Strapped in my stroller, well into dusk, my mom stands behind me gripping the handle. The colors of Disneyland rides are streaked like a photo whose camera lens has been set on a long exposure. Blurry streams of color are all around me. Sounds of engines that power the rides, and music that accompany the attractions blend with kids screaming in joy. My dad, brother Johnny, and sister Shelly are on the ride Mom and me are parked in front of. Because I was only two years old at the time Johnny and Shelly claim there is no way I could remember that far back. Imagined or not, it’s the only image I believe I have of a past life in California, when my family was whole.
So much happened the first few years of my life, beyond walking and talking. Most significant, my parents divorced by the time I was two. Each was in and out of my life, in a series of dramatic snapshots. Their break-up was ugly therefore I don’t have charming family stories that have been handed down to my siblings or me. The first few years of my life my parents were deciding if their marriage was over. It was a painful dark time. In the end they realized they weren’t meant for each other, not meant to last a lifetime together. Both my parents did their best to keep from revisiting that part of their life. For decades their history together was closed and mostly buried.
As an adult and mother it was important to know how and why things went wrong. Raising my own children I realized how important it was to know where I came from, to know my past. (Making choices in my life was often difficult when I wasn’t grounded with a firm image of where I had come from.) I could no longer walk around an empty space I called my history. I had to find a way to build it, walk through it and get to the light on the other side. I made a concerted effort to piece together the beginning puzzle of my life. I dredged up the past and pasted together what I could. I gathered bits of family history from stories I’d heard from aunts, uncles, grandparents and some I’d heard from my parents through the years. They all had their own renditions it was often hard to tell which ones got it right. Patching together my early years I searched for clues to help me understand where things went wrong. Most importantly I wanted to keep my new family whole and not repeat the same mistakes with a new generation.
Digesting the stories I discovered parents are reflections and products of their upbringing, extensions of our mothers and father’s. My mom and Dad honored their fathers no matter the circumstance, inevitably directing them down paths they might not otherwise have chosen themselves. My parents were private about their history. Most of my upbringing they were more about focusing on survival. Neither had been big on advice but when I got married my mother gave me rare sound advice. She said, “Take the best from your father and take the best from your mother. Put those qualities into your marriage, your home and your children.” Like a rarely seen prophet she had appeared with her deep statement. I was touched that she wanted to infuse wisdom on my important day but the deep-rooted meaning didn’t resonate until years later. So much had been wrong and dysfunctional in her life, in mine, and in her marriage to my father. What she wanted for me and my future family was for the crazy ride of a life to stop, she wanted everything to be right for me.
I wondered for so long, did my parents divorce because my dad was gay? Nothing had ever been obvious in our family history. By the time I reached my 20’s and 30’s I knew my dad was gay but it was always so difficult to broach any subject concerning our past or it’s taboo intricacies. In my forties I finally gained some clarity. In some vague form, my father probably was gay when he married my mother. Times as they were any gay tendency was buried deep with little understanding of what it meant. For my father the feelings never went away but resurfaced later. It became a soothing answer for him after my parent’s nasty break-up. But that comes later.
Looking deep into the eyes of my parents, as a young couple in their late teens, and newlyweds thereafter, I can imagine them drawn together. I believe my parents were once in love. I now realize what went wrong broke both of their hearts.