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“I am feeling much better.” It was my 104-year-old mother calling. “I know you gave me up for dead; but as who-was-it said, ‘The reports of my death have been exonerated.’”

“I think it was Mark Twain, mom, who said the reports were exaggerated.”

“He’s one of my favorites. I’m almost old enough to remember when he died.”

“I know you’re doing better. Everyone who knows and loves you was so worried. You seemed close to . . .

“Close to nothing good. I had almost given up. Everything seemed hopeless. No matter what I tried didn’t help. Though you should have realized I wasn’t ready to go because every Thursday I still had Anna come over to do my hair.”

“I did notice that and it did give us hope.”

“So now I’m on borrowed time. Not that that hasn’t been true for years. After all, how many people live this long?

“Not that many; and, except for episodes like the one you experienced in April, very few even close to 104 are in such good shape.”

“You call hobbling around with a walker and half the time not knowing what day it is good shape? I’d hate to think about what bad shape would be for you.”

She chuckled at that, which induced a brief spell of coughing, and the laughter as much as anything else was encouraging. Back in April, among other things that had changed for her had been her almost total loss of humor.

“If I ever get to be anything approaching your age I hope to do as well as you.”

“I won’t be around, but we’ll see what you’ll say if you can’t catch your breath after going to the bathroom.”

“Still, mom . . .”

“But that’s not why I called. To talk about going to the bathroom, though I could say a thing or two about that.”

“There doesn’t have to be a reason to call, you should . . .”

“I know, you say, ‘Call whenever I want.’ But I don’t want to interfere in your lives. You and Rona need to live your lives and not be thinking about me all the time.”

In fact, we try to do that, but it’s not always easy being close to her during winters and now living at some distance. “At least,” I keep saying to her, “we’re always in the same time zone and if we’re needed we can be there in just a few hours.”

But not to get into thoughts of that kind yet again, I asked, “So why then did you call?”

“Because I was thinking about Ben. Your father’s brother. Your Uncle Ben.”

“I think I know why.”

“I haven’t thought about him for such a long time. He died so many years ago, poor thing.”

“He wasn’t such a poor thing, mom. He was a gentle soul and came into his own—forgive me for saying it—when his mother died.”

I thought--more death and dying mothers. At this stage of my life, and hers, I suppose this is inevitable.

“Yes and no.”

“Yes and no what?”

“He didn’t exactly come into his own then. A gentle soul, yes, but into his own, no.”

“After his mother was gone didn’t he have his friend Danny come to live with them; and didn’t they . . .”

“They did though no one, not even his brothers and sister ever talked about or acknowledged Danny. Except to make fun of him. Because, they said, he was from Mexico. Not because of the other thing.”

I knew what she meant but asked anyway, “The other thing?”

“We’re too old, the both of us, and the world has finally changed enough so we don’t have to talk this way about such things.”

“I agree.”

“I have been thinking about Ben again this week and Danny, who in fact was a wonderful person, because of what the President said about marriage. Actually, I prefer the way Joe Bitten talked about it—how it begins with love.”

“I agree with that too. How Vice President Biden framed it.”

“It’s not just about what to tell children with two fathers, as Obama said. Though this of course is very important. Ben and Danny didn’t have children. At that time that too would have been impossible. Your Uncle Ben, who was a public school teacher, would have lost his job if Danny was known to be more than his Mexican friend.”

“I know.”

“The girls were talking about this last night at dinner. Before Canasta. How for women—and some of the ladies were Suffragettes—and for colored people, I mean black people, there was no place to hide. No closet. Isn’t that what you call it? The closet?” I nodded, “When we tried to get the right to vote, when they did, there was no place to hide. To be invisible. Want to or not, everyone was on the front lines. Which was very hard. But that also made it good.”

“I’m not following you. Hard but good?”

“Hard is obvious, but as Fanny said yesterday, because we had no choice. We felt we had to get involved. We couldn’t let ours sisters carry the burden alone; and for black people discrimination followed them everywhere and so, want to or not, everyone, even if they didn’t march or say a word about civil rights, they couldn’t just disappear into the background.”

