Family dinners followed the same pattern most weeks. First, my sister Courtney would give us the rundown of all the ways the twins surpassed others of their age group. Then Carter’s boys would do something mischievous, evoking scolding from their parents and chuckles from the rest of us. Eventually the kids would be excused to go play ball in the backyard, and the adults would linger at the table over a glass of wine.
I often tried to escape as well, preferring the company of my niece and nephews to the judgment of my parents and siblings. Tonight, however, they had other ideas. When I stood to leave, my father’s hand squeezed my shoulder from behind, pushing me down.
“Where are you going, Gracie?” He reached over to my wine glass and topped it off with Chardonnay. “Why don’t you stay with the adults tonight?”
“I don’t have much to share.” I shrugged. “Besides, Mom wants me to get more exercise.”
“That’s not what I meant,” she called from the kitchen. “Sit down. I have an apple tart for dessert.”
Usually dessert bribery worked on me. But I also knew if my mom made it, it contained whole-grain, gluten-free tofu and an all-natural sugar substitute—not my idea of a treat. The kids had a reason to escape outside before dessert. But I also sensed something was up, so I gave in to the inevitable and relaxed in the chair.
“That’s my girl,” my father cooed.
I took a healthy swig from the glass in front of me while my sister and mother returned from the kitchen with the tart and serving plates.
“Grace, we want you to know we love you and support you, no matter what life decisions you make,” my sister Courtney recited what had to be a rehearsed statement.
“Thank you—I think.” I looked around the table, puzzled.
Everyone’s gaze focused on me. My parents had forced smiles with widened eyes and nodded like two bobble-head dolls.
“You are such a pretty girl,” my mother managed, and then she started crying. My father knelt by her chair, and she put her head on his shoulder.
Stan, Courtney’s too-perfect husband, jumped in, comforting Mom. “Linda, there’s nothing to get upset about. This lifestyle is becoming more and more accepted in society. There’s no reason Grace needs to feel like an outcast.”
My mother moaned, “I know…it’s just not what I wanted for my baby.” She fell back into my father’s arms to his whispered encouragements.
Not again! When I graduated and got the job with the CIA, I thought I’d heard the end of the side comments and well-meaning suggestions to find a more traditional career. My family never liked the whole introverted science thing, but this reached a new level of ridiculous. Science laboratories no longer employed strictly men. Women, like me, had proven equal to men as scientists, engineers, and inventors, and they should know it.
“I thought you would have come to terms with my choices by now. Besides, it’s my decision.”
“We’re not saying it’s not,” Courtney piped up. “We want you to feel you can come to us—you can talk about whatever it is you do.”
“It’s a little hard to explain the specifics to someone who’s never done it,” I said. “I mean I can tell you we do a lot of experiments and look for certain reactions…”
“Don’t talk about the reactions.” Mom wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “We don’t need to visualize that part.”
“What do you want, then? I could tell you about the exotic locations or the amazing explosions I’ve had my hands in.”
Mom groaned and put her head back on my father’s shoulder.
I looked around the table. Mom had her head down, Dad avoided eye contact, Courtney and Stan just shook their heads in pity, and Carter bit his lips as if he were trying very hard not to laugh. What does Carter know? I narrowed my gaze on him, and he raised his hands, claiming nothing.
“You have all known since high school what I’m passionate about. I don’t know why it’s a surprise. The specifics are secret for safety, not because we don’t want you to know.”
Mom raised her head. “And she’ll never have a baby. I’ll never have a grandbaby by my Gracie.”
Now I was confused. “What do you mean? None of the chemicals I work with cause infertility.”
“She means sperm.” My sister was known for being a straight shooter. “You need sperm to make a baby. And sperm comes from a man.”
I tried to keep my voice level. “I am aware of that. I am a scientist. The curriculum included biology.” Geez, I admitted having a dry spell in the sperm department, but I knew what ingredients the process required. I’d gone on a date with one of the guys at work just…well…maybe a few months ago. But I always thought in time…
“I don’t think being a scientist is the issue, Grace,” my brother choked out between laughs. “Being a lesbian is.”
A lesbian? I studied my family around the table. Courtney and her husband tried to look supportive, but their pinched faces made them look constipated. My mom still wallowed, and Dad rolled his eyes and put his arm back around Mom.
Carter gave me a wide grin. “I’m guessing everyone is assuming you dance bumper-to-bumper, so to speak.”
His wife, Margot, who had shrunk down into her chair at the end of the table, hit him in the arm.
My jaw dropped, and my lips must have formed one of those Os you see in comic books to represent shock. “I’m not…I mean, I like…”
“You don’t have to lie to us any longer,” my sister offered. “You’re here. You’re queer. We’re okay with that.”
Stan, a lawyer by profession, had to put in his argument. “We’ve all discussed this, and we want you to know, we still want you as part of the family. Even if you choose to shun your traditional gender role, we will accept you as the butch you are.”
Mom responded with a whimper and a shaky but concerned smile.
I hesitated to admit after hearing they “still wanted me as part of the family”—uh, is there an option?—and I “shunned my gender role”—what the hell did that mean?—only one question came to mind.
“You think I’m butch?”
Carter burst out with a loud “Ha!” and stood and turned toward the back wall, his shoulders shaking.
Margot rolled her eyes and mouthed, “Sorry.”
“It’s not that we think you’re butch,” my sister clarified. “It’s that others see you that way, and we’re okay with that.”
I took a sip of wine for fortification and stood up. “Wow. I guess I don’t know what to say.” Scooting away from the table, I flung my hands out. “Wait, I do know what to say. I’m. Not. Gay.”
All eyes focused on me for a moment, and then everyone started looking at each other.
“Grace, we know lesbians have a more politically correct term for it, but you know what we mean when we say ‘gay.’ ” Stan stepped into his role as advocate for the family naturally.
“Thank you, Stan,” I managed with just a touch of sarcasm. I moved toward the kitchen, my blood pounding in my chest and forehead. “Mom, Dad, a pleasure as always, but I have to get out of here.” In truth, I needed to breathe.
I managed to get through without tripping on any of the chairs or carpets and into the kitchen before Mom called, “You forgot your tart! Let me wrap up one, or two in case there’s someone special you want to share with.”
I breathed out and waited while Mom wrapped dessert. She meant well. They all did. But somehow, I failed to be the daughter they wanted. I didn’t fit their mold, and tonight’s intervention, although misguided, represented another attempt for my family to figure out where I fit in the world. My place wasn’t easily defined, and their understanding tended to be limited to well-labeled boxes. I hoped someday we’d find equilibrium—a place where they could be proud of me, and I didn’t have to sell out.
Mom came over with the foil-wrapped plate, kissed my cheek, and held me a little longer than usual. I expected to see disappointment in her eyes, but instead I saw unending faith and hope. It was the same look she’d given me when I came in dead last in the hundred meters at our sixth-grade track meet and when the teacher at gymnastics explained how some kids just never progressed. She never judged. She never scolded. She told me we’d find something else I liked to do.
“You know we are proud of you, even if we aren’t always good at showing it,” she whispered in my ear.
I nodded, taking the foil-wrapped plate. “Thanks for dinner, Mom.” I opened the screen door and stepped out.
“Wait. Say goodnight, Gracie,” she called to me. I’d memorized the old George Burns and Gracie Allen routine that my parents had played over and over in my childhood. The next line was mine.
“Goodnight, Gracie.” I smiled and carried my tart out to the car.
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