Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Taking Doug Home

Growing up in Poulsbo, I knew that when my Mother used the term "home" she didn't mean the farm where we lived. She meant the town she was born and raised in, Cleethorpes, England.

The Promenade in Cleethorpes at the mouth of the river Humber
Mom took us back there several times while we were growing up, but the first time I was old enough to really remember it was when I was 13. My cousin Karen, the daughter of my Mom's youngest sister Betty was getting married, so Mom took me and my brother Tom with her back to Cleethorpes for the summer of 1978. I got to know Cleethorpes a little, and formed relationships with my Mom's father, her brother and sisters, and their kids that have stood the test of time. My grandad, aunts and uncle and their spouses also made trips over to visit us and sometimes brought their kids with them, so we really did know each other pretty well.

From my 2001 visit: Left to right: Eric,
his wife Lois, Karen, Betty, Me, My aunt May's
widower, Les, and Betty's husband Tom.
As time went on, we drifted apart a bit, though we've never been completely out of touch. When my Mom died my cousin Lynn wrote us a condolence poem that couldn't have been more perfect if Mom had written it herself. I decided then that I needed to make a trip back to Cleethorpes. I went in October of 2001 and had a great visit with my two aunts and uncle and most of their kids. At that time, Doug and I had been dating less than a year, but my cousins all wanted to know when I was going to bring him over to meet them. "Soon" I said. Irony. Anyway, I wasn't sure how receptive my Mom's generation would be to meeting the gay nephew's Canadian boyfriend, so I let sleeping dogs lie.

The years got away from us, and the next trip to Britain was in 2010. Doug and I signed ourselves up for a one week Gaelic immersion course in South Uist, and we didn't plan a trip to see my family. I will regret that decision for the rest of my life. Since then I've lost my last uncle and one of my two aunts.

And now it's 2014. Doug and I were invited to travel to the Royal National Mòd with the Victoria Gaelic Choir to compete this year and we accepted without hesitation. I insisted this time, however, that we spend enough time to make crossing the Atlantic worth the expense and the effort. Three weeks, and not a day less, and visiting family was non-negotiable. No argument. Doug had seen my face when I learned that my uncle Eric had died, and when I found my aunt Gladys' obituary online accidentally. No argument.

From my 2001 visit: My cousin Lynn, Her son Matthew
and his newborn son, Corben. Corben is in the
double-digits now!
We flew in to Heathrow on Monday and spent the first few days in London doing tourist and harp-related things. Thursday we hopped a train North headed for Ramsey to visit my cousins Lynn and David. I had asked them to arrange a birthday cake, since Doug was turning 50 while we were there. My cousins were just as warm and welcoming as I had remembered from my childhood, and they made it clear that under no circumstances were we to get married without giving them enough notice to come. Message received, cousins.

So, my aunt Betty, my Mom's youngest sister, is the last of her generation, and still lives in Cleethorpes, just around the corner from the house where they were all born and raised. She's in her eighties, and I had learned that she is on dialysis, so I was prepared to find her and her husband Tom in tough shape, and didn't want to be a burden in any way, so I only planned for us to spend a half day with them. Just enough time to see a couple sites, maybe have lunch and a good visit before heading off to Glasgow.

#19 Edwards Street where Mom
was born and raised
David volunteered to drive us to Cleethorpes, which meant that we would also get to make a stop at Lynn's mother's house. That's my Uncle Eric's widow Lois for those of you keeping score at home. We had a short but robust visit there, then back on the road.

When we arrived in Cleethorpes we got quite a surprise. Far from frail, Betty and Tom met us at the door looking like the picture of health and style. Tom took our suitcases and said he would bring them down to the train station for us so we didn't have to wrestle with them. My cousin Karen was there, now a woman in her 50s, with her grown daughter Kelly. We hadn't even sat down before Betty asked if we had eaten. No? Within thirty seconds we had a table reserved at their favourite restaurant down at the front (that's the waterfront for you Yanks) and we were in Kelly's car. Memories from the summer of 1978 started flooding back. Mary Lawless' house! The family home at #19 Edward Street! Saint Peter's Church! Ross Castle!

