My relationship with my family changed at my father’s funeral. His wake and funeral were the first all-out extended family things I had been at in at least 15 years.
That last family get-together was Aunt TeeTee’s wedding. I liked her a lot–she was kind to me during the awkward teen years, and it was my first wedding. All was going okay, the typical milling and chatting of a family gathering.
It was seriously marred by a long lost cousin coming up to me and my dad and asking, “Hello, Pat, which one of your lads is this?” I will never forget the look of horror and humiliation on my father’s face, and he was speechless, frozen in this mask of mortification, ears glowing red, his own special “tell” that we liked to tease him about.
I quickly stammered “It’s me, Sheila,” spreading the shame to include the cousin.
I don’t remember anything else about that event, but I know I was never allowed at a big gathering again.
Four weddings came and went, though there was some attempt at negotiation when my first sister got married. The deal was, if I would clad my very butch self in a dress, I could attend.
They would buy the dress, have it made, anything, as long as it was a dress. I did assure them that I had a nice outfit and wasn’t planning to wear jeans and a T-shirt, or make some protest about marriage, though my feminist zeal had no use for such rituals and my lesbian self thought she was never going to get that choice, so all in all it gave me a pretty “fuck it!!” attitude toward marriage. But I still had a sense of family duty and belonging and was willing to go to a day-long drag that I knew I would hate.
But I wasn’t willing to wear a dress.
The back and forth went on for weeks, them not believing that I wouldn’t ultimately cave and wear the dress, and me not really believing that they were going to dis-invite me if I didn’t.
Years after that, my partner and I were invited to my youngest brother’s wedding. I was closest to him and he had always scorned the dress codes of the earlier family weddings.
I remember being so pathetically thrilled. We told everyone and I decided to buy a new suit. Then my brother called and said, “Maybe it would be better if you don’t come to the wedding.” He said it nicely and seemed to feel bad about it, but didn’t really explain and I just wanted to get off the phone so didn’t ask any questions.
When my mom called I didn’t pick up the phone though I could hear her pleading with me to speak to her. I’d never done that to my mom before but I just couldn’t.
It wasn’t till later I found out it was my “on-his-last-legs-with-cancer” dad who had insisted we not come. Their loyalty to Dad included not only doing what he wanted, but not even letting me know how it all went down. It was a friend of my mom’s who told me. Nobody else ever mentioned it.
There were always dinners with my sibs and their kids, and it’s not like my dad was mean to me, and he enjoyed my humour, but only en famille.
He didn’t not like me exactly, but he was seriously embarrassed, and had been since I started my period and didn’t grow out of being a tomboy. My coming out as a lesbian probably confirmed his worst suspicions and my being locked up for it gave me and lesbianism a very special place in the family, that nobody else wanted to belong to.
While I still lived in Ottawa I went for dinner regularly, but not often. I brought my most muted self to the table. It’s not that I didn’t chat and make nice, and I even made myself say the word lesbian once in a while. Nobody complained, they just all stiffened and never asked the next question.
So there we all were in the limo, heading to the graveyard, all five of us kids and my mom, a long drive to the other side of the city. We were all a bit giddy and somebody said something about my dad’s Canadian Tire money, which was a considerable stash that he was so proud of. I said it thought I should get it as every one knew that lesbians had a special spiritual connection to Canadian Tire–I always saw them in there.
The car erupted in riotous laughter. Then my brother, who I was never close to, said, “I don’t know Sheil, Dad was kind of traditional–I’m sure he’d want his oldest son to have it.”
And more riotous laughter ! It was a typical family-style wisecrack, but for me, a novel sensation. My first lesbian joke with my family where nobody went stiff, where they even responded and laughed, a heady moment on the way to Notre Dame Cemetery.
For the last 20 years, I have brought up the subject of queers whenever I can, and joke at will. My current favorite witticism is that we have gone from “the love that dare not speak it’s name” to one which will not shut up, and it always gets a laugh, a smug “in the loop” laugh because they now know who Oscar Wilde is.
The weddings all resulted in children in good old Irish-Catholic style, and three of the nieces have married so far. My partner and I have been invited to all the weddings and are treated more like celebs than skunks at a garden party.
My mother is 92 and lives in assisted living now. On one of my visits, as we waited for the elevator, one of my mom’s pals came along and said, “Hello Susan, which one of your sons is this?”
Talk about a flashback! A second of dread-filled memory, and a regret at doing anything to make her life harder, or feel less comfy in this new place, and so on.
Meanwhile my mom was saying, with a very easy laugh, “No, this is my daughter Sheila,” …slight pause… “She’s from Vancouver.” We all share a knowing little laugh and get on the elevator, which has arrived.