My Mother and the Nun
Written in 1997
By Lyralen Kaye
My mother was 37 when she fell in love with a woman, the same age I am now. It was 1974, I was 14, and the woman my mother fell in love with was the principal of her children’s new grade school, a nun in the rather modern order of Saint Francis, who also happened to be her boss.
As if this wasn’t complicated enough, I had become infatuated with a girl at the same school, an Italian madonna with dark sloe eyes, olive skin, and wide hips–a girl whose body felt soft against the hardened muscles of my swimmer’s arms whenever I found an excuse to hug her. I had had crushes on other girls all through grade school, but at 14 sex was exploding in my body, and for the first time, I felt a crush as warmth, desire to touch.
Of course, I told no one.
I wonder now if my mother was discovering the same feelings, but that June, as I graduated from grade school and my mother applied for the job as secretary to the principal, all I thought about was being accepted by this new group of friends.
Then, though she hadn’t worked for 15 years, my mother got the job.
* * *
That summer, she and I fought all the time. I wanted to hang out with my friends on summer days, to sit beside my Italian friend at night and light my cigarettes from hers. My mother wanted to keep me home, wanted me to go to the pool with her and the other children, wanted me to become a life guard, something she herself had never been able to do.
“I’m not you!” I screamed at her over and over again.
I had always been unpopular. This summer things had changed. I had changed schools, and I knew I had a chance with the girls, even though the boys still didn’t like me. My mother was my adversary, the one who stood in my way.
* * *
Just before school started for the following year—high school for me, yet another new school—Sister Joyce, my mom’s new boss, and a group of other nuns came to our house. I watched, incredulous, as my mother sat among them, a child’s eagerness spreading across her tense features. What was she discovering? I knew she would tell me nothing, so I watched, memorizing everything about her.
There was tension, that day. Joyce’s past familiar—I would say lover, but I doubt in convents they can afford to be so open—spoke sharply to my mother, biting out each word. But Joyce smiled with love, and my mother, always shy, sat in the warmth of that smile like a loved child who knows she will be cherished, who knows she has been found.
“Weird”, I thought. “Really weird.”
Still, I understood what was happening. The night before I had hugged my Italian friend in the tent in our backyard, and now I looked for reasons to cry so she would hold me.
“Oh my God, I’m gay,” I’d thought when her hand touched my shoulder.
I tried not to think that my mother was, too.
But not thinking didn’t help me.
* * *
I started high school only a week later, at an all-girl Catholic school twenty minutes from where we lived. I was glad to be away from boys and what they thought of my mind (too sharp), my face and body (they called me a dog), my neediness, my inability to protect myself from their anger and cruelty. I had no true interest in any of them outside of a friendly competition, but I wanted a boyfriend the way I wanted to smoke cigarettes, proof against mockery, against being different, against something completely visible that only I couldn’t see.
* * *
My memories of that year are a slide show: my mother’s deepening interest in Sister Joyce, their kisses, their bodies changing in relationship to each other, to all of us children, and to the space of the occupied world. Contrasted with this was high school, a respite, a brief fragment of peace: no barking, no name-calling, no notes hung on my back, no circle around me on the playground, tightening like a noose.
I return, playing the same scenes over and over—my growing friendships with other girls, the polyester uniform and green and gold saddle shoes we wore, the demerits I was just beginning to acquire. But with all these memories, there is one that stands out in stark relief; and it is a memory of my mother.
The night is a Friday. My mother works for Sister Joyce five days a week, and, with typical efficiency, she makes Joyce’s life easier in every way she knows how. But work is not enough; they have begun to see each other after school lets out, and on weekends. That year, their first, Sister Joyce begins to come to our house.
On this particular Friday the family has eaten dinner, Sister Joyce is over, and I want to attend a basketball game at my school. So the three of us—Joyce, my mother, and I—get into the station wagon. I sit in the back seat and stare out the window, spacing out like a good adolescent, answering only the questions they address directly to me, which are not many. They are absorbed in each other. My mother’s hair has been cut short, and though her face is a perfect oval, feminine and pretty, her predilection for long shirtwaists and tailored clothes, combined with the new hair, conspire to make her look like a nun. Later, I will learn that lesbian couples have this tendency, to blur styles and to resemble each other, but at 14, as we turn toward the convent to drop Joyce off and I look at my mother’s short, frosted hair, I don’t think of this at all. I think, Get it over with, will you. I don’t want to be late.
We pull into the driveway of the convent, and Sister Joyce says a short good-bye to me, a long one to my mother. The car is dark, only the lights of the dash shining dimly upward toward their faces. When Joyce bends toward my mother, her short veil falls forward, but not enough to obscure my view. Unselfconsciously, without shame, she kisses my mother on the lips. I see their four lips as simple physical objects. I watch as they press together, smooth out; I see my mother look into Sister Joyce’s eyes. And in that one moment the world changes. The skin on my body begins to tingle; I can feel each separate pore. And I am frozen; when Joyce gets out of the car I can’t move, not even to get in the front seat with my mother. She has to yell my name three or four times before I get out of the car, slam the door, and place myself on the vinyl as far away from her as possible.
