By Jeffrey L. Carrier
I have always thought that a memoir should be written by someone who was living a very exciting life, someone who was a brilliant writer, an expert on world affairs and domestic politics, an intellectual, a politician, teacher, a poet or an accomplished performer or singer. I am none of those things. My life has been extraordinarily ordinary. The half-way point of my life passed long ago and I haven’t held office, raised a family, made a lot of money or become well known. I haven’t even had a successful relationship. But I have been in love, held down a series of jobs, owned homes, traveled a bit, been happy and been unhappy.
No one knows my life better than me. The memories I’ve accumulated will die with me unless I write them down, so while my memory is still reliable and before I forget, I have made a record of what I have seen and what I have felt and what I have thought. I’ve also written about some of the people I’ve known, people who have played a role in making me the person I am today… friends, relatives, lovers and a movie star!
I was born in the proverbial buckle of the Bible Belt, the only son of a Baptist preacher and yet I grew up to be a gay Democrat. How could that happen? As I approach my 60th birthday, I still don’t know the answer to that question, but my life has unfolded in a way that seems very natural to me. Perhaps it was always my destiny.
As a child in a small town, many problems of the world were unknown to me. I did not know that people were treated differently because of their skin color. As I was growing up, I was not exposed to racism, but it must have been there, under the surface. I did not hear the “N word” until I was in the third grade. A very pretty Black girl was in my class and one day I overheard some other students taunting her and calling her that terrible name. The teacher must have heard, but she said nothing.
I did not know what the word meant and when I got home from school that day, I asked my mother. She looked at me with a combination of anger and surprise, but then she took me in her arms and started singing softly.
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.
And then she said that if Jesus loves all children, no matter what color their skin is, we should, too. I have never forgotten her words.
There were a few Black students in my high school. They were the star athletes, and very popular. I wish I had gotten to know them. I did get to know a Black family who attended our church. Clarence and Martha Lee were wonderful people and they had two darling children, Lynetta and Daniel.
Martha was member of the choir and my father loved her voice, a rich and warm contralto. She was every bit as good as Mahalia Jackson, and dad would often ask that she sing a solo during the worship service. She always chose a negro spiritual, with her husband accompanying her on piano and harmonizing. She would belt out those songs with a big smile on her face and the chorus of “amens” was deafening! Her favorite was It’s Gonna Rain and I loved to watch my father as she sang that rousing song. It was not easy for for him to sit still. He wanted to jump out of his chair, and start shouting!
They seemed to be loved by everyone in the church, although I do remember hearing one ugly comment. One Sunday, as everyone was leaving after the benediction, an older woman said to my father “I thought the coloreds had their own church. Why is that family here?” My father looked a little surprised, but then said “All of God’s children are welcome here at First Baptist.”
I later learned, however, that certain people were not welcome at the church. Members of the LGBTQ community were not invited to attend services.
Learning to be comfortable as a gay man was a long process and I had to let go of so much that I had learned in church as a preacher’s kid. The Baptists can be very close-minded and unforgiving about such things and in order to preserve my sanity, I had to leave that church and dismiss some of its teachings. But growing up in a Christian home taught me to be kind to other people and to appreciate God’s wonderful creation. I can feel His presence all around me. As Emily Dickinson said so poetically:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some periods of my life were much easier to write about than others. It was not easy to re-live the months of my mother’s illness and death when I was 14, and even harder to write about my father’s second marriage. My mother was kind and sweet and loving, a gentle and caring woman who seemed to be liked by everyone, but my step-mother was her opposite, a woman who was cold and overbearing. Much to the surprise of everyone who knew him, my father married less than five months after my mother died, which profoundly changed my life. My step-mother seemed to delight in putting me down and it has been very difficult to be kind when writing about her. Perhaps she was embittered because of a philandering first husband and two children who were involved with drugs. Perhaps she took out her unhappiness on me. She also demanded my father’s full attention, pulling him away from me. It took more than ten years for us to become close again. Fortunately, by the time he died, our bond had strengthened.
His death at age 57, when I was 28, was almost as hard as losing my mother had been. He had been a pastor for 35 years and was beloved by his congregations. So many people attended his funeral that the over-flow crowd had to sit in the church gymnasium and watch the service on a closed-circuit TV. I have never stopped missing him.
Having to live at home during my high school years was difficult, but I made it through because of the love and support of friends, especially two older women who treated me with more kindness than I probably deserved. One was Mary Whitton, a no-nonsense woman in her 70s who always listened with concern as I talked about the situation at home. She had adored my mother but never warmed to my step-mother. On the day of the wedding, she said to dad, “don’t get her pregnant. At her age, she’ll have an idiot!”
And Bulah Vaught had been my sitter when I was a baby and became a sort of second mother. Whenever I felt depressed or unhappy, she would bolster my self-confidence and lift my spirits. When my father started dating the woman who became his second wife, Bulah warned me that trouble was ahead. I loved those two women, and love them still, decades after their deaths.
