Maggie on her first birthday, 1956. I was allowed to demolish that angel food cake on the floor.
There were times as a child when I received no gifts at Christmas, or for my birthday.
You have no idea how hard that is to admit. I want to keep you from blaming my mother, but I cannot.
One thing I never talked with my brother Bill about before he died is that my parents forgot his birthday twice: The year he was three, and the year he turned 16. I never brought up the 3-year-old incident because I wasn't sure he remembered it, and g*d knows I didn't want to add to his burden. The 16-year-old forgetting he absolutely did remember. He waited in the living room all evening until Johnny Carson came on. Then he stood up, said to my parents "I can't believe you fucking forgot I turned 16 today" and walked out the door.
Mama called me in hysterics. I had no comfort for her. He didn't come back until the next night. By that time, my father had gone out and bought him a brand new Beau James custom pick-up. Bill totaled it two months later, nearly dying in the wreck. They couldn't afford to replace it, of course.
He was not a planned child, and there wasn't enough to go around for him. I'm not saying I wish he hadn't been born, and I actually once asked Mama if she would have had an abortion, if it had been available then. She paused for several seconds, then said no. I believe her. Still, he knew he wasn't chosen (as I had been) all his life. What does that do to you? One of the Lesbian songs I loved best during the 1970s was sung by Linda Shear, and there's a section in it:
"There ain't much to be proud of, living pushed against the wall
And I know mistakes can happen
But it's just as well they do
My mama says I was one
And most likely so were you"
When I was 5 through 9, I did get gifts. Usually not what I asked for or really wanted, but I never complained. I was always given at least one doll, although I loathed them and wouldn't play with them. It's what girls got, and in some ways -- dolls, having to wear dresses, keeping my hair long -- Mama didn't listen to me or buck the system. It was the 50s and early 60s. I wanted a Johnny Express, I wanted one of those metal gas stations for little metal cars, I wanted a chemistry set, I wanted a typewriter (did finally get that when I was 15). I was smart enough to know it wasn't being a girl that was the problem, it was how "they" defined girl. Way before feminism or Lesbian liberation, I was wise to their lies. I worry for girls now, who are all too often being told they must want to be a boy if they want to wear certain clothes and play with certain toys. Bullshit, I say.
When I was 11, my older brother had a nervous breakdown, supposedly connected to his diagnosis of epilepsy but since it was the last year of his actively molesting me, I suspect other things were going on. He got taken to a hospital in San Antonio where, after an evaluation by a psychiatrist, he was put into a locked ward. My parents drove the 70 miles there and back every day for two days, until the psychiatrist (Dr. Bailey) told my mother she was part of the reason my brother was mentally ill. She went batshit and refused to go back there.
The next day was my 11th birthday. Mama was too upset to get out of bed. Daddy offered to take me with him to San Antonio, and I declined until he made it clear I would not be allowed in to visit my older brother, I'd have to wait in the lobby. All righty, then. On the way there, he gave me $20 and told me they hadn't been able to buy me any presents, I should get something for myself.
I know that sounds pathetic, and it probably was, but in fact that was a great birthday. The hospital was in downtown San Antonio, and within walking distance was a Joske's with a book department. Daddy gave me no instructions at all about what to do with myself, so I left the hospital, went to the bookstore and browsed for hours. I bought five books (one was a thick adult text on archeology, one was a collection of cat photographs by Walter Chandoha that I still have) and I had enough money left over to eat at a lunch counter, having my first club sandwich and a chocolate shake while I read about Troy.
The next day, Daddy checked my older brother out against medical advice and that was that. I'm guessing they didn't have mandatory report laws about child abuse at that time. I wonder what Dr. Bailey knew.
In September, my older brother started college in Arlington, Texas, living with my uncle and his family in Irving to save the cost of a dorm. He didn't want to go to college, and we didn't have the money to send him, but if he wasn't in college he would be sent to Vietnam. That year, we slowly starved. By the time my 12th birthday rolled back around, I said all I wanted was new clothes for the school year.
My father was working in Brownsville and coming home only once or twice a month. On the way home for my birthday weekend, he stopped at some roadside place and bought me a Poor Pitiful Pearl doll, which was all the rage at the moment. I was 12, about to go into junior high, and he brought me home a doll dressed in fake rags with a plastic teardrop permanently fixed to her face. There was no other money to buy me clothes.
After he left again, Mama went through the box of ancient fabric in the corner of her bedroom, lengths she'd bought years ago and never got around to sewing into anything. She managed to buy a pattern, of an old-fashioned full-shirted dress with no ornamentation at all, and she used blue-and-white gingham to make a dress with it. That was the only new thing I had to wear as I started 7th grade. My other dresses, from 6th grade, were too tight but I squeezed into one on Tuesday, and while I was at school that day, Mama washed the blue-and-white gingham, drying it on the clothesline. On Wednesday, I wrote it again. On Thursday, I wore another too-small dress, and on Friday it was the gingham once more.