“And for Ben and Danny?”

“They could pretend they were just friends. Housemates after your grandmother died and there was an extra bedroom. Her bedroom. What an awful lie they felt they needed to live. Yes, there was a place for them to go to hide the truth—no one could know for certain what they were by just looking at them. But that truth was just that they loved each other. That was their crime. But in doing that, by lying, they denied to the world who they really were. You would call it their identity. No?”

“I would.”

“And so I was thinking about them since last week when President Obama finally said what he said. What they would have thought. And would if anything have done. There is of course no way to know. Ben died nearly 30 years ago and at that time it took great courage to come out of the bedroom.”

“You mean closet.”

“Yes, yes, and to stop lying about yourself. It was very dangerous to do so. And of course no politician then would have been talked about marriage. Hardly any of them at the time had the courage to say publicly that two men or two women could love each other in that way. It was considered a sickness. To most others, a sin.”

“Sadly true.”

“Again last night, one of the girls, Esther, who knows her religion, asked if any of us knew what Jesus said about same-sex love. Did he consider it a sin?  No one knew. What about you? Do you?”

“Yes, but I prefer you tell me what you and the ladies discussed.”

“That Jesus said nothing, not one word about it. So, Esther asked, why are all those preachers going around talking about homosexuality as an abomination? If their Jesus didn’t have a problem with it.”

“Good question,” I said, “But there is, though, in Leviticus, in the Old Testament, talk about how men lying with other men should be killed.”

“I know something about Leviticus. Number 18, I think Esther said it is. But most of what is prohibited is incest. Admittedly a terrible thing, and it also calls for those who commit it to be put to death. I think it says stoned to death. About this I am hearing nothing. Or about the dietary laws in Leviticus. How come Jerry Falwell isn’t telling his people not to eat shrimp?”

“Maybe because he died about four years ago.”

At this my mother got a good laugh. “I’m not happy he died, but to think about him talking about lobster and bacon makes me laugh.”

“But it does sound to me like a selective reading of the Bible.”

“The word is hypocritical.”

“Yes, that.”

“I’d have more respect for these so-called reverends if, as Fundamentalists, they would speak about incest and oysters as much as they do about homosexuality.”

“They do talk about incest but only when they want to deny women the right to an abortion even if their fathers made them pregnant.”

“We are getting off the subject,” my mother said, “And I am beginning to feel a little tired.”

“So tell me more about what you have been thinking about Ben. Uncle Ben.”

“I’ve been thinking about how when we visited he would sit alone in the sun porch where he had all his books. To sit at the kitchen table with his mother and sister and brothers, where they would make fun of him, about what kind of a man was he to be teaching children. Shouldn’t he be doing something more manly. Which of course was code. And what about all his books. He always, they said, was hiding behind his books. Again, what kind of man did that?”

My kind of man,” I said. “It was Uncle Ben and my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Ludwig, who turned me into a lifelong reader. It’s only because of them that . . .”

“And didn’t you have something of the same problem?”

“What same problem?

“I hate to remind you, but how did your own father feel about your reading?”

“Oh, that. He much preferred to see me playing basketball. I think he was afraid that if, like Ben, I became devoted to books I would turn into a . . . “


“And what are the ladies saying about Obama?”

“About him the girls are feeling very good. To tell the truth they don’t all agree about this marriage business but they do agree that they are very proud of him. It is reminding them why they voted for him. To do, to say these kinds of things.”

“And you?”

“If I’m still alive, I’ll be working hard again to make sure they all vote for him.”

“So Florida . . .”

“Exactly. But I have to run. I mean try to get myself and my walker downstairs for dinner. Tonight I’m sure they’ll want to talk about what that Romney did to that poor boy in high school.”

“I’m interested in hearing that. But go. There’s always tomorrow.”

“Easy for you to say.”

Originally posted to zwerlst on Mon May 14, 2012 at 09:49 AM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA and Community Spotlight.

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