Tag Archives: family

“I remember,” I told my little brother on my last visit home, “when I realized that dressing fashionably wasn’t a betrayal of Gershom principles.”

I don’t mean my mother dressed me in flour sacks, growing up, or that there was ever a firm, spoken injunction against trying to look like we fit in anywhere. But aren’t unspoken rules the strongest kind?

When I was about 13, I was driving somewhere with my dad and we passed a Public School Kid,1 shuffling along with a t-shirt too big for him but not big enough to cover the boxers that showed above his sagging pants. He had two or three piercings. To my eyes, this was a scary, badass dude.

My dad let out his standard grunt/sigh of weary disapproval — this kid was everything that was wrong with the world! — and said, “Steve. Thanks for not being like that.”

He had no idea that what I heard was: “Thanks for not fitting in anywhere.”

Not Being Like That was one of the unspoken-but-firmly-established principles of Gershomhood, which included a whole list of things — some (as I now consider them) good, some bad, mostly neutral, but all verboten, under pain of disenfranchisement or at least mockery:

  • Eating conspicuously healthy food
  • Buying brand-name clothing
  • Being too intellectual
  • Being too lowbrow (with exceptions for The Three Stooges and Leslie Nielsen)
  • Hugging
  • Holding hands during the Our Father

Etc., etc. I don’t know whether this list seems consistent to the untrained eye, but to me the indefinable quality of Gershomhood runs through all of it, as unmistakable as a pungent odor, immediately identifiable to anybody with the right habit of mind.

It all had a weird power over me, due to my intense desire to belong. My fear at being caught listening to Celine Dion2 probably approached, in intensity, my fear of being discovered to be gay.

I’m not trying to tell you that my parents ruined my life by not encouraging me to use hair gel.

Yeah, it took me a while to understand — for example — that owning new furniture wasn’t a sin, and that going to therapy wasn’t a sign of weakness. But there’s nothing unusual in a kid unreflectively absorbing his parents’ preferences and turning them into prejudices. Some of it I probably made up myself and later attributed it to them; I wonder what my siblings’ list would include? (Feel free to chime in here, guys.)

After I had been at college for a little bit and had begun seriously to experience Other People, I think I went through a period of being sort of self-righteously un-Gershomly in front of my parents — I bet it really showed ‘em when I pierced my eyebrow3 — but eventually I settled down and just tried to do my own thing, whatever it was; even if it sometimes happened to coincide with the sort of thing my father would approve of.

To this day, though, I get a kind of transgressive thrill when I eat at a vegan restaurant, shake hands during the sign of peace, put on cologne in the morning, or call somebody “dude”.

What about you? What were your family’s unspoken rules? Do you still follow them, or have you forsworn them completely, or have you just plain stopped thinking about them?

1 The Public School Kid was a firmly-established archetype in my childhood. They swore, listened to Metallica, and wore their caps backwards, even when the brim would’ve been useful for keeping the sun out of their eyes. STOOPID.
2 I don’t really listen to Celine Dion. Or maybe I do. Do I even like her? I’m not sure. I’m just worried I don’t hate her as much as I’m supposed to.
3 I bet most passive-aggressive people would be surprised and chagrined at how often their vengeful strategems go — not ignored, not resisted — but completely unnoticed.

I didn’t expect such a strong response to that celibacy post. I liked it because it reminded me of priests I know: men who became priests, not because they didn’t have it in them to be men or didn’t have it in them to be fathers, but because they did have those things in them. All the qualities that make a man a good father make a man a good priest.

But I do understand why it touched a nerve. A good friend of mine went through exactly what some of the commenters described. She became romantically involved with a man who later decided to enter the seminary. No problem there, except the man in question kept stringing her along after the decision was already made. He didn’t see a problem with having romantic evenings with a girl whose heart he was tearing to shreds. He used her as his crutch. A man like that needs to be punched repeatedly in the head, till he realizes that his grand, glorious story has characters besides himself.

