Because I wasn't there…..
It's odd how you can go much of your life and not understand why things happened the way they did. And, then, when you least expect it, a moment of clarity occurs when an answer to a question you have never been able to even articulate suddenly presents itself. Revelation. And suddenly so much makes sense.
I had one of those Larsen cow (where the cow suddenly realizes "Grass! This is grass we've been eating!") experiences last week. I had taken my friend Juicy Luci to see her grandmother and aunt and uncle up in The Villages (why do I always think of the 1960s British series The Prisoner when I hear that name?). Afterward we had driven down to see my parents and have dinner with them. As I was sitting in the home where I had spent the last six years prior to graduating high school (getting the hell out of Dodge the day after graduation, literally), the home which sat on the land my father, brother and I had cleared together, I suddenly became aware of the photos on the walls. Photos of my brother and sister and their children - the grandchildren. And so I got a wild hair - why not show Luci my photos from my growing up days?
I began to casually search the house for my photographs. There was the portrait of the three of us taken when I was a senior in high school. And there was one down the hall taken when I was four years old, an innocent toe-headed face peering back at me across the nearly 50 years. (Lord, has it been that long?) The rest was filled with photos of weddings, my parents' and my brother's and sister's. And siblings with children. And grandchildren alone. Long dead forebears peered from my father's room which has become genealogy central for him. All of a sudden it began to dawn on me: but for the two pictures from my childhood, I simply wasn't there.
Suddenly I remembered the funny photo of Andy and I my sister had taken last summer over at the beach. I had framed it and given it to my mother for Mother's Day a couple of months ago. I looked around, trying to remember where I had last seen it. It was nowhere in sight. Finally I detected the edge of the frame peering from behind a photo of my brother and his family. There it was, my partner and I, buried under the socially respectable heterosexual family photo, removed from sight of visitors and occupants alike. I doubt my parents consciously covered up the evidence of their oldest child's adult life. But regardless, for all practical purposes, I wasn't there.
I'm not sure why this surprised me. Surely I could have seen that coming. But a wave of sadness spread over me. I felt the tears brimming in my eyes. And I resolved immediately that I would not let anyone see me cry over this. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to explain why I was upset. "I need to go outside for a minute," I said. "I'm not feeling too good."
The revelation was not yet complete. Blinking back tears and rubbing my burning eyes, I surveyed the wooded 12 acres in which I had spent the bulk of my teenage years. Familiar sights swam into view. The palm tree Daddy gave me for my Christmas present in 1970, now well over my head. Banks of azaleas I had planted, so brilliant in the springtime, rendering the state highway beyond invisible. There was the large oak, its trunk split into two arching giants, where we used to shimmy up between the two and then step out onto the moss and lichen covered branch large enough for a teenager to walk on. Behind the house, past the small citrus grove we had spent many frosty nights building fires to keep alive, was the half acre rock garden I had built over the years. Its concrete fish pond now filled with leaves and weeds, its bricked paths and the wishing well built from a discarded washing machine agitator now grown over with out-of-control ivy and ferns. Yet even in its overgrown appearance, it still soothed me with a warm feeling that came unbidden.
That's when the revelation came into focus. Of course my photos weren't in the house. I wasn't there. And I hadn't been for a long time. It was the woods that had been my refuge in the last years of high school when my father had made life so difficult for me, struggling to deal with a son he feared was probably gay in a town where he had been raised and now taught school. It was the woods where I escaped, pouring out my grief, exchanging uncried tears for rock-lined flower beds brimming with azaleas and ferns, a monument to sublimation and transformation. And it is these same woods from which I have transplanted so many of those plants to my current lot-sized confinement in the heart of a city which does not understand the need for greenery to shield a fragile soul from a world which does not understand it.
Suddenly a number of pieces began to fall into place. For one, my affinity for the woods. I have always loved the woods as long as I could remember even as I despised the small towns - farms and ranches at their edges- with their little minds and even littler hearts. The woods were a place of recharge and refuge, my true alma mater where my broken heart found rest. The psalmist described it well: "It restoreth my soul." I have sought to recreate those woods in every place I have ever lived. Suddenly, I understood why. The woods were my solace, the place I sought out when rejection began to pile on rejection in the little farmer and jock dominated school to which I was sentenced for 11 and a half long years. In the woods, I could be myself hidden from the hostile, judgmental eyes of the townspeople and my increasingly perplexed and anxious father. The woods were the place I belonged.
I also suddenly understood why when my mother asks me what I want of her estate, I have a hard time thinking of anything. The furniture, the wall decorations, the dishes all speak to a house - indeed, a world - to which I never truly belonged. What I really want is outside, where I had existed.
Upon reflection, it has occurred to me that there is a reason my photos stop appearing in the house at the point in my life where they do. At four, I was still the little boy my parents always wanted, the toe-headed, bright child who read at three and whose curiosity about the world was unbounded, the little boy who liked people and invited complete strangers right off the street to his fourth birthday party. At 17, I was still the son with much promise, high scores on standardized tests, good grades, a state merit scholar, a good son who grated at the reins but still was respectable in the little town which raised him. Thereafter came the struggles in earnest, the long, painful coming out process, the failed heterosexual relationships, the alcohol whose abuse escalated toward disaster which would come some 20 years later on a highway in California. There would be no wedding photos or grandchildren to add to the collection of the socially respectable. And the many graduation portraits (five from colleges alone) and the many photos of me with dear friends or my partner of 30 years I gave my parents would never make it to the walls. It's essentially as if Harry, the toe-headed boy and the serious-faced promising high school graduate, the tragic oldest son, simply vanished into the night at graduation from high school that sultry May evening in 1971.
I need to hasten to say that I have never doubted that my parents loved me. Even in my darkest hours of coming to grips with my sexuality and struggling to survive the persecution I experienced as a teacher in Inverness during the late 1970s, I always believed that, at bottom line, my parents still loved me. Their pain at my absence from their immediate lives those four years I spent in California was palpable, one of the major reasons I returned to Florida. But I also have become very clear in my middle age that they have never really understood me though I suspect they have tried. Perhaps no one is ever completely understood. But I think my father, whose world of reference was that little town which had produced him, and my mother, a saint for sure but lacking any kind of experience upon which to relate to a gay son, simply didn't know what to do with the son that emerged after escaping the little town which had held him captive those years. The photos missing from their home bear witness to their response: I simply wasn't there.
I find myself oddly detached from these words as I record them. I don't feel any particular sorrow or anger. I simply find a sense of relief in finally understanding. It's odd to realize such things at midlife. I love my parents no less. And I think I probably understand them a little better than I did. I will be sad the day that I can no longer walk the grounds of the home where I spent the last years of my teenaged life. But I have long since said goodbye to the house where I was at best nominally present those six years. I now have my own home which I love, a home surrounded by a wall of green, some of it from the woods in which I lived those many years. It is a home brimming with photos and mementoes of a very full life, wonderful friends and a loving partnership of some 30 plus years. This is my place, my home. It is a place where my presence is inescapable and its rightful place unquestioned. And it is from that place that I today give thanks for the woods that were my true home and my refuge those many years and for the lesson they have afforded me these many years later. Deo gratias.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.