Over lunch, Betty shared news of the family. She talked about her brother Eric who had died in 2013; about what happened when her last sister Gladys passed away earlier this year. She told me about her and her Tom's illnesses. They had come close to death, but were both now doing very well. She also wanted to know about us and our lives together. She talked about having gone to a same-sex wedding recently and made it clear that she had no issues with it. Then she got quiet.

"I told her. I told her that Summer when you were here for Karen's wedding. I told her she needed to help you cope." she said.

And my understanding of my life changed. Someone in my family was advocating for me when I was 13, and she was still alive and sitting across the table from us, right there in Cleethorpes. Then she took an envelope out of her purse and handed it to me.

"Something for you and Doug."

Pounds sterling. Lots of pounds sterling. There's only one time in your life when relatives hand you envelopes of cash in England. This was a wedding present.

It was time for us to leave to make our train to Glasgow, so Betty walked us the two blocks to the station. Tom was waiting there with our cases. I put my hands on her shoulders and said the truest words I ever have.

"I don't want to go. I don't want to leave you." I said.

"I know. Don't be too long." she said with a smile that was at once happy and sad.

We got on the train and as it pulled away, my heart ripped out of my chest. I was leaving home again. When we reached Glasgow, we stopped at the first news stand and got some postcards. I wrote the first one to Betty and Tom, thanking them for the present and promising a longer letter when we got home. I included it in a Christmas card I put in the mail last Thursday. This is what it said in part:

Mom died on October 26th, 2000, as I’m sure you remember. I met Doug on April 7th of the next year - barely five months later. Within a few weeks, I realized that I had met the person with whom I intended to spend the rest of my life. It wasn’t too much later, on a Summer weekend when we were hanging new curtains in his house that it truly dawned on me that I would never be able to take Doug home to meet Mom. They would never laugh together; never make fun of my quirks together. I would never see them hug. She would never be there to accept him as a part of our family the way his mother and father have accepted me.
Thirteen years have come and gone since then. Doug and I have been through a lot and seen the days when first his country, and then mine, and now yours accept our little family as real and worthy. My heart is so full and I’m so grateful for my life that I didn’t think I had any wounds left to heal until you opened the door of your beautiful home and welcomed us in.
During our lunch at Steel’s, the things you shared about your conversation with my Mom that Summer when we were over for Karen's wedding, and about your own positive relationships with same-sex couples were a great comfort to me. That old sorrow that I had been carrying for thirteen years melted away. No, my Mother wasn’t there to accept Doug, but through you, my Mother’s family was. It meant so much to me, Betty. I feel more at peace than I have in a dozen years.
Getting on that train and leaving Cleethorpes was the hardest goodbye I’ve experienced in a very long time. I will return as soon as I can and we’ll have a proper visit if the fates allow.
I got to take Doug home with me where we were welcomed with open arms. Even here at the shaggy winding-up end of our stories, there are still miracles of grace to be found if you look. If the fates allow…


Rev. Judith Laxer said...

What a beautiful account, so beautifully written. The tender emotions you invoke in this piece has me weeping before noon! Thank you for sharing your heart, and your loving family, with me.

Dawn Shaw said...

You are so lucky to not only have that experience but to recognize it's worth. To so many, family is little more than an obligation. Love to you and Doug. I, too, look forward to the wedding. :)

Diana Lincoln said...

I am just in tears!I've never been to the village of my parents birth in Greece. I'll be 58 on my next birthday and many of the links to my past are gone. It is amazing how the aunts and uncles can know the heart of their nieces and nephews even from a distance.That familial bond carries on in our cousins as well. Your story is like mine in unexpected ways. I feel like part of my heart is in a land I've never seen with people I will never meet. I'm so happy and, yes, jealous that you and Doug made time to have these special visits and irreplaceable memories together. These are memories that Jim and I may never have. All my best to you both and thanks so much for sharing this wonderful account of your trip "home", Diana Lincoln

Consuelo said...

Tears. Love.

John Yohalem said...

What a lovely tale and what lovely, lovely people!

Anonymous said...

That's really beautiful, Seumas. You made a viking cry (again).