What I Learned Growing Up Gay in a South Texas Dance Hall
I am my Father's Eldest Son, Born to Love Another Man
The morning I learned of Hank Locklin’s death, I disappeared right out of my life, jolted elsewhere by a single fragment of the deluge spilling from my web browser. March 9th, 2009, was an ordinary Monday morning. A breeze drifted through my central Austin neighborhood. I was 60 years old. I’d long since quit listening to stations that call themselves country—that wasteland of loud pop ballads cowboyed up with twang, with steel guitar and fiddle. A name, then, a simple Internet death notice. A voice, singular as the whorl tipping my ring finger. Opening words to a song. And five decades dropped away beneath me.
Please help me I’m falling . . . in love with you.
Close the door to temptation, don’t let me walk through.
I found myself in the bare dirt yard of the Meischen homestead some two hundred miles south—any Saturday afternoon of my youth—my father’s leather-bound transistor radio, big as a school lunch box, standing on a cement block beneath the windmill, heartache pouring out of it while my brothers and I chamoised the car. Simultaneously, I could feel my feet moving over dance-waxed hardwood at the Rifle Club Hall of Orange Grove, Adolph Hofner and the Pearl Wranglers on the little, raised stage, a cousin circling the floor in my arms, my parents, my aunt and uncle somewhere among the dancers, all of us humming along, entranced by Locklin’s moving little tale of a good man falling and knowing he oughtn’t and falling anyway. Because the song, the fall, the narrative drive is quite simply irresistible. The song is the story and the story is the dance, the knowledge that the song immersed in us—that a fall is coming, that even if, like my parents, you have the luck of marrying the person you fall for, of not falling for another, a final fall is coming anyway. One of you will die before the other, as did my mother after 49 years of marriage, her loss the heartbreak of my father’s life.
I remember them so young, Valerie and Elwood Meischen. When we were infants, they carried us into the Rifle Club and put us on a pallet against a wall near their table. After we found the use of our legs, they let us roam. A group of us ages three to five would gather in front of the bandstand, holding hands in a rotating circle, a dance-hall version of ‘‘Ring Around the Rosie.’’ We learned the art of couple dancing from patient mothers, more often just by imitation. I loved the whirl of the dance floor during a polka. One Saturday night, my cousin Lana and I decided it was time to join the spinning couples. I took the stance I’d learned for the two-step—right hand at the small of Lana’s back, left hand raised to take her right—and we took off onto the floor in a kind of sideways run, moving and turning until we collided with a couple who knew what they were doing. Then we’d take our dancers’ stance and propel ourselves counterclockwise around the floor again. It was a clumsy business, but it worked. By the time I was 15 and Lana 13, we’d transformed our polka into performance art, turning circles that would have dizzied more cautious souls, interrupting our breathless turns by letting go at the raised hand, slipping back until my right grasped her left, and then doing overhand and underhand moves adapted from other steps we’d learned along the way. Sometimes other couples stopped and gaped at us—admiringly, we thought, though likely they just wanted to get out of the way, stepping aside while the crazed show-offs spun by in a blur—Lana and I moving, moving as if the fire burning in us would never burn low.
While it burned, we learned the jitterbug, again by imitation. In 1965, 20 years after the war, every band that played the Rifle Club still had ‘‘In the Mood’’ on the playlist, saxophone sometimes missing from the opening riff, though it was the song’s irrepressible beat we were after. Country ensembles played it by request, a break from covers of Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Ray Price, George Jones, Tammy Wynette. Czech and German groups too—we called them old-timey bands. And none was better than Adolph Hofner, the Czech-German bandleader who played Texas dance halls for decades. Affable, curly-haired, always a sparkle in the eye, Hofner had roots in Western swing and a recording contract with Bluebird Records in 1938, two years before Glenn Miller’s tune propelled jitterbug aficionados onto the floor.
By the 1960s, in my part of South Texas, a modest proportion of any dance crowd still knew the jitterbug—generally couples who’d learned it in their dating years or younger folks chasing the energy high it offered. There was more room on the floor then, more space between couples, more room to admire the other dancers, to learn from them. My parents were deft at this dance from the war years, but no one could jitterbug like Lana’s parents, Wilton and Madeline Meischen. They made it look effortless. They made it look cool, and I use the word cool here in both senses. As Aunt Madeline and Uncle Wilton skimmed the floor to ‘‘In the Mood,’’ they looked like the couple to be. And even in August—the Rifle Club was not air-conditioned—they danced as if perspiring were beneath them, their movements so smooth neither appeared to be leading, so fluid Wilton and Madeline were no longer themselves. They had become the dance.
