made us feel okay, and we thought about all that a long time ago. We’re happy that you’re with someone.”
“Back then,” my mother chimes in, “I had about a three-minute phone conversation with my Cousin Charles, who was a psychiatrist, and he said, ‘Mary, there are so many things that could be so much worse,’ and I knew that was true. His words eased my mind completely. I thought if I’d had a deformed or mental child, I don’t think I could’ve handled that.”
“Well, and Charles knew,” Daddy carries on. “He worked with the psycho people.”
At least the American Psychiatric Association has discontinued listing homosexuality as a mental disorder.
Our conversation brings me back to All Saints and decorating for a wedding. At age ten, my job was to tack the white satin aisle cloth into the crimson church carpet. JimmyAllen nestled candles in the candelabrum. He lit each wick, snuffed it with his pew brown fingers so they kindled easily for the service. While my father swagged smilax across the altar, Mom created pink pew bows.
“Didn’t I tell you not to light those yet?” Daddy lashed out at Jimmy. In my father’s eyes, Jimmy could never do anything right. I didn’t know how Jimmy tolerated being his scratching post. He must have been used to this behavior from white men, I told myself.
It seemed like Reynolds was who Daddy should be upset with since he called in sick when they had three weddings and three funerals. My father was stuck by himself making all the centerpieces, bouquets, and casket sprays.
“Those homosexuals have so many problems,” my mother griped.
I didn’t understand the word homosexual but my ears perked up at the word “sexual.” It embarrassed me when she said it, and I thought it meant something dirty. I worried about and wondered what Reynolds’ “problems” were.
“Damn S.O.B.,” my father said. I knew what S.O.B. stood for. Daddy called the delivery man that for leaving the truck on empty. Why did my parents say such hurtful things about Reynolds?
I strolled down the aisle pretending my father was decorating my wedding. He’s looked forward to that day since I was born. Gardenias perfumed my bridal bouquet. Eight bridesmaids flanked the preacher, beaming. Instead of a dress, I wore a robe with a train as long as Julie Andrews’ in The Sound of Music. I had trouble picturing the groom, so I imagined my Ken doll dressed in a tux.
Dr. Groszmann tilts her head slightly, as though she can’t quite believe my father’s way with words.
“We accepted it years ago,” Daddy says. “There’s no concern because there’s nothing we were going to be able to do about it.” He raises his brows, shrugs. “We just adjusted.”
My parents have always treated Hallie like their daughter-in-law. Every few weeks our mothers had phone conversations, leaving me to wonder if they acknowledged us as partners or just roommates. Growing up in an evangelical family, Hallie’s stepfather had kicked out her gay brother; and because she’d wrestled with her own sexuality, Hallie once considered a monastic way of life. Up until now, neither of us had openly discussed our sexual orientation with our families.
“So,” Dr. Groszmann says and shifts in her chair, “how did you know Suzanne was lesbian?”
I cringe at the word, getting swept back to junior high—lezzie handshake, lesbo, gross, wanting my parents to protect me. I could’ve easily admitted that so-and-so called me a nose picker or chubby, but I didn’t know how to divulge I had a crush on my female teacher and thought I might be lesbian. No wonder I broke out with a raging case of acne in the seventh grade. My body knew something was up long before my head did.
“She had girlfriends she was close to,” Mom says. “She dated boys some, but I thought to myself, she’s not very crazy about guys and is so fond of some of her girlfriends.”
“She was a little tomboy type growing up,” Daddy adds. “Played baseball well and could kick a spiral football.”
I wonder if Mom still blames my father for teaching me “tomboy” things. Does she think he caused me to be lesbian? (But I don’t bring it up).
Mom clears her throat again, a recognizable three note ditty. I could detect the clearing anywhere and pinpoint her whereabouts. Her meringue stiff hairdo has been perfectly coiffed for their trip. In Marin County where most women refrain from a highly teased bouffant, my mother stands out like a royal flycatcher. I wanted us all to blend in. She folds her hands in her lap, tightens her lips, then addresses Dr. Groszmann, “R.A. and I completely accept Suzanne, and it doesn’t bother us in the least.”
I skim my notes with shaky hands, not wanting to omit anything. Self-conscious of sounding child-like, I strive to lower my voice. “Well, it came up in here that I felt like I’d disappointed you and I was a disgrace.” I raise my brows at Mom.
“Oh, no.” Daddy winces. He pinches his nose, a nervous habit that looks more like he’s picking it.
I soldier on, voice quivering. “When I first realized I was gay, I didn’t have a support system. I didn’t have any other gay friends I could talk to. I was trying to make up for it by being the best in everything. If I could be famous, I thought, then it wouldn’t really matter what I was.” My notes grow blurry as I blink back tears. “But that hasn’t really worked out.”
