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Friday, October 28, 2011

Re-Post: Dear Mom

Recently, author Marianne K. Martin wrote an article,Double Edged Blessing, which touched me deeply. In it, she mentioned the letter that I wrote to my mother on her birthday. It's going to be her birthday again (October 31). I'm re-posting this letter in honor of  her birthday.  

Thanks, Marianne, for helping to spread our message about the humanity of all people and working to end hate crimes against the LGBT community. (Please follow the hyperlinks to follow up on Martin's books and visit the Pittmann Puckett Documentary web.)

Oasis Reflection: It's October again.

Halloween is Susan Pittmann, my mother's, birthday. When I see pumpkins, black cats and witches, I think of her. Why would that be a concern, you may wonder. You see, she was murdered in a hate crime 18 years ago by our neighbor, Jim Brooks. (I wrote about the murder.) Since that time a lot has happened around her story. Isn't it strange how a life can continue in some way even after it passes? Every October brings with it a time to reflect, whether I want to or not, about that tragic event. I thought I would just go ahead and write about it here, on my 100th blog post.

Dear Mom,
I turn to you on this day because I am compelled to embrace your life. You are the door that has led me on so many life journeys. I want to thank you for your strength and open mindedness. Do you remember that you once told me that I could have benefited from a mom who was more sensitive? I want you to know that you were enough, and that I did not need any other mother.
You were a strong straightforward person- a woman bound to accomplish, an entrepreneur, and a visionary. We had our differences. You liked having a practical vegetable garden and I loved growing flowers. You liked painted properties and I liked painted canvas. You were tough and I was sensitive. You were a 'people person' and I was somewhat reserved. Let me be clear about your insight, Mom, you were wrong because you were exactly what I wanted and needed. You taught me to toughen up, and I'm still learning that lesson from you.

Do you see that book cover I posted here, Love in the Balance? It arrived in the mail last week. It has a character, Evonne, who is loosely based on you. And the scene of the murder trial, news reports, the sentencing of Mr. Brooks are all factually correct. Some of it sounds like it came right out of the TV news reports, "Our top story tonight is the double murder this morning of two local women at their home in a quiet rural neighborhood...It is unclear whether the murders were the result of a boundary dispute. The women were in the process of installing a fence separating their property from that of the suspected killer." There is one mention about a daughter, Jenny, who spoke to the reporters and at the funeral. Her words make people understand that her mother was a loving mother, grandmother, and friend-and that living a lesbian lifestyle does not mean that you are someone who is separated from the normal embrace of family life. That message is what I try to share as well. I think you would like the book. It's about self-acceptance and celebrating life.

I found out about the book because the author, Marianne Martin, was interviewed by the film maker, Brian Alexander for the Pittmann Puckett Documentary- yes, there is a film being made about you and your partner's murder, and how it mobilized the gay-lesbian community into action. Did you know that the Michigan organization you founded (with others), Affirmations, is still going strong? It serves as a community and support center for people who are discovering and/or celebrating their sexual identity. There is an art gallery named after you, too, and I copied the dedication for you:

The Pittmann-Puckett Art Gallery was founded in memory of two of Affirmations founding members and strongest supporters, Susan Pittmann and Christine Puckett. The couple was killed in their home by a neighbor in 1992.

I went to Michigan last March to be interviewed for the film. It was a powerful experience, and I felt as though I could say all that was important to me about you and your murder. I hope the film is seen by many people, and that it continues to expand and open the perception of those who are narrow-minded. While I was there, I was able to visit the Pittmann-Puckett Art Gallery. I was proud to know that your presence continues to be felt within that organization. I particularly appreciate that an art gallery was named after you (and Christine). Do you remember that the first college class I ever took was with you? And it was art history?
I am strengthened by the memory of how you lived your life. Your graduation from Wayne State University at 50 years young-as you would say-continues to inspire me to strive forward regardless of artificial age limits. Thank you for showing me how to change and become strong enough to obtain my goals in life.
Just before you were killed, you told me that you were proud of me and how I lived my life. Mom, I hope I always make you proud of me. I hope my life reflects the best of your legacy. I will always love you.

Your daughter,

Cynthia "Sue"-included for you, Mom xxoo

PS. You will be happy to know that the Hate Crimes Bill was signed into law just three hours ago.

To order Marianne K. Martin's books:
Love in the Balance
Indelible Heart

Please click on the hyperlink on the sidebar (rainbow Michigan) to visit Brian Alexander's web page: The Pittmann/Puckett Documentary.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Memory Mosaic

It was the first time I had done something important. I memorized the Ten Commandments; and too, the history of the Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopalian churches. I had passed the exam with high marks and the church was recognizing me as an adult. I was to speak in front of the congregation way up on the podium. For my big moment, I had prepared a speech about honesty where I would assert that I learned this trait from my father. However, he would not be there for this first public speech. He would not be there because he never attended my special events- not in school or performances in band, choir or drama. I didn’t expect him to come, and yet I couldn’t keep some small part of me from hoping. When the day came, I wore the mantle of my disappointment at his absence gently like the embracing wrap of a surrogate parent. I would bow my head and hear my own counsel culled from other such letdown moments, “Don’t want too much or you will feel the consequences of getting too little.”