All I knew then was that I loved the jitterbug, loved the challenge, the tempo, the rapidly changing moves, the chance to impress. What occurred to me later is something that lay beneath the level of conscious knowledge, that I only felt during the years the jitterbug had its way with me: the real magic lay in dancing a step our parents had been dancing since they were our age—doing the dance they were doing and sharing the dance floor with them while they were doing the dance we were doing. Our parents moved in us; they moved through us, the movements of the moment connecting us to a ritual that had been going on long before our parents learned to jitterbug and would continue long past our own ephemeral efforts. Dancing truly entered—dancing when you disappear into the dance—is both of the moment and timeless. The jitterbug I so loved has nothing in common with the haiku I came to admire decades later, except one feature: measured moments that are both now and always.
My brothers learned to dance, but for them the draw was girls—dancing as courtship, as mating ritual. I was a girlie boy, though, a queen’s flamboyance knocking frenetically inside me. No one spoke the words for who I was; I had no words myself. But at the Rifle Club, I was free; the dance floor welcomed all my unarticulated energy. Like my brothers, I wanted a girlfriend, marriage, children. The coupled life was the only life I knew—husband and wife, aunts and uncles, grandparents. Family. Still, dancing didn’t fluster or distract me. I didn’t have to worry—or hope—that some kind of fire would kindle in me when the tempo changed and I paired up with a girl I had a crush on, the song moody and slow now, something about straying and redemption:
I was wrong the day I left you—I let the world lead me astray.
If you’ll say that you forgive me, you’ll make the world go away.
Don’t get me wrong. The girl was not merely incidental, a prop to help me get where the dance was going. I loved female company, loved dancing with my cousins, my mother, my aunts, eventually my high-school girlfriend. But with lyrics by the great Hank Cochran—the voice of a prodigal yearning for unearned grace—it was the story, the age-old refrain of love, loss, betrayal, the shimmering hope of forgiveness that moved me through a slow tune. First, last, always, it was the music itself—the mesmeric movement of the dance—that drew me in.
During the late 1950s, Rod and the Westernaires played a number of Saturday night gigs in Orange Grove. They disappeared, mirage-like, as quickly as they’d arrived. My father was in charge of scheduling bands for the Rifle Club. I might have asked him what happened to them, though I didn’t. Twice in recent years, I’ve gone to Google, searching for a glimpse, a trail of crumbs, a fragment. Nothing. Given how distant the memory, how perfectly encapsulated, perhaps Rod and his Westernaires were a daydream I embedded in personal history, though I doubt it. Memory insists.
Here’s the part that has not let go.
I am eight. I am standing at the foot of three unimposing steps leading up to the bandstand. I hear steel guitar and fiddle. I hear honky-tonk piano. They enter at the eardrum and find their way to my right foot, poised on the first step in front of me, tapping out the beat. At the mic, there is Rod; to either side and behind, the Westernaires. They wear flashy attire—a cross between Rex Allen in full rodeo preen and a Western-themed marching band prancing down the gridiron—smart satin cowboy shirts with fancy stitching at the yoke and silky fringe at the cuffs, fancy cowboy slacks with a pleat above the ankle so that when they tap their feet to a lively two-step, the hems of their pants dance like a baton twirler’s skirt. I am in love without knowing it, and not just with the dandy outfits. Rod, you see, is gorgeous—cheeks, chin, and jawline straight out of a Gillette commercial. Sideburns. Hair dark and shiny as raven feathers. He’s at the mic—singing to the mic—lips almost touching the mic.
I look and look—fingered strings and keyboard moving in me, snare drum pulsing in my tapping foot—too young to know that I am in love with more than the music, too young to know what it means, this endless moment watching a man sing. And years from the impulse that will move me from looking at a man to reaching for him, years from understanding that, free as I feel dancing, there is no place for me in the music, the dance hall, the story spun out by the words I am learning by heart.
