Down to the Crossroads

Every afternoon Grandmother would take a break to “pile down.” That was her term for a short nap, her favorite part of the day. When we were young we were expected to join her.

Sometimes she would sing “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” while my brother and I stifled our giggles. Her voice was a little warbly and a song about a dead goose seemed odd.

Naps were also a time for Prime Minister’s questions, we could ask anything. Once I wanted to know why, if “darn” was such a bad word to use, did so many people do it? Without hesitating she replied, “because they can’t think of the correct word to use.” For the record, I never heard her say darn.

She didn’t take many liberties with language. When a lighthearted mood struck writing a letter or diary entry, she sometimes succumbed to giddy contractions. Phrases like ’twill be good to see you, or ’tis another beautiful day. Other than those reckless moments of abandon, there were only two slang words she used with regularity.

One was dope. It must have been an elastic, catch-all expression like “stuff” that was popular when she was in her teens and twenties. Among other things it’s what she called her homemade chocolate sauce. I enjoyed my friends’  astonished looks when Grandmother served ice cream and asked if they’d “like some dope with it.”

Her other word was chum which was reserved for a select group: her college girlfriends. When she talked about them I sensed they were special people from a wonderful time in her life. The expectation set, I entered Indiana University in September 1968.

It was fun the first two and a half years on campus although I felt lonely and isolated. I was getting by in my friends’ straight world and resigned myself to accepting it as the way life was going to be. There were few context clues in rural Indiana then that a whole subculture existed.

In March 1971 I was stalked by a tall, lanky and creepy journalism student, Harry. Unbeknownst to me, he’d trailed me a couple of months and knew my name, address, hometown and class schedule. To quote Pete Rose on Ty Cobb, he knew everything except my cock size. He found that out too.

Attracted more to the situation than him, I closed my eyes and thought of Fire Island. Nothing much came of that relationship except that he started introducing me around the community. Friendships grew rapidly, many forming on the spot with like-minded gay-boys. I was awakened.

Jim Jordan knew Harry and witnessed the whole pursuit and aftermath. He said mine was not so much a coming out as an explosion. Probably from the relief I felt upon realizing I was the only context clue I needed.  I could just be myself.

The joy I felt was accompanied by underlying sadness. College was a temporary state. In my childhood I’d been through enough school changes, neighborhood moves, and summer camps to know tight bonds can dissipate quickly.

I was a senior after five semesters, on track to graduate early if I went to summer school. Then I came out and it took five more semesters to finish. Separation anxiety caused me to prolong the last year as long as I could.

The fear of losing friends was unfounded. Besides the fun most college kids experience, we were bound by something that changed American culture. While Harvey Milk remained in the closet protecting his job, our generation drew a line in the sand: this is who we are, take it or leave it.

*****

Along with his partner David, my college chum Dale visited San Francisco last week. He’s Grand Marshal of this year’s Boston Gay (plus 5–it’s dizzying how many initials it’s become) Pride Parade. They came to attend the memorial for Charley Brown, the husband of another chum, Mark.

They also were here to celebrate Dale’s 70th birthday, which we did Saturday night at Che Fico.  On Sunday, dinner was at our chum Eric’s house.

Our after-dinner entertainment that evening was to be Joan Crawford’s Humoresque which we’d all seen before. Over David’s spanakopita we shared hazy memories of the film: Issac Stern’s hand double role, the incredible cocktail shaker, the breaking glass. When Joan’s signature face-slapping came up, someone mentioned turning the other cheek.

Seizing a malapropism opportunity, I offered what was really said on the Mount: don’t retaliate just spread your cheeks. The table erupted in childish laughter. Coming up for air, Dale said moments like that were why he’s tolerated me for 50 years.

My whole life I’ve searched for the correct, or incorrect, word to use.

With Grandmother, 1954.

Ode to Noreen and Nila Ann

Based on a recipe that revolutionized, and continues to revolutionize, Thanksgiving.

The five McLaughlin girls, my Grandmother and her sisters, were raised on a farm outside of Kokomo one hundred years ago. My Great-Grandfather Otis (whose in-laws are pictured above in the masthead) insisted they all have post high school educations which was unusual for women in the early 20th Century. Especially in rural Indiana where it’s still rare today. He wanted them to be independent and to be able to support themselves. By 1925 two of them graduated from college, two from beauty school, and one from secretarial school.

All of them married and lived on farms in close proximity. They remained a tight-knit group their entire lives, socializing and traveling together. Church-going was de rigueur though they were not hardcore, fundamentalist types. They were intelligent, gentle, fun-loving people who didn’t have a mean bone in them.

Which was what made the prayers at our large family dinners so bizarre. When we gathered to start the buffet, randomly one of the sisters would throw the challenge to another by saying something like: “Myrtle, will you return thanks?” The recipient would dive in without hesitation, improvise a blessing and then say Amen. The exchange was always unpredictable, rapid fire and direct.

It made me uncomfortable because it felt like people were put on the spot. And I was terrified they were going to pick me. It’s the only time I sensed aggressiveness or rivalry among the sisters.  Maybe it was a holdover from their childhood dining rituals: I’ll get her tonight, I’ll make her say the prayer.

When their daughters became adults they joined in the prayer round robin too. My Mother was never called upon probably because she would not have cooperated. She seemed to be exempt.

Mother’s cousin Nila Ann, on the other hand, was often asked to say grace. It was a way to include her. She was slow mentally and stuck in her routine within the family. She finished high school and had a job as a clerk, but otherwise did not venture too far from home.

There was a lot of family humor and teasing in which Nila Ann tried to participate. But she’d always repeat the same joke when making small talk: “you been working hard or hardly working?” It was followed by her self-satisfied chuckles to help sell the quip. Or maybe she was genuinely amused each time she told it.

Another cousin, Noreen, was more like my Mother. She’d graduated from Purdue, was poised, reserved, and loved to laugh. Her worldliness caused her to her commit the blasphemy of blasphemies: she married a Catholic. But what a hunk of a Catholic. Even at 10 I knew he was worth losing your religion for.

These personal detractions and transgressions were never talked about openly. The sisters firmly believed if you can’t say something positive say nothing at all. At family gatherings compliments flowed freely for everyone’s cooking. Nila Ann would be praised for her fruit cocktail and jello salad.

Noreen showed up one year with a dish that had a lasting impact. She received kudos that day and from that Thanksgiving on because, thereafter, someone would always make her version of Cranberry Relish.

Her secret was to include diced celery and toasted pecans. The refreshingly cool taste of the celery against the tartness of the cranberries works perfectly. I’ve played with adding apples, oranges, or pears but the sweetness takes away from the cranberry/celery mojo. Usually celery plays the Thelma Ritter role, the supporting part. In this recipe it shows star quality.

This year Kathy and I visited our friend Linda who is in the hospital. Linda loves Thanksgiving so I prepared a traditional menu to take to her. Kathy implored me to keep it healthy which resulted in making cutbacks–somewhat on the butter, significantly on the sugar. For dessert I got out the ice cream maker and we had the world premiere of Sorbet a la Noreen: a cranberry ice garnished with pecans and celery.

The seismic activity felt last Thursday was the McLaughlin women turning in their graves. That an offspring of theirs would prepare Thanksgiving dinner and not bake a pie was just too much for them.