“Mami, what would you do if you didn’t have me?” my daughter asked the other day, as she put toothpaste on her toothbrush. Why do we have our most intimate conversations in the bathroom?
“Why are you asking me that?”
“Because you’re YOU. What would you do?”
I can tell you what I used to do, before my girls, before my partner. I used to perform spoken word poetry at Northalsted Market Days, dance sometimes at the local boy bar during Wednesday “Women’s Obssession Night”, dress up fancy for the annual Lesbian Community Care Project benefit at South Shore Cultural Center. I used to host meetings for LGBT affinity groups and solidarity organizations. I dated. I rehearsed comedies and children’s shows, co-facilitated coming-out groups, performed for open mic nights and fundraisers.
I used to wear a thick silver chain necklace to parties sometimes, with a three-inch license plate dangling down to say “Butch,” but I never was. I never was Femme either, but my hair flowed past my waist. A friend and I once made a plan to print T-shirts proclaiming, “I survived the AIDS Treatment Activism Conference without cutting my hair!” It was something.
Then nine years ago, I was staffing a table for Lambda Legal at Chicago’s Midsommarfest in Andersonville, when I met Kelly and her 11-year-old daughter. I came out from behind the table, she gave her daughter and friend a few bucks for face-painting, and we all walked around in the hot sun. I began introducing her to my friends that afternoon – on curbs, on steps, in all manner of street festival dress. In the days that followed, I remember a luscious lava cake, emails, hurried phone calls, a few squeezed-in dinner dates. My friends called her my Motorcycle Mama.
Less than a year passes and I am moving into their new house in Oak Park and arguing with her about the color to paint the guest room. We had reached the point, sooner than we might have because her kid was involved, when I needed to jump in now or step out. I chose to jump in, for better or worse.
And slowly, I began to understand that being out every night wasn’t helping us to bond as a family. So I prioritized family TV nights, spent evenings coaching her daughter with math homework, and spent ten minutes on the phone with friends instead of forty – most of the time – although I imagine her daughter doesn’t see it that way. Pre-teens at the time rarely had their own cell phones, so we shared the family land line.
One afternoon in a friend’s sunroom, we wrote a long poem together. Each of us contributed.
Things That Happen in a House
Learning to pout
Cranking up the volume
Things that happen in a house.
My stepdaughter and I edited this poem the following day, and we had a lot of fun. It was years before she asked me to look at her writing again.
So what do I tell my seven-year-old in the moment? “I don’t know, Sweetheart. More writing maybe? Going out with friends?” Her sister’s now a spoken word poet in her own right. And I, at least, am writing again, re-discovering my own voice. Or honing it, this time.
I step out of the shower. My youngest brushes her teeth. And we begin the new day.