I do not remember when exactly my mom told me that she was a lesbian, but I do remember a series of unfortunate events that surrounded it. My parents had divorced when I was three years old, my father had custody, and we were at her house for one of our every-other-week visits. The house had a huge backyard so we were all outside playing and goofing around. My sister and mother went inside to get something and my mom called back out to me “Hey, Tiger Joe would you like…” I do not recall exactly what it was that she was offering. What I do recall is the shrill voice of a friend from elementary school echoing her call of Tiger Joe. My name is T.J.; it does not stand for anything. Mom gave me a wonderful, sweet nickname, that up until that point I had loved. When this friend heard it though, he turned it into a thing that brought shame. For the next few weeks at school I remember vividly being taunted by my classmates. The next time I saw my mom, I instructed her that she was no longer allowed to call me Tiger Joe; looking back I am sure that that moment hurt her.
At some point later during that school year, the teasing had died down and I had become one of the cool kids again, which when you are in fifth grade is basically the only thing that matters. I was riding high on my regained popularity. To this day I wish I could remember how exactly my mom told me that she was a lesbian. Did she tell my sister and me? Did she say gay or lesbian? What was the context surrounding it? I cannot remember any of it. Per the custody arrangement, we did not see my mom very often, only every other weekend and two weeks in the summer.
We never had a lot, but we always had enough, and mom gave all that she had to my sister and me. She was my favorite parent, so when she told me that she was a lesbian. I went to school the next week proclaiming the happy news to all who would hear it! You can probably already imagine where this is going to lead. Rural, northwestern Indiana is not the most progressive of areas. If I imagined that the taunting and teasing was bad after the Tiger Joe incident, I had no concept of what was about to happen over the next few days. As my “friends” went home and told their parents what I had shared, their parents instructed them to stay away from my sinful mother and me.
I really don’t want to dwell on what happened next. In short, I was forced to make a decision that no child should have to make; I had to choose between having friends or a relationship with my mother. I chose friends. I did not see or speak to my mother for a couple of years. Every other Friday I would watch my sister get into my mom’s car, and I would cry as they drove away. These were dark days.
I WAS FORCED TO MAKE A DECISION THAT NO CHILD SHOULD HAVE TO MAKE; I HAD TO CHOOSE BETWEEN HAVING FRIENDS OR A RELATIONSHIP WITH MY MOTHER.
My memory is not clear on how the process of reconciliation began between my mother and I, but it boiled down to making another choice: being true to myself or being who others desired me to be. When I ran back into my mother’s arms, she did not ask why or where I had been… she simply wrapped her arms around me and told me that she loved me and missed me. We have never looked back.
In the last 20 years, my mom has been one of my best friends. She was the first person there when I returned home from my first combat tour in the Middle East. She was the first person I told when I realized that I wanted to marry my then girlfriend. She was the first person I called when we found out that we were going to have a baby. As a child, the Christian church was rather unkind to my mother, yet when I told her that I felt called to become an Episcopal priest she was the first person to tell me to follow that call. Her wife wrote the first letter I received while I was a reconnaissance team leader in Baghdad. My second mom had served as an Army Lieutenant after she finished college and her family adopted my sister and I with love and charity, seamlessly integrating us into their family holidays and functions. The farm that my mom and her wife call home has become the place where I most want to be when I need time to think and remove myself from the business of life. In short, there are not two people outside of my wife and daughter that I love more than those two amazing, strong, and beautiful women.
If I could do it all over again I would never have shut my mother out of my life, but her welcoming me home taught me truly what the love of God looks like in this world. No matter how much I shut her out, she was right there waiting to welcome me home. The author of the Gospel of Luke records Jesus’ teaching ‘The Prodigal Son.” The son takes his inheritance (read mother’s love) and squanders it on stupid things. When he is reduced to nothing, he crawls home asking to be one of his father’s hired servants. When the son returns home, his father greets him with a huge party because “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15:24). This is the extent of God’s love and this was the breadth and depth of love that my mother showed to me. I give thanks each day for her and if I can teach my daughter one thing I hope that it is to love in the model of her grandmother with reckless abandon and hope.
The Rev. T.J. Freeman is a priest at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside