My Father’s Grave

There it was. My name etched in stone. On the back of my father’s grave. My father’s grave. My father is still alive, yet he has a grave.

His headstone is in a family plot east of Idaho Falls, Idaho. It’s a remote pretty cemetery, the kind of Rocky Mountain Cemetery I’m accustomed to, with simple headstones in long rows with plenty of space, lush green grass everywhere.

As I walked through the rows, I realized that times and customs are changing, even when it comes to how people die. Headstones like this, family plots, are a thing of the last generation. Now everyone, for the most part, seems to be getting cremated. People are being sprinkled into lakes and on hillsides, or kept in vases, or put into pots for plants to grow out of. (Just this morning, I saw a headline about the state of Washington legalizing the compositing of human remains as another alternative. I mean, there are 8 billion of us now…)

My relationship with my father is difficult to talk about. It’s hard for me to even make sense of internally, and I do therapy for a living. It’s a big void, a question mark in my center. And this cemetery brings that to life more acutely than even being around him.

My last name is Anderson. It is the last name of both of my sons. It was my father’s name. He had five brothers and one sister; I’ve only met half of my aunt and uncles, and then only once. It was my grandfather’s name. Justin Anderson was a sheep farmer in southern Idaho, and I met him a few times when I was a child before he died. And Justin’s father was… I don’ know. My knowledge pretty much ends there. But there is my grandfather’s grave, just down he row from my father’s. My grandmother Alice is there. A few of my father’s brothers. And then cousins, children, infants, names I’ve never heard or seen before.

In some ways, I respect my father’s choice to purchase a headstone. It shows foresight. He chose the stone himself and paid for it. He had it etched with his name and birth date and the names of his children. It mentions both of his wives by name as well, acknowledging that those marriages took place, although he is divorced from my mother and not living with his second wife. He paid for the plot of land as well. When he goes, he will be buried near his parents, his family, the ones I never knew.

I look like my father. I have the same build, the same coloring, the same grey on the temples, the same baby face. Once when I was 22 (I’m 40 now), I was living in the mountains of a rural area of Idaho and performing as an actor in a dinner theater for the summer. A man and his wife attended the play, and afterwards they approached me. I’d never met them, at least so far as I remembered. The man asked me if I was K. Anderson’s son, and I told him yes. Then he introduced himself as my uncle. He said I looked just like my father. I had the same walk, the same laugh, the same way of carrying my hands, he said. I asked a few questions, bid farewell, and then went home and cried that evening, because that void at my center made no sense.

It still feels that way now. Yet my name is still on the back of his grave.

In the early 1970s, as I understand it, my father had the mad urge to leave his home, his parents, and all that was familiar, and buy a cattle ranch in the rural Missouri Ozarks. Idaho sheep farmer to military man to school teacher to Missouri cattle rancher. A strange symmetry, I supposed. My mother reluctantly consented. They sold their home, packed everything they owned, loaded up the five children, and left the potato fields of Idaho for the green, lush, Mormon-hating country of small-town Missouri. He never bought that ranch, but they did start life over. He took a job in a cheese factory, and stayed for years. I was born in Missouri in 1978. My little sister followed in 1982. We were the sixth and seventh children in the family line. (Years later, both of us would come out as gay. Maybe we can blame Missouri.)

As I understand it from my older siblings, my father was a pretty happy man. He smiled and laughed, played hard, spent time with his kids. But by the time I came into the picture, something had changed. He grew sad and serious. Sometimes angry, but never happy. He seemed haunted. He was hot water, forever waiting to boil, and stuck at that temperature. He worked, he cried, he grew angry with my mother. Mostly he sat silently. No board games. No tickle fights. No camping trips or tossing the ball in the backyard. A serious, sad, haunted man who was doubled over in half due to the stress of raising and providing for seven children. A man who bit off far more than he could chew, who followed all of the rules of Mormonism yet somehow couldn’t experience any of the happy things. A stranger in my home.

I adapted. I wrote stories and played games, collected toys and made treasure hunts for my mom and siblings. I excelled in school. Dad was around but never seemed to notice or care much, and so I just got on with the process of growing up.

And then, in 1990, when I was 11, my mom made the boldest decision of her life, and she left. She went back to Idaho, after nearly two decades away. My dad stayed behind. And I remember being relieved. The world made more sense without him around.

Life got complicated for all of us after the divorce. My mom remarried, but he was mean. My dad ended up in Las Vegas. Months would go by without a phone call, and there were no visits. There was always a birthday card, and another at Christmas. Kitschy greeting cards from the grocery store with a check for one hundred dollars inside, and a short sentence. Surprise, Dad  or Happy Birthday, Dad. That was it. Those small gestures of love meant very little, though, without the relationship to accompany it. He remained closer to my five older siblings, yet put no effort into me or my little sister. When my stepfather grew violent, my dad had nothing to say. When I starred in community and school plays, he wasn’t there (except perhaps once, when he was in town). He didn’t know my friends, my interests, my struggles. And then there was the time I heard my mother tell him over the phone that his children wanted to see him. And my dad responded that he had no children.

When I grew up, I made a few passing attempts to get to know my father, and I sensed some gestures in return. He wrote a few letters when I was a missionary, and I wrote back. He took Sheri and I on a bizarre trip to Europe; he and I shared a room for two weeks, and never really spoke. He showed up at my wedding. My older sisters always encouraged me to put more effort in, to try harder, to seek understanding. He’s different than you think, they said. He tries and shows love just not how you can see it, they said. Maybe he can’t express anything to you, they said.

Maybe, I would think back. But the man whose name I bear can’t tell me the names of my own children, and that tells me everything I need to know. Four decades in and not much has changed.

My father just turned 80. I’m 40. I drove down with my partner to celebrate dad’s life, meeting the rest of my siblings there in Las Vegas. Conversations were superficial. He seemed genuinely happy, in his way, to see his children there to honor him. He told a few terrible jokes. He thanked everyone for being there. I left silently, overwhelmed by the experience.

A week later, I got a card in the mail. It was more than a sentence this time. “Thank you for coming to surprise me,” he said. “I’m glad we can seek common ground, despite our differences. Love, Dad.”

Our differences, I thought. What common ground, I thought. I set the card down. And again, I cried.

But at his grave, I didn’t cry. My name is on the back of his headstone. Etched there, permanently. I’m sixth in a list of his children. And one day, a death date will be carved into the front, and my father laid beneath. But my name will already be there, unchanged, like it has been all along, even before I knew about it.

Once, a therapist asked me how my father had impacted me the most. And I surprised her by answering that he made me an incredible father to my sons. I show interest in them, I said. I listen. I tickle and sing, dance and play, travel and teach, set boundaries and enforce routines. I’m there. Every day. There are no question marks in their center spaces. When I tell them I love them, they roll their eyes and say,  “Dad, we know! We love you too!” I’m there, and he wasn’t. He taught me to be an incredible father, I said, by never teaching me anything at all.

grave

City of Trees

CityofTrees.jpgThe colors are more muted than I remember. It’s still pretty, but the greens, browns, and blues seem to dull at the edges and blend in to each other.

I remember the first time I drove to Boise as an adult. I had only been here a few times as a teenager, on trips with the high school band perhaps, but at the age of 23 I packed my little red truck full of my things and drove from southeastern Idaho to southwestern, and along the way the potato fields, volcanic rock, and white capped mountains shifted to green trees and brown hills, beautiful but a different kind. The Snake River moved from one side of the state to the other along with me.

My life was so different in 2004. After over two years at a Mormon-run school, which had followed a two year missionary service, I had spent a summer mourning my life (and my inability to cure my homosexuality) at a little mountain theater, playing roles in mediocre plays, walking trails, and reading books in isolation. Now, Boise beckoned, a brand new world. I had a scholarship, I found a cheap apartment, and I could always make friends in my new Mormon ward. Life was full of possibilities.

I was shifting from an all-Mormon campus to a secular one. People wore shorts here, and smoked cigarettes. They had beards. There was much more ethnic diversity (if still not much), and I sometimes saw gay guys now, which just baffled me and scrambled my senses. My first teacher in my first class used the word ‘fuck’, and my history professor told us that the Bible had no historical accuracy. I was stunned, intrigued, and ready for a new life.

Now, in 2018, Boise feels… safe. It’s not like home. It’s been too long since I’ve been here. I’ve changed too much. But it feels quaint, open, protected. It’s been nearly 15 years, and the city has changed as much as I have, but it’s still the same. The same buildings, the same river running beautifully behind the same picturesque campus, the same streets winding around the state capitol building. But the people are all different, occupying the benches, paths, and corners where I used to dwell.

Memories come haphazardly, quietly, non-intrusively. The apartment where my little sister told me she was gay and I yelled at her in response. The parking lot where the mentally ill client threatened my life. The gazebo where I saw two men kissing, and I knew that I would never be able to find love like that. The greasy burger joint where I would order a triple cheeseburger and a giant package of onion rings. The hotel where I studied social theories in between checking in clients. The tennis courts I worked in, where I should sit anxiously at the desk knowing that all of the male athletes were one locker room away. The institute classroom where the teacher taught us all about the Plan of Salvation, God’s grand scheme, the one I didn’t fit into. The therapy office where the counselor said he thought being gay was the source of my depression, and I stormed out in fury. The library room where I spent an entire weekend polishing a policy paper on the death penalty, it later being published in a professional review. The charity home I worked in, where I was once caught watching porn after hours. The Mormon temple where I attended services every week, trying to prove to God I was worthy enough. The city park bench where the girl I’d been dating told me abruptly that if I didn’t finally kiss her it was over. The town hall where, as an actor, I played a dead body for a drunken crowd, and a woman in a nun costume, who was part of the audience, came up to the stage and grabbed my ass, saying to laughter “I have to make sure he’s dead.”

