The summer of my 14th year was an eventful one. It began with a service of sadness and ended with a ceremony of celebration, and in between were days of agony and moments of bliss.
At 1 pm on a warm Monday afternoon, the choir of the First Baptist Church of Mountain City, Tennessee started singing an old hymn called “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” I was seated in the front row next to my father, who put his arm around my shoulder and gently pulled me close to him. I could feel his body shaking as he quietly sobbed.
It was May 2, 1977 and the funeral of my mother had begun.
The service is not etched clearly in my memory. I was still trying to grasp the reality that my mother was gone, and I would never see her again. I was certainly old enough to understand death, and I had been prepared for how her courageous battle against leukemia would end, but when a very young person loses a parent, the shock is intense. I don’t think I have ever fully recovered.
There were a series of speakers, some offering prayer, some giving comfort to the family and one delivering a sermon, but I don’t remember any of their words. I looked at them as they spoke, but my mind was far away, re-living happy moments spent with my mother. I do remember a hymn being sung that had been her favorite. I had always loved the hymn-singing at church, but I could not make a sound as the congregation began singing “My Jesus, as thou wilt. All shall be well for me. Each changing future scene I gladly trust with thee. Straight to my home above, I travel calmly on. And sing, in life or death, my lord, thy will be done.”
I don’t think my father could ever bear to hear the hymn again, as I don’t remember it ever being sung at that church after that day, as long as he was the pastor.
Many years have passed since that warm spring afternoon, and so many people who attended that service are no longer here. My grandmother, my father, three aunts, three uncles and several friends have died in the years since, but all of them live on in my memory, as does my sweet mother. I hope I never forget any of them.
A couple days after my mother’s casket was gently lowered into the ground of the Pleasant Grove Cemetery, the last relative returned to their home in a distant state, and my father and I were left alone. The emptiness fell hard against the walls of our silent home. It was full of ghosts, as memories of my mother were in every room. Her clothes were still hanging in the closet, vials of her medicine were still on shelves in the bathroom and her jewelry was still in the box that sat on the dresser in the bedroom she had shared with my father for 17 years. We began the process of adjusting to life without her, and I think the methods we chose were similar. We both wanted physical intimacy. He needed a woman and I… well, my needs were not as conventional.
Before my mother died, she confided to her sister that my father would not be able to live without a wife. “He has to have someone to share his life and to share his bed,” she said. “Do you think I should pick out someone for him?” My aunt stopped my mother from saying another word and told her that if dad wanted another wife, he’d have to find one on his own.
But my mother knew my father better than anyone. He had a very strong sex drive. As a child I remember hearing my mother giggling with her women-friends and although I was too young to understand the conversation, I was aware that the other women were envious of my mother.
He started looking for a companion right away and was dating within six weeks. And I think he found a wife whose sexual appetite matched his own. My bedroom was across the hall from the room where my father and step-mother slept, but I don’t think they did much sleeping. I’d often hear noises that were odd to my young ears, a rhythmic banging and muffled moaning. And I found birth control pills on the bathroom counter one morning.
Eleanor Holloway was a widow whose husband had been ill for a long while with a serious heart condition, and my mother had died after fighting leukemia for almost a year. Sexual tension had been building up and I think they were like volcanoes ready to explode.
I was also experiencing the sensations of a burgeoning sex drive. A battle was being waged within me, the strong emotion of grief equally matched by the desire for the physical pleasure of intimacy. And my fantasies were not about girls; they were about boys. I was indeed boy crazy and noticed them everywhere, paying attention to their eyes, their faces, their hair and the way tight jeans hugged their bodies. I found it difficult to concentrate on anything else.