I felt like dying.
In that small town (about 1500 people), racial segregation was actually still enforced at school. About 10-12% of the population was white, the rest Latino. All the white kids of a certain age plus about 20 of the better-off, more assimilated Latino kids were put into the "A" class, and all the rest of the Latino kids were in the "B" class. All the teachers and school administrators were white. We were told to never socialize together across racial lines after school, and silently encouraged to play on separate parts of the playground during school hours.
My family was at the rock bottom of the white people. It was our only claim to "decency", being white. But the second week of junior high, I walked past the cluster of white girls who were all snickering at me in my blue-and-white dress. I went to the doors at the end of the school where the Latina girls gathered before class, whispering in Spanish (speaking Spanish at school would get you expelled) and talking about far more interesting things. I joined them, and at first they went totally silent, looking at me suspiciously. But then Alveisa Barrera, who already had breasts, said "You wear that dress a lot."
I answered "My mother made it."
She nodded as if that meant something. She blew a bubble (gum chewing wasn't allowed either) and asked me if I wanted to learn a dirty word in Spanish. I said sure. She taught me chinga, and they all helped me work on my accent, laughing rowdily, until the bell rang. I ate lunch with them that day, shutting up and listening, and after that the white girls had something else to laugh at me about. Something a lot worse than my clothes.
Alveisa, if you read this, I love you.
Still, I didn't know how long I could hold on. So in November, when Daddy came home with yet another offer from his company for us to be sent overseas -- it paid a living wage but was hell on families, and Mama always yelled him down -- I listened to them argue about it for a while. Then I walked into the room and said "I want to go. I want us to go." I didn't even know where it was -- turns out, it was Brazil. But it was an escape route. We'd have money. We'd be in a place where I could start over. I'd be out of reach of my older brother.
My mother looked at me as if I had betrayed her. Which I surely had -- it was the only time I took my father's side against her. He crowed in triumph, and she gave in immediately.
Stonewall happened while we were in Brazil. I read about it in Time Magazine and hid that issue under my mattress, taking it out after everyone was asleep and reading it over and over. I had a place to go where there were other women like me.
I turned 13 in Brazil. I don't remember what I got; it didn't matter, I was following the drinking gourd.
We came back to the States and my father went on to Singapore, our next destination, to start work and rent us an apartment. Mama decided to keep us for the remainder of the semester in Stoneburg, Texas, the tiny town where her mother lived, where she had gone to school. We'd join Daddy in June.
But I fell in love with that town, with those kids. I had roots there, for the first time in my life. I met the girl who would become my first lover, and a boy in my grade, a 6th cousin, confessed to me he was gay. Before school was out, I went to Mama and begged her to find a way so I could go to high school there, in one place, no more moving around. She was washing dishes, I remember, and she stopped, with her hands in the suds, for a long time. Then she said "All right. I'll do it."
I skipped out the back door to tell my friends, overjoyed. I didn't know until ten years ago that this meant she would have to leave my father.
She didn't know how to tell him. She just stopped writing him. She tried to make the money stretch out, because he wasn't going to send home any more after June. We had to move to a broken-down house with no hot water and sometimes no water at all (if the wind didn't turn the windmill). She began having chest pains and didn't tell anybody. On my 14th birthday, she gave me 11 books of Green Stamps, all she had, and told me I could order anything I wanted from the catalogue. I'll never forget the humiliation on her face -- that hurt much worse than not getting a present.
The first day of school, she dropped me and my brother off and drove ten miles to the nearest doctor. He immediately put her in the hospital -- she'd had a massive heart attack. A neighbor picked us up after school and took us to the hospital, where Mama was in intensive care. My Aunt Sarah came up from Dallas and got me in to see Mama, rousing her by shaking her and saying "Maggie's here. You hold on, she needs you."
Daddy had to fly back from Singapore. The doctor told him Mama couldn't move around any more or be left in charge of everything. Daddy was furious. He quit his job and began selling Amway, housetrailers, used cars, or land scams. He was a terrible salesman -- he convinced nobody. She still didn't tell him she had meant to leave him; her failure to pack up and join him was blamed on the heart disease. I didn't put the pieces together until a conversation with him ten years ago. I didn't spill her secret. She was dead by then, and he preferred to live in ignorance.
Going to that high school was the making of me. I began figuring out class, feminism, pacifism, and being a Lesbian there.
I was a wanted child. Mama planned to have me, and did the best she could with me. She was glad I had been born. The last two years, I've spent my birthday alone, but I do have, have had all my life, the fact that Mama wanted me.