My family is complicated and large and mostly dead.
Some of those deaths hit harder than others, which is probably wrong to say, but I’ve never been super worried about saying things right.
One of those deaths was my uncle Freddie. I was seven when I first met Freddie and Lesley.
Before they arrived, Mom pulled me aside and made me sit on our yellow couch and announced in her fake-calm-mom voice as she lit a cigarette, “Carrie, you need to understand that Uncle Freddie and Aunt Leslie are unconventional. And we are not going to make them uncomfortable by talking about things that might not make sense to you.”
I had no clue what “unconventional” or any of that meant. I asked.
“Well, they ride motorcycles,“ Mom started. “And they don’t care about money. Also Leslie’s Jewish like Aunt Maxine.”
Unconventional sounded pretty cool.
She took in a huge breath, dragging on her Marlboro Light before setting it on our shiny, gold crab ashtray. “They also love people who are boys and girls.”
“Aren’t they married to each other?” I asked.
“And isn’t Leslie a girl?”
“And isn’t Freddie a boy?”
Mom paused. “Sometimes he is and sometimes he isn’t.”
And that was it; I was only seven, but I got it. I had a cousin who was male and only liked guys. I had another cousin who was a woman and only liked women. This was just people having the potential to like anyone, which didn’t seem like it deserved such a big word as ‘unconventional.’
“Cool,” I said, which was my default answer for everything ever, basically, but especially things that I didn’t want to talk anymore about because I had other important things to do like look for Big Foot in the backyard and stuff.
Mom wasn’t quite ready to let me go. She took her cigarette again and tapped imaginary ashes into the crab.
“Plus, they are from Florida. Florida is not New Hampshire,” she said as she kissed my head and finally let me off the couch and back into the woods.
FLORIDA IS NOT New Hampshire
I didn’t know much about Florida except that it was where all my rich friends went on February vacation and that it was sunny and flat there. I didn’t know anything about LGBT laws and legislation. I know now that in the beginning of the 1970s in Florida people could be prosecuted for having anal or oral sex. I know that by the late 1970s Miami passed legislation saying it was illegal to discriminate against people who loved other people of their own sex. But back in the 1960s, Florida had a witch hunt. A senator created The Purple Pamphlet, hoping to “shock Floridians into accepting its program.”
People like Freddie and Leslie were riddled with disease, according the pamphlet and the people who made it. Freddie and Leslie had to worry about meeting new people because they didn’t know if the people they were meeting were going to be full of judgement and hate.
I didn’t know that.
I was seven.
When I met Freddie and Lesley, I just knew they were from Florida; they could love men and/or women, and that my mom and dad loved them both with all their hearts. They burst into our living room to a plethora of squeals and hugs, and cheek kissing. They were wearing leather, younger than the rest of my aunts and uncles, jazzy and full of energy. Freddie lifted me into the air. Leslie kissed my cheeks and we played piano together.
The next day, she gave me all of her sheet music because she said, “That’s what artists do. We share. We encourage. We celebrate each other.”
“I’m not a musician or an artist,” I said because Mom always said I was smart and a good writer, but not an artist. People blood related to us were not meant to be artists.
Leslie shook her head at me. Her eyes softened. “You already are inside.’
We Celebrate Each Other
I’m not sure if I’ve ever loved any relatives as much as I loved them. They brought joy and music and laughter and thought into our house. My dad was constantly cracking up, hugging Freddie, toasting them both, sharing stories. Mom buzzed around making food, smiling. She even had a Black Russian, her favorite drink that she rarely drank, usually just on New Year’s.
It was so happy. I am, however, pretty sure that this happiness wasn’t always real for them. They were staying at Aunt Rosie’s house to get away from Florida life for a bit. Freddie took some illegal drugs. I’m pretty sure that Freddie’s heart hurt and that hurt would expand and expand until it filled up all of him. He was the youngest son of a poor Portuguese family, the baby by , coddled but also forced to be independent way too early. I’m pretty sure that Leslie wanted to take all that pain away but couldn’t.
In 1977 a woman in Florida (whose name I will not mention) made legislation that kept gay people from adopting kids. She called it Save Our Children.
