Heretic to Housewife

Photo via Stoop Storytelling.

“Please tell my story,” was the refrain my mother, Judith, repeated to me frequently in her last several years. Her health was in long, slow decline; her body suffering the constant subterfuge of multiple sclerosis, polio, and more. Her mother had been brought down by Alzheimer’s, her father leukemia. I knew a lot about disease for a six-year-old.

I was on a post-punk trajectory, increasingly caught up in the fury brought on by a clear consciousness of myself as a trans girl in a time and place where my only hope for survival was the dog-eared “transsexuality” page of a medical encyclopedia.  The barrage of sexist requirements levied by the church quickly turned religious skepticism into stone-cold rejection, the unfortunate side effect of which was adding another, greater obstacle between me and my mother.

My mother was a devout woman. She was also a badass. She was a dancer. When polio stopped her from that, she took up painting and drawing, teaching herself to make pointillist portraits of flowers, butterflies, and birds until the sclera destroyed her motor control. As the loss of her art progressed, she also lost her substantial capacity for domesticity. She reupholstered furniture. She made yogurt. She made four children.

As a young woman, she’d gone on a mission for her church, proselytizing in a degenerate desert gambling town at a time when a number of her peers would have been denouncing Betty Friedan as a radical.  She was an incredible organizer; her capacity cathexed in one scene in my childhood memory—returning from a meeting of some committee of which she was the newly-appointed chair, she was disgusted to have had to explain to other adults the meaning of the word “agenda.”

I am thoroughly my mother’s daughter. She taught me everything about being a woman in this world, in spite of the fact that she went through the motions of raising me as a boy. She was adamant in delineating the importance of being a lady over being a mere woman; presciently, she didn’t exactly parallel those lessons in masculine terms.

Early in my first year of college I dove headlong into feminist cultural criticism; I was thirsty.  Of particular interest was the memoir called Housewife to Heretic, about a devout member of my parents’ church who was ultimately excommunicated because she campaigned in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. My own heresy was already inevitable, but still I did my best to smuggle in what I learned to my mother, to my sisters, before all was revealed and I was shut out.

I am certain now that all along, my parents—and my mother in particular—were aware that I would not be the son that they desired. The language we have now didn’t exist then, and the concepts were undoubtedly frightening. Despite her fears, when I revealed my plans to transition, my mother met my challenge with a surprising degree of acceptance.  She held on to her faith; it was the thing that kept her going, decades after she could have given up the ghost.

The years progressed and as I gained a greater capacity to communicate, her capacity to hold on to memories diminished and the heartbreak that remains with me is that I will never be able to have a clear sense of what it was like for my mother to incrementally lose her capacities and to watch her children – me in particular – follow paths that were undoubtedly both familiar and strange.

I tried, on occasion, to get her to speak about her hard times: Her experience as an independent woman who had had a rocky relationship with her own mother. Her experience as a woman who suffered the constant betrayal of her own body. Her experience as a woman who was at the mercy of a medical system that experimented on her. These topics were our most common ground, and I felt such guilt in asking her to exhume those pains when she had already suffered so much that I just stopped.

To my mind, this is one of the ultimate feminist challenges: to negotiate that fraught mother-daughter divide, to somehow weave together the inevitable failures with the unexpected successes and churn out some sort of fantastic fabric, an incredible yarn which is only held together by truth, whatever that is.

My mother’s father was on his deathbed when he told her that my infant hands were “writer’s hands.” I’ve always thought it was a ridiculous thing to say, and she never let go of the notion. I don’t know why I still feel so defensive about this scene—I am a writer, whether I like it or not, and so she always thought of me as a writer, and asked, demanded, repeatedly that I tell her story. I still do not feel qualified to speak for her, but I am here, and she asked me to do so, and this is a beginning.