. . . Continued from Getting into Trouble.
It’s a difficult story about a difficult time in my life, so I have told it in a straight-forward manner few times over the years. I have, however, disguised it as a hypothetical fact pattern or story about “a friend” and relayed some of the details while lecturing or teaching. With the passage of time, I have forgotten many of the details, but I vividly remember the emotional roller coaster I rode for the better part of a year. And, of course, as is so often the case when we survive tumult, the experience not only changed me, but drove me toward the career I have enjoyed for the past 17 or so years.
Ultimately, it is a story about forgiveness, acceptance, and moving on. And even though I never told the story to my very dear friend, the late Clint Ritchie, without realizing it, he helped immeasurably because, by relating his own story to me, he gave me insight and perspective that allowed me to quell the last remaining bits of anger that I felt toward both of my parents about that period of my life, but, primarily, my father.
And so, given that tomorrow, Monday, January 18, 2010, is both the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, and the eighteenth anniversary of my father’s death, it is fitting that I finally tell, as Paul Harvey would have described it, “the rest of the story.”
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'” ~~ Eleanor Roosevelt ~~
I think that conversation with Yvonne so angered and offended me that I dove head-long into a relationship with Reggie in order, if for no other reason, to prove a point. Yvonne was not the only member of the hospital staff who took notice. One day, I said good-bye to him in the hospital lobby as he was concluding his shift and heading home. He gave me a quick peck on the lips. Before I knew it, I was summoned into the office of the assistant administrator, Ms. Montgomery. I can still see the smug look of satisfaction on Yvonne’s face as Ms. Montgomery warned me that if I wanted to keep my job, I would not be seen with Reggie on hospital grounds again. She lectured me about the hospital’s “image” and advised that the doctors and members of the board of directors would be horrified if they witnessed such behavior.
I, of course, knew, when I finally accepted Reggie’s invitation to go out on a date, that the relationship would not last — it could be no more than a summer fling. I knew that I would never bring him home to Lodi to meet my parents, sister, and childhood friends. In fact, I knew that I would never even speak his name to those folks.
Reggie was African-American.
But my parents did find out that I was in a relationship with him. During their first of many confrontational and abusive telephone calls, they used a plausible alibi: They claimed that someone from Lodi had happened to be at Disneyland the day I went there with Reggie. It was a believable story because of an old family joke. When I was growing up, it seemed that every time we took a trip to Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm, we always ran into at least one other family from Lodi with whom we were acquainted. So they told me that “someone from Lodi” had seen me standing in line with Reggie to ride the Matterhorn. And called my parents to advise them that I was engaging in public displays of affection with a man whose skin color automatically made him unwelcome in my parents’ home . . . and, for that matter, in most Lodi neighborhoods.
From that point on, the only appropriate word is “ugly.” It was an ugly, ugly time in my life and relationship with not just my parents, but my sister and even my aunt. She actually called me from South Dakota and, without even saying hello, began badgering me: “What are you doing to your parents?” And the truthful answer was, of course, “I’m not doing anything to my parents, Auntie. They are doing it to themselves.” My parents drove to Orange County and spent a few days staying in my apartment, lambasting me in person. I came to Lodi for a brief visit and ended up calling our then-pastor over to the house to speak with them, convinced that if Pastor Bob told them their behavior was despicable, they would believe him. I remember sneaking out of the house to call Reggie and ask if him I should proceed with the meeting. His response? “Fight for us, baby.” So I did.
By that time, what started out as a summer fling had turned, into a full-fledged war on principles. At stake? My honor, integrity, and beliefs. Truthfully, my relationship with Reggie would have fizzled to its inevitable conclusion long before that point . . . if only my parents hadn’t tried so hard to exert control over my life and choices in such a pejorative, damning manner.
I returned to Orange County, my classes, and my job at the hospital after my father stood in the kitchen (of the house I now own) calling me a vile name (I will not type it here . . . you can imagine what it was) and said, “Never darken my doorstep again. You are no daughter of mine.”
After all that, my relationship with Reggie did, in fact, end within a few weeks. But it did not conclude the way I had anticipated. I told that portion of the story in The Surprising End of My Innocence.
Since I maintained neither a journal nor diary during that time period, I can no longer remember how my relationship with my parents was restored. I don’t recall whether I called them and told them that Reggie was out of my life or if, perhaps, someone else did. Eventually, we re-established contact. I do remember that there were no apologies extended. It was simply a topic about which we never spoke again. Ever.
