It was five years ago that our nephews, age four and six, summoned me from the kitchen where, while cooking dinner, I strained my ears towards their whispers in the den. What on earth?, I thought, imagining the content of this intense powwow:
How do we change Aunt Wendy’s mind about Transformers? How does the tooth fairy know we’re in New Orleans? What did Papa mean about the hoochie mamas?
They invited me to sit between them on our small red sofa. I thought I would burst.
“Aunt Wendy,” said William. “Me and Wyatt wanna know why you and Uncle George don’t have kids.”
(pictured, I Love My Mother, 2007, acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue)
They stared intently as I explained slowly, while thinking frantically, about George’s sons, André and Jacques.
“Besides,” I continued, “this way you’re the most important children in our lives.”
“Oh,” said Wyatt. “I like that better!”
“What did you think?” I asked.
He shrugged. “We thought Uncle George was too old.”
I grew up in the Deep South, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have children. “Who’s going to want you now?” asked Granny Wolfe when, at age twenty-five, I split with my boyfriend and became, in her mind, an old maid. We followed southern traditions and Sunday School lessons and rarely, if ever, questioned either.
During my senior year of high school I met with my best friends on Wednesday afternoons at Baskin Robbins in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. We dubbed ourselves “The Cones” and wore t-shirts announcing our favorite ice cream flavors, our nicknames for the day. My shirt was chocolate brown, and I was “Rocky Road.”
(pictured, Winning Cakes, 1975, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue, from the collection of the University Art Museum, Lafayette, Louisiana)
Thinking back, I don’t recall conversations about boys or our parents. Instead, we discussed our futures. Lisa, the smartest student at Fort Walton Beach High School, never mentioned kids. She spoke of Law School and a judgeship. Today, however, she’s the mother of two and co-minister with her husband of Fernwood Baptist Church in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina.
However, it was Scarlet who stuck in my head this week as I thought about Mother’s Day. Of the five Cones, she was the most beautiful. Think classic Liz Taylor, ala Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or, better yet, think Evangeline.
(pictured, Evangeline on the Azalea Trail, mid-1970s by George Rodrigue; click photo to enlarge)
Like the others, she was bright, and she was miles ahead of her parents. However, I don’t recall her vocational dreams. Instead, she pursued conceptual goals: independence and happiness.
Scarlet lived with us as another sister in high school. At night, following my shift at the movie theater’s concession stand and hers as a restaurant hostess, we lay on the beach and (BIG CONFESSION) drank from a gallon jug of Ernest and Julio Gallo red wine while (BIGGER CONFESSION) smoking menthol cigarettes. I don’t know what we discussed. I only recall the stars and the friendship. We sought privacy and placed our blanket between the dunes rather than near the shore, avoiding the lascivious spring breakers trolling the beach.
It was sometime in our early twenties that Scarlet declared her homosexuality. I was clueless, even after the years we shared the same bed and the same beach blanket. We were each away at college, Scarlet in Pensacola and me in San Antonio, when she told me over the phone.
The following week, while driving through Yellowstone National Park on a family vacation, I broke the news.
“Everyone, I have an announcement. Scarlet is a lesbian.”
I pulled out a postcard and suggested we write words of love and support.
“What is she?” asked Grandma Helen.
“She’s gay, Grandma. She likes girls,” explained Cousin Kelly.
“That’s nice, Honey,” replied Grandma, writing those same words on the postcard.
“How does she recognize other lesbians?” asked Kelly.
“I asked her that!” I exclaimed. “She said it’s easy, because everyone’s wearing the same type of shoes.”
“I’m engaged,” wrote Kelly on the postcard. “Interesting about the shoes.”
“Whatever makes you happy, Dear,” wrote my mother….
….who, like my sister Heather and me, felt a bit neutral, wondering if it was a phase, but knowing it couldn’t be a phase, because, as Heather noted recently,
“Scarlet was never a phase kind of gal.”
Uncle Jack, driving this truck full of women through the wilderness, wisely remained quiet.
(pictured, circa 1985: Grandma Helen (mother of Mignon and Jack), Heather (mother of William and Wyatt), Mama (mother of Wendy and Heather), Uncle Jack (father of Kelly and Chris), Cousin Kelly (mother of Justin and Molly), Scarlet (Mother of Luzia), Me; click the photo, if you dare, for a closer look at the Dynasty fashion-)
Like Reverend Lisa Wimberly Allen, Ph.D., Scarlet Bowen pursued a higher education, earning her doctorate in English from the University of Texas at Austin. Today she’s the Director of the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Queer Resource Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.
She’s also a mother to her young daughter Luzia, raising her with the kindness and wisdom of a parent heralding from the Bible Belt, while embracing the conviction of her authentic path. Her bravery and background, a liberal and conservative reality, make Dr. Scarlet a remarkable, sensitive, and tolerant mother…. and citizen. Furthermore, I am confident that she joins me in describing Reverend Lisa in the same terms. Either way, it’s broad-mindedness born and bred in the Deep South. Go figure.
(pictured, The House Where My Mama Was Born, 2009, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue)
And me? I hardly remember my dreams. I pursued Philosophy, Math and English and assumed I would teach. Art History was too obvious, too easy after life with Mignon, and it was several years before I took it seriously.
At age forty-five, I’m the only Cone without a child. Do I have regrets? Yes, more than a few. Yet today, as I rubbed George Rodrigue’s aching arm when he paused at his easel; as I opened a Mother’s Day card, “To Aunt Wendy,” signed with love from William and Wyatt; and as I wrote this post, thinking about the wise mothers among my family and friends, I understood completely that,…
….. even with regrets, I wouldn’t change a thing.
-How did George Rodrigue’s mom feel about his paintings? Find out in “The Artist’s Mother,” this week at Gambit, linked here–
-for more art and discussion, please join me on facebook–