I sit there, my thoughts moving so fast I can’t catch them. My body is still tingling, but I am aware of my legs as unattached; I must order them to cross and uncross. My mother is a lesbian and I have had exactly three months free of mockery, free of boys, and maybe that is all I will ever have. Because I am a lesbian too, and I don’t want to be, I don’t want to be like her, I don’t want to be made fun of, or to be different, and I am, I am different, not just smarter, or too needy, or too scared to punch one of those stupid boys.
I may be mocked for the rest of my life.
I may be just like the mother who has never defended me against my father, who tells me I’m pretty, but when she thinks I don’t notice looks at me as if she’s trying to understand what’s wrong; who is cold, and feminine, and tense, and beginning to soften.
I say good-bye to my mother when I get out of the car, and then I slam the door as hard as I can.
The lights inside the boys’ gym are bright, a shock after the dim underwater glow of the car. Cheers, and screams, and noise, lots of it. A group of girls calls to me, and I climb through the stands to welcome, but I am floating through the lights and the noise, up somewhere in the vaulted ceiling, and I have to watch the other girls to know when to stand or cheer. Mostly, I’m quiet, and my mind is occupied by lips, meeting. I have never seen my parents kiss, and when my father reaches out to hug my mother, or pinch her, or tease her, she frowns and moves out of reach. Just as I do.
In the middle of this, one of my friends grabs my shoulders from behind, and, in the excitement of the game, hugs me. I have never been so tense. I think the girl is a lesbian, like my mother, like Joyce, and she had better leave me alone or I will deck her.
The next week, at school, I avoid this girl. I can barely say hello, and we were starting to be close. I can’t call her, can’t talk, won’t make plans, and though I know, even at 14, that this is cruel, even wrong, I can’t stop myself. I want to. I am not an unkind child. But I think if that girl touches me again I will die.
It takes me three years to apologize to her, and when I do, I can’t explain.
* * *
In all the years of my adolescence, the closest my mother and I ever came to talking about her relationship with Joyce was during a fight. Even when I walked in on them kissing in the king size bed in my parents’ bedroom, even after Sister Joyce had taken up residence in that bed most weekends, and my father, in his slow push toward the front door, had started sleeping in the den, we didn’t talk. But during this one fight—I was 17 by then, and dating boys to prove I was not who I was—I yelled at my mother, “At least I’m not a fucking lezzie!”
I remember the shocked vulnerability on my mother’s face. I remember it because our fights were endless by then, and she never gave in. Neither did I. But when I said that she stopped fighting, told me we needed to talk, that she loved Joyce but … and suddenly she could say nothing. What could she say and not lie?
I wanted to know if they got genital. I told myself that was all I needed to know.
* * *
Once my mother told me that she didn’t like to talk the way I did, to analyze and have deep conversations. I hated her for saying it, and more for it being true, but I was also grateful. It was an honest thing to say, and it let me know that I was alone in my searching, that she could not help me.
* * *
Ten years after my mother first fell in love with Joyce, I came home from Europe with hairy legs. I was twenty-four and had already had my first serious relationship with a woman; my mother had left my father, but Joyce had been transferred to another convent because of rumors about their relationship. She and my mother no longer spent weekends, talked on the phone, or took vacations. Their relationship had ended.
Of course, I had told my father and the older kids I was bisexual—as I then called myself—four or five years earlier, but I hadn’t told my mother. She found out by reading letters I sent to my sister.
One night, when we were alone in her townhouse, sitting on the couch, she reached over and tugged at the hairs on my legs.
“You bisexual,” she said. Then she gave me one of her shy smiles.
I was the one who didn’t know what to say. “Maybe I am,” I finally answered.
There was this strange silence.
“Well, what about you and Sister Joyce?” I asked.
“We were soul mates,” my mother said. “I’ve never had a friend like that before.”
It was the most she had ever said, the most she ever would say.
* * *
Now she is married to a man, and last June I married a woman. I am the same age she was when she fell in love with Joyce. She did not attend my wedding, but I was thinking of her, and the ways that I have always completed her life. I thought of the answers I wanted and she couldn’t give me, the answers needed by an unpopular 14 year old girl, and I wondered whether marriage, or writing, or even activism has helped me to become a woman who is less her daughter. Sometimes, in this vast intolerant world of ours, I think I am still sitting in the back seat of that station wagon watching a kiss, knowing what it will mean for the rest of my life; and I am afraid. Then I remember the softening of my mother’s face, and I know that my marriage is the furthest thing from silence. Last June I bent into a kiss of my own, and it was my choice, and it is my answer.
I found this yesterday, and decided to enter it into a contest. Still my true story, after all these years.
Originally published in Girlfriends Magazine and an anthology of stories by children of LGT parents.
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