In other news, last Sunday I moved in with my sister. Packing my things felt like slowly tearing out some living part of myself.

Moving in, on the other hand…I don’t know what it is about my sister and her family. It is as if they have the charism of peace. Peace in the yard, peace in the house, peace in the children and in the furniture and in the dog.1

I feel like a convalescent. Say I’m overdramatizing if you want, I don’t care: the last few months was one of the worst ordeals of my life. Now it is over, and it is time to grieve and heal.

This is a fine place for that. I had a perfectly normal day. I wrote some fine code, chatted with my coworkers, coded some more, came home, said hi to everyone, went to my room, and bawled like a baby for no reason at all. The dog was sympathetic, if nonplussed.

Then I set up my mat and Kung Fu’d myself into a sweat until I felt better. Tomorrow I will do it all again. I think it will hurt less tomorrow.

1 My sister will snort when she reads this paragraph, but it is true nevertheless.

Michelle Pfeiffer: I think she’s starting to suspect something.
Harrison Ford: Who?
Michelle Pfeiffer: [scarily, sexily] YOUR WIFE.1

It’s tricky, having a secret identity. Not so tricky when you live alone: I imagine Superman enjoyed lounging around his apartment in cape and tights, blissful and carefree as long as he kept the curtains closed.2 And of course he had the Fortress of Solitude, so that was nice.

When I first started blogging as Steve Gershom — wow, over a year ago — I considered not telling my family about it at all. At that time, they didn’t know about my SSA, or most of them didn’t. My parents knew, from back when I was less computer-savvy,3 although it wasn’t really news to them — I mean, they were the ones who paid the shrink. My older brother knew, because I told him…meh, okay, he knew already too: I had confided in his then-fianceé some years back, and she turned out to have a sorta big mouth.4

But from everybody else, when I finally sent the big email, I got reactions ranging from:

  • “Whaaaat? Really? You?” (in a nice way) to
  • “Well, I did grow up with you.” (fair enough) to
  • “So you’re into dudes, huh?” (my favorite)

The whole thing was extremely liberating, and afterwards my reasons for holding out seemed a little dopey. “Your little brother will be freaked out,” I told myself. (He wasn’t — see last quote, above.) “It would be selfish to burden them with this,” I pontificated. (SERIOUSLY? How ’bout the number they did on you?5) “There’s no point, and it won’t really help,” I predicted. (Yah, because sharing your burdens with the people who care about you never helped anyone, ever.)

Not only was it liberating, it was fruitful, too. When you come from as large a family as mine, the sheer age spread makes it hard to be as close to your siblings as you might like; and when you come from as wounded a family as mine, an awful lot can get buried.6 Once this came out, a few other things started to. Those ripples are still spreading.

Which is not to say that the decision was easy, or that I should have made it sooner, or even that everybody should do it. A lot of things had to happen before I was ready. And then, some ostensibly Christian parents really would disown a son for being into dudes, and some ostensibly Christian siblings really would be disgusted. Mine didn’t and weren’t, because if there’s one thing my family is good at, it’s tolerating idiosyncracy.7 Everyone should be so lucky, but not everyone is.

But everybody — Oh, everybody, and I know this is hard for so many of you, because it was for me — needs somebody to tell.

As for telling everybody, it’s mainly the prudence of Father T. that has kept me from it. It’s a complicated question, and the best I can do is try to follow the Spirit. It’s possible, of course, that the whole thing is moot, and that everyone is just silently going “Dude. We know. No big deal.” When I told my friend M., he acted properly surprised, but it turned out he had known for SEVEN YEARS — again, due to the big mouth of a dear friend’s brother. Pseudonym or no, I’m not exactly careful, and anyone who knows even my basic history could (and frequently does) piece it together pretty easily.