My father was a happy man on dancing nights, sidestepping the moody, brooding impulse I often mistook for the man. There was darkness in him and perhaps good reason for it. Youngest son of a farmer who killed himself in 1941, Elwood Meischen stepped in where his father had left off, wrestling a hundred acres of cleared brush, thin soil over hardtop caliche, unirrigated fields in country hospitable to prickly pear, agarita, and mesquite. In 1950, as I approached two and my sister sailed past three, Daddy drove to town and asked the bank president for a job. My grandmother lived on the farm with us. Grandma owned the place; she could work like the stubborn, second-generation German farmer she was. Still, Lillie Meischen made a fifth stomach to fill, besides which her resident daughter-in-law was Catholic. I’m sure Daddy anticipated further arrivals. Larell Meischen joined the family in 1951, Vance following in ’52. For all the years of my raising and a couple of decades beyond, Elwood Meischen worked full time at Farmer’s State Bank of Orange Grove and managed the arduous labor that went into a modest farm of modest means.
Automation came late to small farmers in South Texas. We had a puny tractor, and that was about it. Until the mid-60s, our cotton was picked by hand, my brothers and I dragging sacks down the rows beside migrant crews who eked a living from this backbreaking work. July 4th was Daddy’s one summer holiday from the bank. While friends, neighbors, cousins took to a picnic table or a set of water skis, my father and his sons regularly hauled baled hay out of the fields and stacked it for winter feeding. There was no point complaining. We were raised by parents who didn’t expect their lives to be easy or their children to mouth off about it. Bellyaching might get you in a worse fix than hard work in hot weather. Tears were even riskier. ‘‘I’ll give you something to cry about,’’ Daddy would say, following through if need be. No idle threats in our house.
The farm dictated the terms of our daily lives. It shaped my father, molding him into an often intractable man, precipitating what I have come to think of as the most difficult relationship of my life. The road to town was only ten miles, but when we drove from a week of work to a night of dancing, we might as well have teleported to another planet. Along the way, invisible but happy body snatchers got hold of Daddy, so that when we walked into the Rifle Club, he no longer even looked like the stern paternal figure who loomed over my days. The abduction I speak of here was true of others too, with much the same explanation. Which is that something about dancing transformed all of us.
During high school, I worked for Uncle Wilton, running the cash register at what we used to call an icehouse, sorting soft-drink bottles, and running the ice crusher in a vault set well below freezing. As a nephew, I was often included in lunches with my uncle and his family. After a summer of such, I began to think of Wilton and Madeline Meischen’s relationship as ‘‘stormy.’’ I had only one marriage to compare, and talker that I am, I was regularly stunned mute by the things my aunt and uncle said to each other over an absolutely delicious meal. But the body snatchers grabbed them too on the way to the Rifle Club. Aunt Madeline had perhaps the most infectious laugh I knew growing up—and the shortest tether on her patience. Uncle Wilton had a heart too kind by miles—paired with a temper so mercurial you could get whiplash just watching when he got his dander up. Her impatience, his short fuse—these were shed easily as an unnecessary summer jacket when they got out of the family car and walked into the Rifle Club. Aunt Madeline laughed; Uncle Wilton grinned as if his teeth were made for gleaming. He put his right hand at the small of her back. She raised her right lightly to his left. They danced.
And this miracle of my life growing up: at the Rifle Club Hall, my father and I were happy at the same time and in the same place. We didn’t seek each other out. Daddy went his way and I went mine. I danced with Mother, with Aunt Madeline, with wives they knew, brushing past Daddy when I approached their table to ask for a dance. Whatever discomfort we felt otherwise—the father who worried too much, well versed in judging his offspring; the son too young to understand worry, well versed in feeling judged—at the Rifle Club I could dance past Daddy and smile, watching him be happy. He could dance past me and toss off one of the wacky wisecracks that otherwise seemed reserved for others.
I am my father’s son. I didn’t see it at the time. I’m not sure he did either. Picture him: Daddy was a hefty man when I was coming up. He was farm-work strong, with thickly muscled arms. Deep voice, heavy gait, firm handshake. And his firstborn son—my middle name his first—was a slip of a kid, impossibly skinny, hands flailing about like spooked birds caught indoors. ‘‘Light in the loafers’’ would have been the perfect way to describe me on my feet, waving at folks on Main Street, saying ‘‘Hi!’’ and again ‘‘Hi!’’ in a voice that danced right up the scale.
And yet. My father was a talker—storyteller, jokester, clown. He loved entertaining people, loved all eyes on him, all ears. I’m told I started talking at 18 months. I can attest I haven’t stopped since. I’ve been turning my life into stories for as long as I can remember. I can play the clown with the best of them.