Walking the streets now, I can only wonder what my current life might be like had I come out back then, at 23, when I began to realize what a gay life might mean for me. I would almost assuredly have still finished college with the same degree, and worked many of the same jobs. I would have found plenty of support. My family would have adapted, after their initial grief and pain. I would have left Mormonism and started dating, finding connections and strength along the way. I would never have married, would never have broken hearts when I later divorced. But then my sons would never have been born. Would I have been a parent still? Would I have settled down with one partner and built a life from the ground up? Would I still be acting and singing? Would I have traveled the world? Would I be living in Seattle, San Francisco, London? Would that extra ten years of happiness, of life, made a substantial difference?

In an alternate universe somewhere, Boise, this City of Trees, represented a different path, a jumping off point that changed everything, and I hope that the Me in that universe is as happy as the Me in this one is right now.

my date with mom

“Don’t worry, sir, I’ll have her home at a reasonable hour.” I shook my step-father’s hand from where he sat in his comfortable over-sized arm chair. He got that mirthful twinkle in his eye.

“Now see that you do.”

My mom laughed, saying goodbye to her husband as we made our way toward the door. She’s in her early 70s now, and he in his early 80s, and they have been perfect together in  their eleven years together, compatible in every category except one. My mom enjoys a healthy sense of adventure, time to go out exploring and being among people. Her husband is much more comfortable at home in his easy chair, Fox News or the History Channel blaring on the television.

I had him take a photograph of us with my cell phone before we left. “You know, before the invention of the cell phone, we didn’t realize what a world of narcissists we were.” He fumbled with the small screen for a moment. “Now, wait, I can only see myself in this image.” I laughed and helped him turn the screen around. “Now that is a much better view,” he said, as he snapped a photo that cut half my head off in the image.

Out in the car, mom and I began gabbing right away. We talk every other day or so, sharing in world events and community happenings, discussing what I’m reading or researching or writing about, and who she is doing nice things for.

Mom had a birthday a few weeks ago and I had promised her a night out on the town when I came to visit. Now, with my sons hanging out with my sister (their favorite aunt), it was finally date night.
“Well, where are we headed?”

I winked. “I suppose that is none of your business until we arrive. But on the way, I have a series of questions for you.”

And so we began to talk about her life. I asked her about her best day ever, and she told me about her wedding day to my dad when she was 22. She told me about her family gathered outside the Mormon temple and walking out in her wedding dress, being surrounded by family, her dreams coming true. My dad left her that afternoon to work on his family’s farm, where they had sheep and potatoes, and rejoined her in the evening for the wedding dinner and reception. They moved into a trailer on a high hill above the Snake River, a little extended space with two bedrooms. She was pregnant right away, and within a few years had three young children, then four, then five, and they soon moved into a beautiful home where she had been so happy.

“Everything fit,” she said. “We loved each other. It wasn’t perfect, but I loved his family, and he loved my family, and our children were beautiful, and we had the church and each other.”

I asked her about her pregnancies, and the names she chose for her children. While she never went on birth control, she did take some preventative measures to stop herself from having kids, and she chose each time she wanted to get pregnant, even when it began to have wear and tear on her body. She said she had wanted 8 children, or perhaps 10, and she had ended up with 7. 63 months pregnant, with terrible nausea and vomiting each time, and a few very rough deliveries. My oldest sister was nearly lost during delivery, she had a terrible shoulder injury with another, and my delivery itself was a particularly rough one.

We went back in time a bit more as we drove. I asked her about her choice of college major, about the men she dated in high school and college, and how she was proposed to several times but each time hadn’t been quite right. As a young student who first considered nursing and ended up teaching, she had devoted herself to one young man for months before learning he was being unfaithful. She was stunning, and in time she met my father, a handsome returned missionary fresh out of the army, the youngest son of a sheep farmer up the road.

By now, we were out of the car and sitting next to the river, watching man-made waterfalls and currents, the Mormon temple where she had been married across the river for a perfect view. Mom talked about how Dad had been devastated by a crop failure that cost them thousands. They had moved across the country for a fresh start, had two more children, built another home, and a decade later things had finally fallen apart. I had my arm around her shoulder, it was getting chilly outside.

“Mom, I want you to know how courageous I think you are. Growing up in this little corner of the world full of Mormons and potato fields, you built a life on the terms you were taught. You did everything right. You chose motherhood, and to be a wife, yet you worked as a teacher all the way through. You brought seven kids into the world, and we all turned out pretty all right. I know it took a lot of twists and turns along the way, and definitely threw you some curve balls and painful pitches, but you did it on your terms and you came out strong. You are an incredible mother and I love you.”

And minutes later, we walked into a local actor’s studio, set up in an old storefront, and saw a presentation of the Odd Couple while eating hamburgers and hot dogs off a dinner buffet. We laughed and had a wonderful evening.

Back at her home, I walked her in and saw my stepfather sitting in the same spot. “Well, I had her home by midnight as promised.”

“Oh, honey, we had a wonderful time.” She said and I left as she told him about our evening, feeling grateful for this amazing woman, this force of nature,+++++++++++++++ who brought me into the world.