The question is a little more pressing in the case of my roommate. He knows I write, and will ask fairly often how it’s going, which makes me hem and haw like nobody’s business. (“I’m writing…something. About…people.”8) And I feel bad: he really is interested, which I take as a compliment, and I hate making him feel shut out, because he’s my friend. And if I really didn’t want him to know, wouldn’t I have made a habit of writing in my own Fortress of Solitude, viz. the attic that’s only accessible through my bedroom? And if I tell him there’s a blog, I can’t exactly refuse to tell him where it is. There’s nothing I’m ashamed of on here, but it’s some pretty personal sh★t. Does anybody really want to know that much about the guy they live with?

But these questions don’t bother me, not tonight. God has proved himself good time and again, and as for that funk I’m starting to dare to say that I’m coming out of — guys, the Memorare? One heck of a prayer.

1 Yeah, that movie has nothing to do with this post at all.
2 That sentence sure got creepy fast, didn’t it?
3 Was I ever really dumb enough not to delete the search history? Seriously.
4 Dearest R., who I still reads this thing: I mean that affectionately, I promise.
5 Joke. Mostly. Hey, what family doesn’t F★ck each other up, is what I’d like to know.
6 “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”
7 Tolerating? If idiosyncracy were an animal, there would be like seventeen of them on our coat of arms. Rampant.
8 Okay buddy, getting a little self-indulgent with the inside jokes.

One of the dangers of a life like mine — being single, living alone, working a job that mainly involves staring at glowing rectangles all day — is that your faults tend to get hidden from you.

When I was a teacher, It was impossible to avoid my faults: how little it takes to make me lose patience, how I have it in me to be casually cruel even to a sixth-grader if I’m short on sleep, how prone I am to sulking when my free time gets hijacked.

Living with the community in Peru, even for just a few months, was the same. I remember doing chores with Brother Pedro one day, sweeping the floors but avoiding his eyes because just looking at him made me furious; muttering Hail Marys under my breath like they were curses, because it was either pray for his wretched, pedantic soul or beat him to death with the broom. All this because — I honestly can’t remember; probably something about the tone of voice he kept using, or this way he had of sniffing and lifting an eyebrow.1

It’s lucky I come from a big family, and that nearly everyone in my family has a big family. I’m surrounded by role models.

Caleb works overtime every week, sometimes six or seven days in a row, just to make ends meet, and all he wants to do with his time off is give that time away to his family. Caleb comes particularly to mind because I’m housesitting for him this weekend, and noticing how all I can think of is how far of a drive it is from my place to his, and how his stupid dog won’t quit licking me.

But it’s not just Caleb. I could say the same about my other married brothers and sisters. Sacrifice isn’t just something they do from time to time, when they quit watching TV and get around to it. It’s how they live.

People keep telling me how wonderful I am for, well, just not having sex with anybody. And believe me, I snap up those compliments like my brother’s stupid dog snaps up doggie treats.2 And frankly, yes, it’s hard work remaining chaste and celibate.3 It’s difficult, and it causes me pain.

But I have less and less patience with this question: “How can the Church require homosexuals to be celibate? How can she impose such a heavy cross?”

Why do people think that living a good life is supposed to be easy? Readers, whoever you are — gay, straight, married, single, relatively healthy or inflicted with any one of a billion possible debilitating pathologies — you will be asked to carry a cross. It’s going to be hard, and it’s not going to be fair.

This is a world where evil is real, and where the only real antidote is love — not medicine, not political change, not advanced anti-suffering technology, but love. And love always costs.

Suffering and self-denial aren’t extraordinary; they’re par for the course. What did you expect?

1 Yep, I was an expert on the shades of emotional inflection in a language I could barely even speak and a culture I knew nothing about.
2 And rawhide strips, and shoes, and newspapers, and toys, and the cat’s food (but not her own), and bugs, and cigarette butts…I think I’ve lost sight of my original simile.
3 Not a redundancy. Celibacy means refraining from sexual activity. Chastity means integrating your sexuality with the rest of your personality, in a way that’s appropriate to your station in life. The former is required of some people; the latter is required of everybody.