Nineteen ninety-two was not a good year to be gay in Small Town Ontario. It was slightly better to be gay in Medium City Ontario, so that’s where my mother moved.
I was already ashamed of being a “city girl.” In school we had to tell about our pets: I had one cat, Cuddles. I called her a Holstein cat because she was black and white. My friends would list innumerable barn cats, cows, pigs, dogs.
All my friends lived on farms. In their barns we would build hay forts, painstakingly piling bales one upon the other, creating hay dwellings with windows and doors to crawl through. Sometimes, when we were extra ambitious, we’d connect these habitats of fodder with elaborate tunnels. In their barns we would play tag, running along the beams two stories above the straw-covered ground.
One year my friend’s dad’s construction company ordered huge sheets of Styrofoam. We carefully piled these enormous bleached panels and spent the afternoon jumping from rafters and smashing the towers of crunchy plastic. Later that day bits of synthetic snow slipped from our hair and out of our pockets. It piled conspicuously on the cracked linoleum kitchen floor as we sat side by side for a lecture that seemed to go on for hours. The first “city” I lived in was in fact a hamlet of less than 300 people. About 150 of them lived in the old folks’ home, and beyond that there was a farm machinery dealership—my grandfather’s—and a general store/post office/tanning salon, which later got out of the cereal and candy business and became only a post office/tanning salon.
In my 7-year-old mind this was indeed a city of sorts. I had a backyard and a front yard, neighbours, and a paved road in front of my house. Requirements for a farm were not met, and thus I was, as they told me at school, a “city girl.” It was that year when my mother moved to the city—the other city, the real city—the noisy world of people who wore head coverings very different than the one my grandmother wore, the place of the enormous shining shopping malls, where there were more cars than people, and where I was terrified to ride my bicycle. It was 100 times larger than the “city” I grew up in, and from this point on I lived between them, every other day and weekends, back and forth from country to city. A thirty-five minute drive that I could still do now with my eyes closed, my body moving with each curve and hill, the kinetic knowledge of those roads ingrained at a muscular level. At first I thought my friends weren’t allowed to come to my mom’s house because it was in the city. Then I thought it was because of me. Then I stopped asking.
In 1992, I was learning about place value in math and the intricacies of when it is acceptable to call “time out” at recess. My elementary school was farm-locked. We were an island of children ferried in on yellow buses that stopped at farm laneways to collect children huddled in huts at the ends of their long drives, bundled against the snow, waiting and waiting. My mom would drive me to school every other morning. We would wake up early and pour tea in our mugs, which made me feel very grown up. I usually drank peppermint because it smelled like summertime in my best friend’s meadow.
As she drove my mother would act out stories. She played innumerable characters in twisted tales. She was the old man who yelled at neighbourhood kids, the little German woman who was always “sveepink da house, sveepink da house,” and the eccentric teenage boy who snorted when he laughed. I would sip my tea and interrogate these passengers. For years she kept expanding these characters, characters with back stories, families, and personal dramas, characters who only appeared on this precious journey to school. It was an every-other-day migration. From pavement and stoplights to gravel and corn fields, I would shed my city skin as we approached the school.
My grade-four teacher was from Toronto. He took a week off when they were spraying liquid manure on the farms around the school. We were a child kingdom surrounded by a protective moat of stench that no city teacher could penetrate. We never respected him after that week.
I never told anyone at school about my mom. At school I pretended she didn’t exist, that she had moved to the city and lived there alone and lonely, penitent as a home wrecker should be. Our child culture was strong and my home situation was never mentioned, an elementary school omertà held by all. There was a boy with the last name Crapper whom nobody liked. He was scrappy and mean, and always smelled like canned meat. One recess I joined the others hurling insults and he looked at me and said, “Well at least my mom isn’t a lezzie!” Shocked that he had spoken the unspeakable, that which I wasn’t quite certain of myself, I stepped back. The crowd of child bullies was silenced by the speaking of the secret and looked at me; I turned on my shaky legs and walked away, swearing never to look in anyone’s eyes again.