I especially liked sharing the stories of my two grandmothers. They were very different in temperament, one like sugar and the other like vinegar, but I was fond of them both and enjoyed being with them. They had both been married to alcoholics, which influenced their thinking and the way they related to their children. My Grandfather Huff was a “mean drunk” who would lash out in anger when intoxicated, sometimes abusing his family. I never heard any stories of my Grandfather Carrier striking his wife or children. It seems that he was just a sloppy drunk who was unable to hold a job for very long and could not properly support his family. Grandmother Huff eventually divorced her husband and Grandmother Carrier was widowed, but they both loved their husbands, and apparently had no interest in looking for romance when their marriages ended.
Not only did they have alcoholic husbands in common, but they both started working late in their lives, after their children were grown. At the age of 60, having never had a job in her life, Grandmother Huff went to work at the local elementary school as a cook and server, a job she loved! In her innocent way, she thought she could continue working even after turning 65, as long as she didn’t tell anyone how old she was. She didn’t realize that her employment application included her date of birth, and when she learned that her job was being terminated, she was furious and thought that her next-door neighbor (who was also employed at the school as a cook) had revealed her age to the school principal. She feuded with that particular neighbor for several months.
When she was widowed quite suddenly in 1951, Grandmother Carrier needed to find a way to earn enough money to keep the bills paid. At first, she worked as a church janitor, but was eventually able to get her name on a list of substitute teachers for the Carter County School System. She did not drive so she could only substitute at one school which was within walking distance, but she was kept busy. There was no mandatory retirement age for that particular profession and she was still being asked to fill in for absent teachers as she neared 70. I remember as a very small boy sitting next to her one day in a first-grade classroom. It’s hard for a four-year-old to sit still for hours at a time, and I remember my grandmother speaking sharply to me when I started squirming.
I wish my grandmothers were still here, but they live on in my memories and in the words of the memoir.
In reviewing my life, it was easy to see that more women than men have had an impact on my thinking, and at the top of the list is Miriam Hilton, who inspired me with her selflessness and goodness and unparalleled kindness. I met her when I was 20 and we remained very close for the next 38 years, until she died in 2021 at the age of 96. I learned so much from her, primarily that the key to happiness is love (both giving and receiving) and putting the needs of others before your own. She practiced what is known as the “Social Gospel,” a religious philosophy that aims to apply Christian ethics to social problems, especially economic equality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tension and the dangers of war. Knowing her also influenced me politically and after being apolitical for most of my young years, I realized that my way of thinking was aligned with the Democratic Party.
As I examined my years of living, I realized that the period in which I was probably the happiest, and certainly the most productive, was from the mid 1980s through the mid 1990s. By the time I was 30, I had achieved some success as a newspaper reporter, had written two books, had worked with silent film star Patsy Ruth Miller on her autobiography, had made a record of all the cemeteries in my home county in Tennessee, had met and become friends with my two favorite authors (William K. Everson and Jerry Vermilye), had assisted biographer Anne Edwards in researching the life and career of Barbra Streisand, was briefly hired by Kathleen Tynan to do research for a screenplay and had signed contracts for two additional books. And I was living in New York City, which had been a dream of mine for many years.
But just as I was nearing 30, the trajectory of my life was altered. My father died, I had to extricate myself from a disastrous relationship and I changed careers. I was no longer able to devote time to the writing and had to give up the contracts for additional books. My confidence had been damaged and I never wrote professionally again. It was as though a light within me dimmed and hasn’t burned brightly since. Maybe there is still enough time to get the blaze of creativity going again.
But I did find happiness in other areas. I have never measured success by the size of my bank account or the number of rooms in my home. All I’ve ever wanted is to be happy and to feel that I am making a difference in someone’s life, and hopefully leaving a few signs behind that I have been here. I used to yearn for a loving and long-lasting relationship but that dream has eluded me. I’ve had four partners, but those relationships eventually fell apart and the fault was probably my own. I have never been able to totally open myself up to someone else. I have always kept a part of my heart locked, and that door has been closed for so long I doubt it will ever be opened. I’m a very private person and that does not work very well in a romantic partnership.
Being self-employed for the last 20 years has allowed me to live in different states, explore new horizons, meet interesting people and discover new passions. I joined two choral groups while living in Michigan and loved the experience of learning the music and performing for smiling audiences. I cannot read music and have to rehearse a lot, but those years of being part of the music community were enormously rewarding.
Looking back through the years of my life, I can say that the sun has shone on my face more than clouds have darkened my skies. My life hasn’t turned out quite the way I thought it would when I was 20 or 30, but it has been a fascinating journey of being and becoming. And the road still stretches out before me, leading me onward into areas yet to be explored. And life would not be any fun if we knew ahead of time every twist and turn in the road. Life does not come with a map. It is constantly changing and surprising us . And hopefully reading the stories of my life will be surprising and entertaining and maybe enlightening. They do not follow a particular pattern and are not in chronological order. They bounce bath and forth between the years and experiences of my life, but at the end, I hope the pieces fall into place and create a mosaic of memories that help to explain who I am.
After spending a year looking backward, it is time now to look forward. Thank you for being with me on the journey through my life so far.
The stories that follow, as well as more than twenty others, have been collected in a book called At the Corner of Guilt and Delight — Growing Up Gay in a Small Southern Town, which is available through Author House, Amazon and other booksellers.