My mother was there as expected. She was the one who took the children to church, a responsibility she shouldered in spite of our resisting tears and lateness. It’s Sunday. Go to church. No questions. Up on the podium, I bravely spoke about honesty to a sparse but attentive audience. I told the story about how I learned to tell the truth from my dad. I’m telling the anecdote about eating the prohibited jelly, however I'm omitting important details, such as the truth that I didn't actually eat the jelly though I said I did. The truth didn’t fit my point well. I wanted to claim that Dad taught me to value honesty even when it was about little indiscretions. I left out the entire scene where he paced in front of a row of five scared children cracking a belt and speaking in a deepened Tennessee hills’ voice that terrified us until the guilty party was forced to confess. I didn’t say that he threatened  to beat everyone until someone confessed. I also didn’t say to the congregation or to my father that I knew who ate the strawberry jelly.

Temptation. The Lord knows the art of temptation. Do you recognize the line from Enchanted April? That strawberry jelly was just sitting on the shelf offering a special kind of temptation. We yearned for the taste of summer freedom from this forbidden fruit. My sister couldn’t resist. I knew she wouldn’t confess. I knew no one would. I knew we would all be needlessly beat if someone didn’t confess. I said I did it. My jellied legs were ordered to Mom and Dad’s private bedroom where I was taught honesty by my father- the same father I was lying about during my maiden speech.The father I was devoted to in spite of the beatings and his absence. My father who taught me to value honesty. I can still hear his voice, Take your pants down. Bend over. 

I highlighted my father’s integrity in the speech my mother attended. The speech father didn’t hear. When I finished, I don’t remember my mother's praise. I remember her tight face; it was a face that yearned for validation from a daughter and a face that could never receive. Mom was playing the thankless mother role while her middle daughter praised the absent father. She didn’t see her daughter’s hidden hope that if she were good enough she might somehow earn his love and feel safe. I admit that I was the daughter who felt sorry because she couldn’t appreciate her mother. I was the daughter who was shamed into silence. My mother didn’t tell me that day that Dad didn’t deserve my devotion though she knew about the beating. Mom, how could you allow it? You used our fear of being beat to control us. Just wait until your dad gets home then you’ll get it. Instantly, that would silence us. Why didn’t you protect me, Mom?In all of the silences between us over the years, my mother never learned the truth about that incident. She never knew how much I lied in my speech about honesty. She didn't know I did not agree to these repeated beatings. Our Father who art in heaven...hallowed be thy name. I would do anything for my father but it would never be enough. In my mind, Mom was responsible for his behavior. Why is it we always expect more from our mothers? After the service, the members congratulated me. All strangers. All empty. All those who weren’t in my life except on Sunday. Soon the final stage of my confirmation would come and we would celebrate the official ceremony. This was the day that my mother’s extended (and unknown to me) family could be invited to our house for a big party. I would wear a white dress and after my first trip to the hair salon, I would have an up-do.  Stepping in a pair of low heels, I would receive all of the attention of a grown up girl- just the way my sisters had before me.

It came down to this- my mother said, “I will give you one hundred dollars if you take that instead of a party.” One hundred dollars! That was a lot of money. More money than I had ever received before. If I accepted the money there would be no party. That was the deal. Mom said I might not get that much money in gifts even if I had a party. So it was a gamble. Should I take the sure money or have a party? I could tell that my mother wanted me to take the money so I did. I knew she didn’t have time or the desire to throw another confirmation party. Now I’m twelve again. I’m angry. I’m the older woman now and I’m fighting for the girl who was tricked by her mother- her mother who was jealous of the girl’s devotion to an undeserving father. The mother who wanted to be done with this child raising drill and just get on with her own life. I’m the woman remembering the girl. I was conned. I was conned by my mother who didn’t want to do the mother thing anymore and by my father who just didn’t do.

My parents are fighting again and I don't know how to stop it. Stop the yelling. Stop it!  Only I don’t say anything. I'm listening to an old fight. It reminds me of that scene in Nine Months where the quirky character Gail (Joan Cusack) says to her husband, “I can’t believe you are fighting during my moment. My moment! My miracle! She screams at him while he is punching and wrestling with another father in the delivery room. The laughter lightens me enough to remember that Dad was absent during my birth. According to Mom, he went out and got drunk while she was having a baby. (Really she can't remember which child it was.) Apparently, he met one of my uncles and they took off to celebrate. Mom said she could have died while he was out getting tanked. I heard this fight many times over the years. I don’t know the true story but I do know that Mom couldn’t get over it. She needed recognition and support, he wasn’t there.

At home, I’m sitting on the stairs after my big ceremony. I’ve been confirmed but not affirmed. We arrive to an empty house. No dinner. No cake. No one’s there. I’m so alone. I feel this space gaping wide and wider still. Mom walks up to me with the one hundred dollars. Here’s your money. Remember our deal. Just the money. I look at the money. No card. No friendly faces. I’m sitting alone in my white dress. My piled up and sprayed-still hair is wilting. The curls stretch out on one side more than the other. The hair pins press against my scalp but I don’t take them out. No one is here. Mom’s gone. Did she know how I felt? I prostituted myself for one hundred dollars, and she made the deal.

[Enchanted April- this is a hyperlink to Elizabeth von Arnim's novel, which is provided by Project Gutenberg.] 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011