I had exactly two friends at school who were not Mennonite. And they were both allowed to play at my mom’s house. I supposed at the time it was because they were already so saturated in sin that being in a house steeped in sexual immorality didn’t affect them the same way it would my friends from church. When we went to the cottage in the summer I had to ask one of them to come with me. Neither of them would have been my first choice, but when you have limited options you take what you can.
My mom’s partner died the April I was in grade six. At church my dad stood up at sharing time and said my mom’s friend had died. I remember the collective eyes upon us, I remember the words of comfort left unsaid, and I remember my friend approaching me three days later at school on the playground as I sat on a swing, replaying the funeral: the deep red of the drapes, the smooth wood of the casket.
She sat beside me and said, “You know you shouldn’t care that she’s dead, right? There’s nothing you can do, she’s in Hell anyway.” I kept swinging, and hearing the quiet singing from the service and seeing my mother’s head bowed, unmoving. I was starting a new school the following September, and I remember praying that my mom wouldn’t find a new partner, that without another woman she would cease to be a lesbian. My grief mingled with relief at the idea that I wouldn’t have to tell friends at my new school about my mom. I was going to a Mennonite high school in the city—and from my half-decade of learning as a child of a lesbian mother in the early nineties, I knew one thing for certain: Mennonites hate gays.
At my new school they called me a “country girl”—my town with its three street lamps and four stop signs was laughable—and I laughed too. I took a bus into the city from my dad’s house. A group of parents had gotten together and chartered a bus for us to travel from the surrounding small towns into the city for school. We passed silos and general stores; we put on makeup and hitched up our skirts while we sat on the bus.
At my mom’s I deleted messages from her new girlfriend. And yet, there are only so many times you can say “I’m sorry, mom said to tell you she doesn’t want you to call anymore,” so many messages you can delete, before she moves in. There are only so many cold stares and shoulders turned. There are only so many times you can see your mother who was grieving laugh again before you too begin to smile.
I learned as a 12-year-old that, as it happens, City Mennonites and Country Mennonites differ in one important way: City Mennonites are less afraid of catching homosexuality. I don’t remember “coming out” to my friends about my mom, but slowly they all knew (tell one person and the whole school, the whole city—large though it seemed—knew); and we never talked about it, but they were all allowed at my house.
My mom and her new partner had a commitment ceremony when I was in grade eight. I played the flute as they walked down the aisle. There was a crowd of people there to celebrate, mostly women, mostly my mother’s age. I moved among them comfortably. These were the women who filled my city living room, who brought casseroles during sickness and balloons during celebrations. We ate, we danced, and on Monday I went to school and told no one.
I have a cousin who recently left her husband for another woman. I meet with her daughter, my first cousin once removed, every month for breakfast. “What are the odds?” I ask my friends, “that my story is repeated in my family? That I can speak to this little girl what no one spoke to me?” We agree they’re probably pretty low.
My cousin’s daughter and I go to Cora’s for breakfast. We order the same thing, but hers is from the children’s menu and half the price. We talk about school, about the play she’s in, and she tells me about her hamsters. I see how easy it is to talk around, to never mention, to accept the happy child before you, to not want to push it. But I do, and there are things to talk about, like insensitive teachers (I heard you moved? Oh just your mom? Is she living with someone else? A boyfriend?) and supportive friends (Stop asking her!). For her it’s a non-issue at church, no one talks about Hell or generational sin; I release the breath I didn’t know I was holding. We make a date for next month. I drop her off at her dad’s house and turn my car onto the highway.
Twenty-two years later my history has repeated itself in my family, but this time they all stayed in the country, two blocks apart in Small Town Ontario: ex-husband, my cousin, her partner, kids. I have to consciously loosen my grip on the steering wheel as I speed past trees and barns toward my home in the city.