A confession: When I was 13, 14, 15, I saw my father as impossibly moody, impossibly judgmental, his moods and judgments tinged by anger. I promised myself—promised—that I would not be a moody, angry father. Thirty years went by, and then one day in my early forties, I woke to a stunning fact. I was a moody, angry father.
Flip sides of a coin. I share both sides with the man who fathered me.
The antic energy running like an undercurrent at the Rifle Club reached its apex with the Paul Jones, an orchestrated group dance that had much in common with highly rule-bound childhood games passed down through generations. Hard to say who loved it more—Daddy or his eldest son. Here’s how the South Texas version worked.
The bandleader would announce a Paul Jones, upon which the band launched into a polka. I don’t remember if one particular tune was reserved for this dance. It doesn’t matter. Folks paired up and entered the counterclockwise motion. To someone watching, the moving floor of dancers looked like a slow-motion, oversize carousel, a time-lapse kaleidoscope, as colorful skirts merged and swirled in ever-changing patterns. Until the bandleader blew his whistle, the signal for couples to disengage. The women moved into a circle at the center of the hall, the men into a slightly larger circle around them. Men circled to the left, women to the right, moving their feet in a shuffle that marked the polka beat. This interlude was a chance to catch your breath, to greet or wink at dancers you knew as they spun by in the other circle, to wonder who the dance would pair you with next. Because when the whistle blew, you paired up—man and woman, woman and man—with the person opposite you in the other circle. And launched into the polka again. Until the whistle blew: back into man and woman circles. And when the whistle blew again: a new polka partner. With an eager crowd the Paul Jones could go on and on, circles circling, dancers dancing out of themselves.
At such moments, our bodies are instruments of something else entirely, some other force. We might call that force God, timelessness, cosmic energy. You choose. And if for you dancing goes beyond mating ritual, if the dance itself is what you love—you know what can happen. You know that on a good night, with the right partner, the right surge of energy, you can dance out of the body that otherwise binds you and into something rare, inspired, exhilarating. At the risk of overstepping myself, I might even call it sacred.
Running can be like this. Those who run for the sheer love of running know this to be true, that running takes you out of yourself. And there’s a scientific explanation—what we know about endorphins and their role in brain chemistry. But that kind of thinking can be reductive, can make us think that running and dancing are just cheaply purchased avenues to a purely physiological rush. I say it’s more than that. I say endorphins are a vehicle too. They can take us elsewhere.
Sex can too—sex and love—even sex coupled with opposing emotions, as when the body says I want and a voice in the head says no, pleasure grappling with judgment.
In the fall of 1965, several weeks before my 17th birthday, I found myself on a country road after sunset, high beams carving a tunnel in starless dark. The man beside me at the wheel had crossed a significant boundary. I was an adolescent; he was not, though the gap meant little to me. This man was in the same age bracket as older boys I’d known riding the bus to school when I was nine or ten years old. They were several years past high school by now, but I saw them as eternal seniors—old enough to purchase alcohol but decades behind my father, his brothers and friends. Which is to say that nothing about my companion on the night in question even remotely suggested adult, let alone authority figure.
Were it not for a bit of foolishness two summers before, nothing might have happened on that night-drenched road. In the weeks before I started high school, though, another boy and I, having found ourselves alone in the dark behind closed doors, had let ourselves handle each other. We had nothing in common except that mutual masturbation electrified us.
Two years later, on what was to be an ordinary drive between Orange Grove and the family farm, my left hand fell into the driver’s right. And I insist on the verb. I know what Freud would say: there are no accidents. Experience tells me otherwise, tells me intentions didn’t figure at the outset, even in the reflexive movement of fingers and thumb by which the driver and I were holding hands. Dancers do this without thinking. And so we rode along, passenger and driver, this simple touch between us, rode on through a stretch of stillness, the loveliest calm of my life, enclosed together in the November night. Until memory fired, crucial signals leaping across synaptic gaps, and I wanted what hands can do with a man in the dark when no one is looking.