When I penned The Surprising End of My Innocence, I wanted to tell the whole story. But I feared that readers would see my father (and, to a lesser extent, my mother) merely as a racist villain. And I would never want his memory tarnished in that fashion.
My father was motivated by a desire to protect his youngest daughter. Yes, his behavior was wrong. He was wholly misguided. But he was a man who did not know how else to react. He was dealing with something he was unequipped to understand. Keep in mind that the events I have described took place in 1978 when I was a mere 21 years old. It was a very different time.
My father’s whole life was founded upon the attainment of one goal: Working hard in order to provide for his family. He was, in that respect, a very uncomplicated man. All he and, to an even greater degree, my mother ever wanted for their children was a college education and the security they believed that would bring. Both of my parents survived the Great Depression and they were entirely motivated and defined by that experience. In my father’s case, he was one of eight children. He dropped out of high school in his freshman year and began working to support himself because his parents did not have the financial means to care for him any longer.
Ironically, it was Clint who helped me understand my father’s motivations and release the final vestiges of anger about those long-ago events. Being a parent myself also enables me to viscerally appreciate the ends to which a parent will go to protect his/her child from perceived danger, heartbreak or disappointment. Many times, Clint and I discussed what he felt was the turning point in his long run as “Clint Buchanan” on the ABC daytime drama “One Life to Live.” It came in 1992, 13 years into his successful stint playing the upstanding cowboy who would always be in love with just one woman. The writers decided that the fictional “Viki Buchanan” would have an extra-marital affair. Part of the reason she and her husband drifted apart was his reaction to their son’s friendship with another young man who was openly gay. Clint felt that ABC allowed his character to be “trashed” and was extremely hurt when he received hate mail at the studio for the very first time. Fans accused his character of being a “homophobe” and he was devastated because, as he explained it to me, he never portrayed “Clint Buchanan” as prejudiced and did not want him to be perceived in that manner. Rather, his acting out of the words in the script were from the perspective of a man trying to protect his family. Like my father, the character of “Clint Buchanan” was dealing with a situation for which he was not prepared and a reality he did not fully comprehend. He reacted from a parental desire to shield his family from pain.
My conversations with Clint allowed me to look at my own father’s conduct from a different angle. Rather than seeing him as hateful, mean-spirited, and prejudiced, I was able to see him as a man seeking to protect his daughter and, indeed, his entire family, from the pain that he believed would result from my relationship with Reggie. Ultimately, he was right when he insisted that the relationship would “come to no good end.” Ironically, neither of us foresaw the real reason: Reggie was still married, a fact about which he lied, even as he encouraged me to continue battling with my parents. In Reggie’s heart and mind, of course, the war was about race. Over the past more than 30 years, I have come to believe that, in my father’s heart and mind, it was about much more than skin color, even though it did not seem that way then.
And I am proud to say that my father grew from the experience, as did I. He evolved into a man who never again used the pejorative terms he hurled at me in anger during those bleak days. Iver time, he became more tolerant of differing viewpoints and lifestyles, and like so many other members of his generation, began to appreciate the value of diversity.
And what about Dave? Well, five years after the Reggie debacle, I was again living in Lodi. Dave had returned to the Bay Area and looked me up. I did not believe that I had any reason not to have a friendship with him, so we spoke on the telephone regularly and visited each other. He was still not living as an openly gay man, but was inching closer to his reality.
After spending a weekend with him, I stopped by my parents’ house on my way home. When I told them where I had been, they became strangely quiet, exchanging nervous looks. It was not until that day that I finally figured out who had called my parents to tell them about my relationship with Reggie. It was none other than my purported friend, Dave. Still living in the same apartment building and working together at the hospital at the time, I had told him about our wonderful day in Disneyland. Since Yvonne was his supervisor, as well as mine, he had also been relaying information about my personal life to her on a regular basis. Why he felt the need to meddle in my life in such a destructive manner I will never understand. Obviously, when I finally solved the mystery, I never spoke to him again. [Many years ago, my college roommate ran into Dave and his partner in San Diego. She said that he seemed well and happy, and asked about me, but she did not provide any details about my life.]
For the first time in my life, I understood the old adage about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. (Of course, in order to do so, you have to know who your enemies are.)
I still consider 1978 the year my life changed forever . . . in myriad ways. The events of that year are among the main reasons I became and have been proud to serve as a civil rights attorney. I only wish my father had lived to hear me use those words to describe myself. I firmly believe that he would approve.