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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Thirty Years

I’ve been asked by several people what Barbara and I will be doing on October 13th. It has nothing to do with being “Friday the 13th”. It has everything to with the 30th anniversary of the commitment we made to our relationship.

Everyone assumes we’ll be taking a “romantic trip.” To Hawai’i. Or, the South of France. Or, having a huge party. Or, at least, a special dinner.

Well, we’re not.

With any luck, we’ll just be having a quiet evening at home. I won’t have to run to the church to settle a dispute over room usage and Barbara won’t have to make a Hospice visit. The kids will call. We’ll talk. Nothing special. Just life. School. A funny story about the grand babies. A few memories. Plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Bed early on a Friday night. Lots of things to do on Saturday morning in preparation for the Bishop’s visitation on Sunday.

I suppose the reason we feel blessed by a prevailing sense of calmness is that our first 15 years or so together were hardly that. Indeed, the first five years were spent entangled in the first open lesbian custody case in Bristol County, MA.

The word about our case had spread like wildfire through the legal community. I remember that court room in Taunton, MA being standing room only – absolutely thick with local lawyers who were curious to see how the judge would rule in that preliminary hearing.

More than one of those good litigators stopped us on the way out – male and female – and said, “You’ve got good representation, but if you need any help, we’ll do it pro bono.” Our lawyer confirmed that he, too, had been approached by several of his colleagues who were watching and waiting for our case to unfold so they could help their clients.

The next five years are pretty much a blur to me now. However, I clearly remember the day we lost custody of my two children. At the end of the trial, the judge asked each side to make a 10 minute presentation on why they felt we were the better custodial parent.

The attorney for the plaintiff went first. Realizing that the judge’s question meant that we had made a credible enough case that he was actually thinking of granting us custody, the barrister began explaining in almost comical fashion how much he had learned about “these kinds of people.” “I’ve learned,” he intoned with gravity, “that homosexuals can also be women and that they can be intelligent and productive human beings.”

Imagine that!

“But, your honor,” he said, raising his voice for dramatic effect, “it is just common sense that it is not good for children to grow up in that kind of environment.” Right! Goodness knows we don’t want our children having parental role models who are intelligent and productive, much less anything with any semblance to the human race!

The judge then turned to me. It was clear he didn’t want my attorney to speak for me. He also wanted to know a bit more. “Tell me,” this judge with a Jewish last name, kindness in his eyes and a gentle smile asked, “given the staggering divorce rate among heterosexual couples, and the enormous societal pressure against homosexual couples in general and women in particular, why you believe you can provide a good home for these children – especially since you have been together less than a year.”

I remember saying something like, “Because we love them. Because we don’t want them to become political footballs in this silly game of sexual politics and will work hard to make sure they have a relationship with their father and grandparents. Because if you deny us custody, we fear we will never see our children again.”

“Because,” I continued, “we understand the importance of family and we will work hard to create that for them, even though our definition of family is different from the prevailing norm. Because we want our daughters to grow up to be strong, intelligent, well educated women who will be good citizens and make a contribution to society.”

But mostly, your honor,” I said, trying very hard to sound brave and strong but feeling my knees threatening to buckle, “because we love them enough to make the sacrifices necessary to live the truth of our lives with integrity.” “Because, I hastened to add, “isn’t that what this country and this legal system, is supposed to be about? Indeed, isn’t that what God asks of us?”

My then ex-husband, at the time a barely-employed carpenter with a drug and alcohol problem, won custody contingent upon his living with our daughters under my parent’s roof and guidance.

We won visitation rights every other weekend and the summer months after school ended in June and before school began in September. Our lawyer said that the decision was “much more generous” than he estimated it would be.

Funny. It didn’t feel so generous. Indeed, it felt flat-out punitive.

Our attorney understood completely, but asked us to consider the verdict that had come down from the bench in a lesbian custody suit just the day before. A devout Roman Catholic Italian judge in Billerica, MA, the father of six and grandfather of eight, and an honorary Knight of Columbus, had denied custody and visitation rights to a woman who been with another woman, but who had left her and sworn herself to celibacy in order to regain custody of her kids.