I marvel, looking back, at the shameless expertise with which I orchestrated what came next, relaxing my neck so that my head lolled to the side as if I’d fallen asleep, my torso leaning, leaning, as happens when someone nods off in a car. My right hand found its way to his hand holding mine and lit there briefly. No sign from him. I put my hand on his thigh—again like a movement in sleep—and let my fingers rest there. But that wasn’t what I was after. My fingers slipped upward, upward, and touched the tongue of fabric at his fly. A beat. Another. A ridge of hardness throbbed beneath my fingertips, and the current surged in me. The driver shifted, scooting forward on the car seat ever so slightly, flexing his hips beneath my hand. I reached beneath his fly, fingered the zipper there, warm as blood, grasped the zipper tab between thumb and forefinger, tugged gently. The zipper gave. I slipped inside, fingered another opening, slipped inside again. Felt flesh as warm as fever. A pulse.
The driver took his right hand from my left, grasped my right wrist firmly, and removed my hand from his pants. ‘‘I know you’re awake, David. Sit up, now. We can’t do this.’’ There was something raw in his voice, a kind of pain I had not heard spoken before. A kind of longing.
I sat up, slid back to my side of the car, and slipped out of myself, nothing left of me but cold awareness of this boy who has unzipped a man’s pants and reached inside, touched eager, happy, touch-me flesh. Tethered here, riding out the silence, wide awake in the night, I can see. This boy has no place here, has no place else to go. He has stopped doing what he started. He knows without knowing that he will not stop wanting what he wants.
Family members, schoolmates, my high-school sweetheart—anyone who knew me then could make a game of guessing the driver’s identity, but the obvious choices would be wrong, wrong, and wrong again. The locals who wanted what I wanted had learned to hide their hunger behind a shit-kicker slouch, a twangy sneer, smooth moves with a woman on the dance floor.
When I was 26, at a popular South Texas eatery, with lots of drinking and joking and noise, a man my father’s age, someone I’d known all my life, leaned over where I was sitting, as if to say something beneath the voices, and put his tongue in my ear. He was a father several times over, married for decades, with children my age. I had danced with his wife at the Rifle Club when he danced by with one of the other wives, winking in our direction. This intimate thing he did to me, a deeply private gesture in a wildly public space—it might have been a joke, the drunken hetero aping taboo behavior. But I recognized the current passing from him to me, a surge of wanting never spoken, aching to become a whisper in the ear he touched with his tongue. Know me. Please.
I knew. I’d been down the road with my anonymous driver. The law would have called him a man, but I passed that age soon enough myself. Hindsight revealed him for what he was—a boy fumbling his way into manhood and failing and trying again. Several friends I’ve told about this chapter in my sexual history—a therapist too, whom I saw in my early forties—have looked at the age gap and suggested a victim-abuser relationship. To this simplistic assessment, all I can say is that I was 17 and then 18, that I’d been driving a tractor unsupervised since the age of 10 or 11, driving to and from town on my own since the age of 14, assuming adult responsibilities in a world that expected such. I knew exactly what I was doing the night I put my hands on this man and each time thereafter when I devised a way to be with him where others wouldn’t see. I made adult if conflicted decisions about my first serious sexual relationship; any anguish I suffered as a result was adult anguish. I was no one’s victim. From the beginning, then, I knew what we were doing was not child’s play. What drew me was primal; it was dangerous. I faltered in my will to resist, faltered before church authority too. I knew just how powerful was the impulse moving in me when the parish priest, recognizing my voice in confession, threatened to expose me. Still, I didn’t stop.
I suppose I might have chosen to end what we were doing, might have summoned the will, though I don’t see how. And stopping would have changed nothing, which is to say that every fiber of me wanted him. And not in the way of the moody Top 40 songs I poured my heart into, Bobby Hatfield’s astonishing rendition of ‘‘Unchained Melody,’’ for example. The lyrics, the voice, are fueled by pure, unconflicted desire:
I’ve hungered for your touch . . . a long, lonely time.
Time goes by so slowly. And time can do so much.
Are you still mine?
Desire without guilt—the loneliness that comes of wanting a woman who might not want you back—this is what I wanted. Listening to the Righteous Brothers, to the power in Hatfield’s voice, I was able to believe in the possibility, though that kind of sexual love was always in future tense, always enclosed in the parentheses of marriage. But the man I was actually having sex with—I did not want him to be mine, did not want him to love me. He tried to tell me that he did—once, maybe more—as our hands went hungrily to work. I stopped him, appalled. I didn’t want love. I wanted to crush myself against him, tear him out of his clothes, feel the heat in him, the heart beating beneath his skin. The moments when I knew I would go to him, the moments after—these were agony—wanting the one thing I didn’t want, loving what I hated, hating him because he made me want him, because he was ready to say words I loathed.