I’d had crushes on boys before, and one friend and I had even engaged in innocent sex-play when we were six, but I had never experienced such powerful urges. It was difficult to control. Perhaps my father was having the same problem. When he started dating Eleanor, who soon became his second wife, they spent as much time together as their schedules would allow. Her children were grown, so they could be together at her house in the evenings without being disturbed. Occasionally, Eleanor would come to our house and I’d find them snuggled tightly on the den sofa. One night she was still there when I went to bed about 11. I was awakened very early the next morning, before sunrise, by the sound of a car backing out of our driveway. Had Eleanor stayed all night?
My own desires and fantasies became stronger as the summer went on, and the only release I could find was masturbation. It was like a pressure valve. A dear and wonderful woman named Bulah Vaught was staying with us that summer, doing some cooking and house-keeping, and I remember having to excuse myself whenever I’d feel “that mood” coming on.
“I’m going to take a nap,” I’d say, and she was always surprised when I’d emerge from my room five minutes later with a big smile on my face! It happened almost every day, and being a smart and savvy woman, she must have suspected what I was doing.
In her early 60s, she had never married, and one afternoon I asked her about sex. I was particularly curious if she had ever slept with a man. She did not hesitate with an answer.
“No, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to,” she said with surprising frankness. “There have been men I wanted to sleep with, but there is a moral standard we have to follow. If I was out on a date and the guy mentioned the bedroom, he got a slap in face. Have you reached the age where you are thinking about sex?” I didn’t respond.
The feelings and temptations were confusing, and I didn’t understand what was happening to me. It was something I couldn’t help, but I knew that if I talked to my father about it, he would be angry. I was not familiar with the concept of homosexuality, but did know that none of my other guy friends were fantasizing about each other. Or if they were, it was not something they talked about. I began to think that I must be a bad person. And then a sense of guilt took root in my young soul and I thought that I was not a true Christian, that I had never been “saved.”
Growing up in the Baptist Church as a preacher’s son, I had made a profession of faith and been baptized when I was nine years old. But maybe it wasn’t sincere and I needed to do it again. One Sunday night I walked to the altar and re-dedicated my life, praying for God to take away the sexual thoughts and make me “normal.”
But on the way home we stopped at a service station and a gorgeous young man cleaned the windshield and filled the gas tank. It was raining slightly and I loved the way the drops of water slowly ran down his sculpted face. I could not help staring at him and even had to get out of the car so I could see him more clearly. The fantasies and desires and yearnings were still there. I thought that Satan was tempting me, and it made me miserable. I went to sleep that night with tears on my cheek, still asking for God’s forgiveness. “Please, God, make me normal,” I begged. “I want to go to Heaven, so take these feelings away.”
But “normal” is a human definition and who are we to say what is normal to God. The next morning I woke up expecting to have been miraculously changed, but everything was the same.
A few days later, we had visitors — a family from the nearby town of Bristol who were members of the church where my father had served as pastor in the late 1960s. I barely remembered them, but they had been close to my parents and they had not seen my father since my mother’s death. They had a son who was a year older than me. His name was also Jeff.
Jeff’s parents wanted to talk to my father about my mother and her death, so he and I left the adults in the living room and retreated to my room at the end of the hall. I felt an attraction to him and when he stretched out on my bed to look through a magazine, I had an overpowering desire to touch him. He was on his belly so I sat down next to him and gently placed my hand on his backside, slowly exploring its form with my fingers. My heart was beating wildly and although I knew I should stop, I couldn’t. Surprisingly, he responded by turning onto his side and touching my bulging crotch. I had found someone who understood me! The feeling was euphoric and we didn’t hold back. We spoke the same language without saying a word.
Buttons and zippers were undone and clothes were thrown onto the floor as our naked bodies touched and writhed and grinded into each other. It was the kind of physical and sexual intimacy that only two men can enjoy, and although we were young teenagers, we knew instinctively how to pleasure each other in ways that I’ve rarely known since. It was an intoxicating, thrilling and almost spiritual experience. And we didn’t speak until it was over, when we were side by side on the rumpled sheet, panting and sweating,
“What does this mean?” I asked him.