Dr. Groszmann’s painted red toes peek out from her Birkenstocks. I imagine my mother thinking that toes should be hosed and concealed in dressy pumps. She has refrained from commenting on my favorite 501s. The Levi’s are baggy and comfy with just the right fade. I take a deep breath, thankful for Dr. Groszmann and her positive energy that sustains me.
“In the outside world, I lead a double life and that’s not easy. You get so many negative messages. I just want to be able to talk about my relationship with y’all. It gives our connection more depth and meaning.” I grapple with my most pertinent question and fold my papers in half. My face flames as red as the O’Keeffe poppy mounted on the office wall. “So, way back then, did you know my inner ear and anxiety attacks were related to my breakup with Onie?”
“I guess we figured that,” my father says, sucking his teeth, frowning.
My throat aches. A siren wails off in the distance. The camphor of eucalyptus sharpens the room. “Well, see, I was really troubled then because I didn’t have anyone to talk to, and I assumed y’all were ashamed of me because no one ever mentioned I was gay.” Mom ahem-ahem-ahems, the light in the room changes. “I hated myself for being gay. In fact, I would’ve done anything not to be gay.” I would’ve taken a pill, I want to say. There were times I even considered taking a lot of pills. My nose gets that tingly feeling from holding back tears. Why did you hang me out to dry was what my mind was thinking, but my mouth said, “I reacted with what I now know was anxiety and panic attacks. I had sort of a nervous breakdown.”
“Well,” my father irons the arm of the sofa. “We didn’t mean to make you feel bad about yourself.”
“I was afraid I had a brain tumor.” How could you have not said anything?
“We just didn’t know how to talk about it,” he says, rubbing his fingers together.
“I know. Me neither.” Y’all were the adults I want to say. Y’all were supposed to guide me. I’m pissed at my parents. I’m angrier with myself for being lesbian. I haven’t truly understood the losses I’ve experienced—loss of feeling normal, loss of fitting in, of not having a traditional marriage with children, of not feeling honest and authentic, loss of being true to myself for so many goddamn years.
“You know,” my father addresses Dr. Groszmann, “we’ve been very fortunate to never have had any trouble with her. Other kids were out hell-raising, driving wild.”
While Onie and I were going down on each other behind my bedroom door, I think.
Daddy sermonizes with his arms. “They were having all night parties, no telling what all.”
“I encourage you to speak directly to your daughter,” Dr. Groszmann reminds him.
My father rakes his fingers through his wavy white hair. He kneads his neck, eyes me.
“Well, I mean, we’re very satisfied.”
I sit on the edge of my chair, scuffling through my notes. “I’ve been trying to protect y’all by not talking about it.” The room grows silent except for the tinkling wind chimes. I yawn, trying to staunch the tears.
“We understand you wanted to tell us face to face,” Daddy says. “We have to learn how to respond. We worry more about you being lonely or alone and what will happen to you when we’re gone.” He keeps rubbing his fingers together, his eyes well up. The wind lifts the blinds, clinking them against the window.
Dr. Groszmann tips forward. Her chair squeaks. “It looks like you’re feeling emotional.”
“Oh, I don’t know, really.” My father’s voice grows urgent. He uncrosses his legs. “I’ve got sensitive feelings. I’m not good at saying how I’m feeling. I just worry about her as we get on.” He keeps rubbing his fingers, wearing the emotions in the family. Mom remains silent, the Edgar Bergen of the operation, the man behind the man. “I just don’t think there’s any problems between Suzanne and me that are real,” Daddy says, his eyes glistening.
Dr. Groszmann tilts her head. “Is it hard to find the words to express how you feel?”
Daddy shoots me a look. “What’s really too wrong with not talking about it?” He massages both knees. His Dunhill cologne wafts over me. “I know you’re saying we’d have more depth if we talked to one another. I think that we show what we feel.”
I often complained, once I moved away, that he never penned letters like my mother who mailed a missive weekly. One day, for no good reason, I received an astounding bouquet of favorite peonies, roses and stargazers. The enclosure card read, I may not write letters, but I do send flowers. Love, Daddy.
He is, after all, in the business of showing people how they feel towards one another. Flowers had always been our messengers.
“I know, but sometimes in lieu of flowers, I’d like to talk about stuff and remember y’all this way.”
They both nod, attempting to comprehend. “We’ll try a little harder to respond to what we expect you’re looking for.” Daddy pooches out his lips, peers over at me. “But, we don’t talk to you about our sex.” His bushy brows scrunch together.
“I don’t have to talk about sex!” I cross both arms, heave a long sigh. “That’s not what gay is,” I say. “I want to be able to share with you about my relationship, not about our sex. Besides, it makes my relationship with the world a lot stronger. To not be able to tell my friends I’m gay, that’s a big part of me. Otherwise, I don’t build very genuine relationships by hiding stuff.”