Fifty years later I listen to Jeff Buckley singing ‘‘Hallelujah,’’ and I remember what I felt with a man I first touched on a road in the dark, 17 years old, absolutely unprepared for the wreckage that was coming. Buckley’s nimble fingering pulls me in—a light, almost imperceptible waltz tempo running beneath the melody so tenderly, it puts me in mind of Wordsworth, though what I hear when Buckley’s voice comes in, Leonard Cohen’s lyrics raw in him, is suffering recalled in something like tranquillity. Fingers on the strings move in me like the ghost of myself on a dance floor long empty of anything except memory, right hand at the lower back, left hand raised to take the hand of a man I never danced with.
The words, the voice, the notes of the guitar: this is the kind of love I didn’t want, the kind of love that didn’t care what I wanted, that strapped me to a kitchen chair and broke me open:
Maybe there’s a God above,
But all I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
And it’s not a cry you can hear at night—
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light.
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.
Praise and anguish in each and every breath, a kind of despairing gratitude distilled into a single word—Hallelujah—repeated, repeated: a litany, a rehearsal that doesn’t heal the wound inflicted by this kind of love.
During the long, long months as I passed 17 and then 18, I lived two lives. Really three. Expert at compartmentalizing, I spent most days happily immersed in the humdrum of school and farm life—chores in the morning; bus ride to school, classes with friends and girlfriend; farm work in the afternoons; homework and television evenings before bed. Dancing had always taken me out of this life and onto another plane. It was a special godsend during those years. At the Rifle Club I could still narrate a man-and-woman story of my own, the life that was supposed to be mine someday. Intermittent sessions with the man no one knew about took up fewer circles on the clock than Saturday night dances, likely less than a dozen hours total in the year and a half we regularly unbuckled each other. But he was the defining experience of my crossing into adulthood, a harbinger of the life to come, though much denied, much resisted, much delayed.
For too long I carried inside me the dance I learned from the Meischens who came before—Valerie and Elwood, Wilton and Madeline—gone now, all four of them. Theirs was not to be my story, though I made it so for years, finally without regret. Because unexpected blessings came out of my futile persistence, my hesitation, my indirection—out of the intricate web of deceptions that snared both me and those I loved. I call three such blessings by name. Karl Meischen, my son, born September 8, 1980. Jack Meischen, also my son, born October 16, 1982. And Scott Wiggerman—love of my life—companion and lover since February 28, 1997, husband and lover since October 23, 2013.
If, like my father, I can lay claim to a difficult life, I know it was circumstances that made the years hard for Daddy—his own father’s suicide, the harsh demands of the farming life, the need to feed and clothe his family through meager seasons. The challenge, even, of learning to love a son who didn’t fit the mold. As for me, the central hardship of my life I can trace directly to myself. I am Elwood and Valerie Meischen’s eldest son, born to love another man. For half a life I wanted another story, my parents’ story, to be mine—a story of husband and wife.
I remember a morning years ago when Daddy woke to one of his moods and couldn’t shake it. I was 12, thereabout, and for some reason on the morning in question, I rode to town with him instead of walking to the school bus. Grandma Meischen lived in town by then; she’d left the farm when I was five. Daddy dropped me at her house before work at the bank. His mother noticed the state he was in—it would have been hard not to—and on that particular morning, she was out of patience.
‘‘You ought to get down on your knees,’’ she told Daddy, ‘‘and thank the good Lord.’’ Her forefinger jabbing the air in front of his nose, Grandma delivered a rant, the drift of which was that her son was to shake off his sullen mood, pray thanks to his savior, count the blessings that were his. She said that several times. ‘‘Count your blessings.’’
Watching this little woman tailor my towering father to the boy he would always be to her—being there at this moment among so many others—was a saving grace of my childhood. Seeing that someone could speak to my father the way he often spoke to me. And get away with it. Every time his mother stopped to take a breath, Daddy slumped a little lower and said simply, ‘‘Aw, Momma.’’
His mother was an indisputable blessing of my father’s life, and he knew it.
I say much the same here. I am blessed in the man who fathered me, in the woman I called Mother, in the story I learned going dancing with them, though eventually I had to make it my own. I learned that from them too—pure German hardheadedness—the will to make the story mine.
This essay original appeared in The Gettysburg Review with the title, “How to Shoot at Someone Who Outdrew You.”