“It means you’re gay,” he said. “But that’s OK. I am, too. But don’t tell your dad. He won’t understand, and he’ll say it’s a sin. My parents don’t know about me, either. We can’t help how we are, but the grown-ups will try to change us.”
We were still talking softly together when his mother called out for him. We had been in my room for three hours, although for me time had stood still. It was late in the afternoon and they were leaving. We dressed quickly, combed our hair and tried to look innocent. I walked out with them and watched longingly as they drove way. I never saw Jeff again.
The occasional feelings of guilt and confusion continued for a long time, even years, and I struggled to feel comfortable as a Christian, but those few hours with Jeff helped me to start the journey toward accepting my sexuality. I had to leave the Baptist Church to complete that journey and I now define myself as spiritual but not religious.
My father did not have the same sort of struggle. He knew what he needed and how to get it, and he wasn’t burdened with guilt. I do wish that he had been more attentive to me, but I did not resent him for spending so much time with Eleanor. I understood that he missed my mother terribly and was dealing with the loneliness in a way that worked best for him. He proposed to Eleanor in July and they were married in September. A few days before the wedding, Eleanor took me aside for a serious conversation.
“I’m not trying to take the place of your mother,” she said, “but you will have to respect and obey me. You’ve been allowed to get away with a lot and that is going to stop. Things will be different from now on.”
As I listened to what she was saying, I had a feeling of foreboding. The wedding day was a joyous occasion for everyone… except me. My step-mother was not a caring or loving person and the next few years were not particularly easy, but I was biding my time until I was old enough to leave home. The relationship with my father was never the same after he met Eleanor, and it was only after several years, when he was nearing the end of his life, that we became close again. He died in 1991 at the age of 57.
The ceremony was part of the morning worship service on Sunday, September 11, 1977, just a few days before Eleanor’s 46th birthday. My father was 43. The announcement had been made a couple of weeks earlier and the church was filled to capacity. I know now that most of those people thought that my father was marrying too quickly, but he was a beloved pastor and they tried to support him. My step-mother took an active role in the church, but she did not develop close friendships with the members, as my mother had.
Dad and Eleanor had written their own vows, including words for Eleanor’s two children and for me. Near the end of the ceremony, the pastor who was officiating looked at us and asked, “do you, Michael and Peggy and Jeffrey, promise to love and obey Ernest and Eleanor and support them in their marriage?” “We do,” we said in unison, although we hardly sounded sincere.
It took an hour for everyone to file out of the sanctuary and shake hands with the newlyweds, and then they were off on their honeymoon as well-wishers cheered and threw handfuls of rice. I watched the car drive away and realized that dad had not said goodbye. My mother’s sister, my beloved Aunt Ginny, had traveled from Ohio to attend the wedding and she drove me home.
As we sat on the back porch in the late afternoon sun, she talked about the last time she had seen my mother before she died, and how she had offered to pick out a new wife for my father.
“Maybe I should have encouraged her,” Ginny said. “I think she would have found a better one than the one your dad did. I hope you will all be happy, but I have an uneasy feeling.”
She then looked at me very thoughtfully and said that I could talk to her any time, about any thing. “Call me if you need me,” she said. “You are my sister’s son, and I will always love you.”
My mother’s family were never invited to our home after my father re-married, but I spent time with them every summer, and have remained close to them throughout the years. In the late 1980s, when I was finally coming out of the closet, Aunt Ginny was the first family member I told.
“Do you remember when we were talking after your dad’s wedding?” she asked. “Well, I wondered on that day if you might be gay. And it was because of something your mother said to me when I saw her for the last time. ‘Look after Jeffrey,’ she said. ‘He will need a special kind of love and attention. I understand him better than his father does.’ Now I know exactly what she meant. She knew how you were and it didn’t matter. She loved you.”
My father never would have understood my being gay, but I am comforted to know that my mother did. The first summer after she died was a summer of discontent, but I made it through and eventually adjusted to a life without her and to my own sexuality.