I rearrange my notes, allowing a break for everyone. Daddy thrusts out his under lip. Mom plumps up the back of her head, giving her coif a little lift. She has an appointment on Monday to get her hair done.
“Another thing that makes me feel like I’m disappointing you is when Mom harps about the way I dress, not wearing lipstick and make-up. It feels like she thinks I look gay or I’m not feminine enough. So that makes me think she must be ashamed of me. I have to get all dressed up for my mother to cover up what society stereotypes lesbians as.”
“Oh, honey,” Mom lowers her voice, “you’re a darling girl, and I visualize you like your deb pictures and all, how precious you were. I know you can look so cute, and that’s how I’d like you to look all the time.”
“There’s no way you’ve been a disappointment to us,” Daddy puts in.
“Certainly not,” Mom echoes.
My father fusses with his wristwatch. It is still on Texas time and will remain that way. I know Daddy brags about me to his customers, often showing them prints of the national ads I’d created when I worked as an art director. It’s embarrassing to say the least, but I can’t truly blame him. Unlike most of his friends and customers, he doesn’t have photos of my husband or children to show off. He gives me a devious smile. “Why do you think I made such a big deal decorating your deb party? I never really expected to be decorating your wedding. We accept you’re what you are, and what you want to be. We’re not knocking you in any way, shug.”
“Why didn’t you talk about it?” pressures Dr. Groszmann.
“Well, we’ve certainly been protective of her,” Daddy says. “In our families, we just didn’t talk about much. We didn’t grow up that way.” His stubby hands flutter. “We didn’t know how to talk about it. We didn’t know much about it.”
Mom jumps in. “It kind of felt like if she wanted to talk about it, she would’ve brought it up and that she hadn’t…”
That’s chicken, I think.
“Why was it a hard thing to talk about when she was first learning of it?” Dr. Groszmann prods. “Did it seem like too private a thing?”
I never would’ve had the tenacity to keep pushing like Dr. Groszmann did. She isn’t going to let us get away with that drop-the-subject thing.
“Yes, to some degree.” My father uncrosses his ankles, scoots back into the couch. “We knew she’d been in therapy over the years and that she’s sensitive to worry and stress.”
“I read newspaper articles about it,” Mom adds, “but we never researched it. Suzanne’s absolutely the joy of our lives.” She flashes me a loving smile, raises an eyebrow. “I know this may be selfish on my part, but I’d love for you to have your own pretty little house that’s yours.”
I twirl a hank of hair into a knot like the way my stomach is feeling. “But, I’d like for y’all to think of this as a marriage between me and Hallie. If I were married to a man, you wouldn’t want us to live in separate houses, would you?”
Daddy shifts around, tastes his lips. “To think of you and Hallie as a marriage, well, that’s a little different for us.” He tugs on his earlobe. “We understand that, but we don’t put it together just like we are.” He thumbs towards my mother. “But, we can learn to do that. Consider Hallie as your mate.”
Mom clasps her hands, smiles at Dr. Groszmann. “We’re kind of private people and we don’t discuss anything with anybody.” She twiddles with her glasses, adjusting the frames.
Dr. Groszmann bends forward, stretches her neck out. “Would you be willing to open up a little bit, just in terms of your own personal feelings?”
“Oh, yes,” Mom says, bobbing her head. “I think we can do that.”
My father nods, pinches his nose again. “We’re glad you’re finding your way.” He smiles over at me.
“I’m just sorry she feels minority-like,” Mom says. What caused her to be this way? I imagine her wishing she could ask Dr. Groszmann. Is it true that it runs in families? My brother has a son who never married. And my mother had a bachelor brother who shot himself. I’ve often wondered if he was homosexual. Mom wipes the corners of her mouth. Her eyes brighten. “Though, it’s great the world is getting a little better.”
My parents have gotten a little better since the time in junior high when Mom said she didn’t want me to be friends with a Jew and my father used the “N” word. Part of the reason they changed was because I held their feet to the fire, but hopefully having a “minority” daughter still makes them think twice about their prejudices. I wish they could say, We’re sorry we didn’t talk about this earlier with you. It must’ve been so painful. We’re sorry for all the suffering you had to go through.
“Yes.” Dr. Groszmann agrees with Mom. “The world is getting better, isn’t it?” She beams a ray of pride my way, glances at the wall clock. “Looks like our time is up.”
Suzanne Lewis is the author of the children’s picture book, A Penguin Named Patience from Sleeping Bear Press. After a career in advertising art direction and commercial photography, she worked as a bookseller for many years at A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books in San Francisco. She’s currently working on a memoir, paints and lives in Mendocino, California.