Sole custody was awarded to the maternal grandparents. Calling her a “pervert and an abomination in the sight of the Lord,” he warned her that if she even attempted to see her children, he would have her thrown in jail for the maximum sentence allowed by law.

It was then that I discovered that misery, in fact, does not like company.

Here’s what I know about the past thirty years of our relationship: It’s a vocation. A call from God to be together. To give birth to a new family from the broken pieces of ill-conceived relationships. To fashion a new community woven out of the tattered and worn threads of broken promises, betrayal, and disappointment.

The vocation of being family has many variations. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, in her book, “Sensuous Spirituality: Out from Fundamentalism” has documented at least 40 different kinds of families in scripture. In each instance, the biblically based family value is to value family.

The biblical model is to love because God said at the beginning of creation, “It is not good for humankind to be alone.” The way of Jesus is to love, even when hatred and prejudice and bigotry are hot on the breath of others around you. The way of the cross is to love anyway – as Gene Robinson reminds us that John Fortunato once advised in “Embracing the Exile.”

To ‘take a chance on God’, as John McNeil challenged us, and watch miracles unfold as God takes the tattered and torn bits of anxiety and betrayal and fear and humiliation and transforms them into a glorious whole cloth garment of peace and trust and courage and confidence.

In the past thirty years, we’ve seen just that. Little miracles are everywhere in our family – in our relationship. We have five grown children and four beautiful grandchildren. All of our kids are intelligent, well educated and contributing members of society and the cosmos.

It’s been an incredibly full thirty years: newborns, infants, toddlers, adolescents. Kindergarten, elementary school, high school, college, grad school, and Ph.D. Seminary, new jobs, old cars with dead batteries. Prom dates, car licenses, new boyfriends, old girlfriends. We have grieved the loss of our eldest daughter and felt the delirious joy reserved for the arrival of grandchildren.

No, we aren’t the portrait of an American family that Norman Rockwell would ever paint, and some are still loathed to admit it, but we’re family nonetheless. Family anyway. Abundantly blessed even if some in the church are stingy to pronounce blessings.

So, you’ll excuse us if we take this moment in our thirty years together to share a simple, quiet evening at home. We’ve worked very hard for this moment and I am bold to say I think we have earned at least this one request.

Today and the next, the struggle will continue. The forces of ignorance and prejudice, much of it fueled by good bible-believing Christians, will be at us again. We’ve come a long way and witnessed the truly miraculous in our time. The Court House in Taunton, MA where we lost custody of our children is now the site where same-sex couples can be legally married.

That is not the case in New Jersey. Or anywhere else in this in this country. So, today and the next day, we work. But, on the evening of Friday the 13th, we will rest. All we need, all we desire, is just the gift of this one moment of peace and quiet and simple celebration.

And then, we’ll start on the next thirty years.



Mazel tov! We'll toast you and Barbara and your next 30 years at our Integrity Board Meeting dinner on the 13th ... Many, many blessings!

Dave said...

God bless you and keep you both, so that just be being an out couple living in the way of Christ you can spread the Good News to all who need to hear and see it!

Mike in Texas said...

Best wishes to you and Barbara on your 30th.

Your taste in celebrations is the same as ours, BTW. We prefer to keep them very quiet and peaceful as well. Sometimes we go out for a nice dinner. Sometimes we cook something very special at home. We'll be celebrating our 36th in November.

Ann in Arkansas said...

Congratulations on thirty years of marriage and family life. You have walked through many rough places in these years. Here's to thirty more years of family life and life together. Have a good night on the thirteenth.

Jake said...

This is beautifully written. Thank you.

May God continue to bless your next thirty years.

Deborah Sproule said...

Beautiful testimony to the true struggle of doing Christ's work with pure respect for our personal blessings from God. Your faith fans the flame of my faith. Blessings to you both.

Suzer said...

Blessings and congratulations to you and Barbara today! May your joy and happiness together continue for another 30 years.

Rachel said...

Inspiring words. I hope tonight is all quiet, all wonderful. Thanks for inspiring one who will be taking a journey with her beloved down the isle soon (November 11th -
Bless you both.