In 2019 most of the best parents I know are gay. No offense to my straight friends. Some of them are great, too.
I remember one night asking Leslie if they were going to have babies.
“No,” she said. “There’s already too much hate in the world.”
Everyone else in the world except me seemed to want babies, so this was super shocking. Too much hate seemed like a great reason though.
“If Mommy and Daddy die will you take me though?”
“Oh, sweetie.” Leslie started to cry.
Mom looked panicked. Freddie threw open his arms. He was wearing mascara. He was the first person I’d ever seen with stubble and mascara.
He hauled me into his arms and said, “I would be so honored.”
“We’d be honored,” Leslie said, joining the hug and I was smooshed between these two bodies that were so beautiful to me. I didn’t know think of them as boy and girl or maybe-boy and maybe-girl. I thought of them as Freddie and Lesley. I thought of them as love.
I thought of them as love
In the late 1970s, Florida made a task force to stop anti-gay discrimination. One of the things they were trying to stop was the Bush-Trask amendment, which was part of a Florida appropriations bill. The amendment stripped all the state funding to any Florida university or college that allowed/supported LGBT student organizations. It passed, but was eventually deemed unconstitutional.
There are many LGBTQA people in my family. Back then, not everyone was out. I can’t even begin to understand how hard it was for Freddie and Leslie to deal with that hate, with gender questioning. Current me still can’t understand their ability to love anyone and everyone and how that ability was met with discrimination and hate so often, far too often.
One December after they’d gone back to Florida, Dad got a phone call. I’m not sure who it was from, but I remember the house went so silent, too silent. Mom stood there next to him, hand on his shoulder, other hand covering her mouth and while I watched, he crumpled, just bent over at his waist. The phone was still in his hand and he was nodding his head, but not really saying words until finally, “Okay. Okay. Thank you.”
Mom hung up the phone for him and pulled him into her arms, motioning for me to join their hug. Daddy’s body shook. Mom’s body shook.
And when I asked, finally, what it was that was making them cry? When I asked them that, my body shook, too.
He had a motorcycle accident that made no sense. Leslie said he’d been very depressed and she tried to get him not to go out. He didn’t listen. He went out. He ran into a tree at a high rate of speed. A single-vehicle accident. Nobody else was hurt.
He was gone.
All his fun and passion, his hugs, his dark skin, his leather clothes-cool, his mascara and stubble and thick black hair wasn’t there anymore. For years, until he died, too, my dad’s voice broke when he said Freddie’s name.
Leslie was gone too.
I never saw her again, never played piano with her again, never hugged her and Freddie’s strong bodies, bodies that they made into what they wanted them to be.
Uncle Freddie missed the Versace era of Miami Beach, where the city was a mecca that celebrated gender and sexuality diversity. The pain of being different got to Freddie way too early. He made it 38 years into this world, and that was all. He never had the chance to go to the amazing drag bar, The Palace. He never got to know the era of South Beach Fabulous in the 1990s. And he never had to see an Orlando gay club attacked in the 2010s.
But, God, I hope he knew that he was loved. I hope he knows now that people are still celebrating and fighting for the ability to be who the hell they are. I hope he knows how hot he looked with that mascara on, so hot that even a seven-year-old noticed, and how much I miss his hugs.
My family is large and complicated and mostly dead, but it is still full of rainbows and kindness, of magnificent hugs and deep worries. And the ones who are still alive are mostly people who care more about loving than judging. I like that about them. I like that a lot.
IN THE WOODS – READ AN EXCERPT, PREORDER NOW!
My next book, IN THE WOODS, appears in July with Steve Wedel. It’s scary and one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Buzz Books for Summer 2019. There’s an excerpt of it there and everything! But even cooler (for me) they’ve deemed it buzz worthy! Buzz worthy seems like an awesome thing to be deemed!
You can preorder this bad boy, which might make it have a sequel. The sequel would be amazing. Believe me, I know. It features caves and monsters and love. Because doesn’t every story?
You can buy limited-edition prints and learn more about my art here on my site.
PATREON OF AWESOME
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WHAT IS PATREON?
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