Roofing Day


As I start this post, eight men are tearing the roof from my house with square-pointed shovels. The noise from yesterday’s shingle delivery was horribly upsetting to the cats, but it was nothing compared to this. It bothers me too, but at least I know that it serves a good purpose. There are so very many things that cats don’t know and might not wonder about, things like where their food comes from; why we let strangers poke thermometers up their asses; and what keeps the rain out of our house. Perhaps the cats don’t wonder about the source of the current noise; perhaps it’s noise itself that scares them.

Clearly, cats have thoughts, but I know tragically little about what they think. Cats also have feelings—joy, lust, rage, trust, terror, hunger, safety, happiness, affection, suspicion, uncertainty, and curiosity—and I think I do understand these. Descartes—the “father of modern philosophy”—regarded other mammals as “unfeeling automata” and thought he could prove it by publicly torturing dogs while assuring audiences that God had only given non-humans the appearance of emotion. Descartes’ view  persists among some modern scientists, especially in regard to so-called “lower forms of life.” Yet when an insect or a spider flees and squirms in apparent terror when I’m trying to take it outdoors, I doubt that they’re right.

I replaced the last roof in 1997 at age 48, but since it was hard for me then, I knew it would take all summer for me to replace it again, and by then the unused shingles and underlayment would have become glued together. Among his other skills, my father was a roofer. When he and I worked together—in the ’70s and ’80s in rural Mississippi—shingles had to be hand-carried to the rooftop in 80-pound bundles. When he reached his mid-sixties, Dad began sipping 16-ounce Miller High Lifes in order to keep going, plus he started carrying shingles up a few at a time. He was too impatient to teach me more than I needed to know to perform a specific task, so I relied on books to tell me how to replace the rather complicated roof on this house. It has served me well, but its end has arrived, and my end can’t be far off.

I didn’t how far ahead roofers booked, so I got estimates in December. The company I hired wanted to do the job in a month or two, but I didn’t want them working in the cold and wet, so I asked that they wait until May. They said fine, but that it might cost more. I considered the extra cost worth it because I know what it’s like to work in shitty weather, and I prefer that such work be done on someone else’s roof.

After hiring Huey and Sons, Peggy got to worrying that the crew might roof over nails that were left laying on their sides following the removal of the old roof, so she decided to warn them. I thought, oh, great, our roofing crew is going to start their day hating my wife, so I suggested that if journeyman roofers were stupid enough to make that mistake, our roof was going to be fucked no matter what she said, so she didn’t warn them. When they broke for lunch, she and I climbed onto the roof with the foreman (seeing a 72-year-old woman up there just had to impress the crew) to examine the work, and we actually did find one serious mistake when the foreman’s foot fell through an un-attached piece of decking.

The roofers have been at it for hours, and all but one of the cats have come out to eat
—our bravest is even sitting beside me as I write. I love it when cats prove superior to my fears for them.

A Son of the South Looks at the Civil War

Retreat from Bull Run (aka First Manassas)

On an average day, 425 men died during Americas four-year-long Civil War. Although the countrys total population was but 19-million (it now stands at 332-million), more Americans died in the Civil War than in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, combined. One in four men were killed, and 8% of those who survived had missing limbs. I was ten when the last Confederate soldier died, and I fell into despair that the greatest generation that ever lived was gone from the earth

On July 21, 1861, thousands of thrill-seekers walked or rode the thirty miles from Washington D.C. to witness the Civil War’s first—and many thought its last—major land battle near a Virginia creek named Bull Run. A Yankee army captain described the scene as follows: “They came in all manner of ways, some in stylish carriages, others in city hacks, and still others in buggies, on horseback and even on foot.” The sightseers cheered the cannons’ roar until late afternoon when the 35,000 man Northern army fled the field in their direction: “Pleasure-carriages, gun-carriages, and ammunition wagons…were abandoned and blocked the way, and stragglers threw aside their muskets and cut horses from their harness and rode off upon them.” Confederate newspapers labeled the event The Great Skedaddle.

Six months earlier, my home state of Mississippi became the second of eleven Southern states to secede from the Union. It explained its decision as follows:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

Despite such directness on the part of many Confederate states and statesmen, generations of Southern white children were taught that the war was caused by the federal government’s trampling upon state’s rights.” South Carolinian Presidential candidate Nikki Haley recently reflected this view: “I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life. In her eagerness to make the South look good, Haley failed to mention that the freedom for which the Confederacy fought was the freedom to own people.  

When asked about Haley’s response, Biden replied: Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. There is no negotiation about that. When I was a kid, a Northern sixth grader would have answered like Biden, a Southern sixth grader like Haley; and while the former would have come closer to the truth, more needs to be said.

Robert E. Lee

Southerners justified slavery by quoting the Bible and arguing that black people were better off in America. In its 1857 Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, arguing that blacks, were so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” Robert E. Lee (General of the Armies of the Confederate States) held a similar view: The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things.” Slave-owners commonly argued that the more intelligent blacks recognized their inferiority and were grateful to their white masters for giving them food, clothing, shelter, security in old age, and most of all “the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Yet, few white Southerners owned a single slave (a good field hand cost $60,000 in today’s money) and most were financially harmed by their inability to compete with slave labor. This suggests that the rank and file Confederate soldier fought for reasons other than slavery (see addendum).

Although anti-slavery sentiment was strong in the North, most Northerners were as racist as their rebel counterparts, and so it was that they didn’t fight to end slavery but to preserve the Union. This is evident from the fact that before the Emancipation Proclamation (a document in which Lincoln freed the slaves in the rebellious states freedoing so had no immediate effect), anti-war sentiment had increased in the North due to the personal and financial cost of the war, but after the Emancipation Proclamation, it exploded. The poor feared that they would lost their jobs to former slaves, while soldiers and sailors so resented being told that they were fighting to free the slaves that desertions became commonplace

Northerners also worried that the Emancipation Proclamation would prolong the war. Hatred of blacks was especially strong among Irish immigrants in New York City, most of whom couldn’t afford the $300 legal cost of hiring someone to join the military in their place. During a five day rampage, they set fire to a black orphanage, looted and burned black-owned businesses, and lynched black peoplethe riots finally ended when troops from Gettysburg fired cannons at the rioters.

I had several ancestors who fought for the Confederacy but only onea 30-year-old Alabamian named Sarah Jane Newby—who opposed it. At war’s end, she successfully petitioned the federal government to reimburse her for a horse that its cavalry requisitionedone of her witnesses testified that her gender alone saved her from assault. 

Hip wound caused by a Minie Ball

While Sarah Jane was backing the Union, another ancestor26-year- Francis Marion Sideswas fighting for the Confederacy. After his hip was shattered by a .58 caliber Minie Ball at the Battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, (aka the Slaughter Pen) his comrades were forced to leave him behind when they retreated. After his capture by Northern troops, he died in an open-air prison. Weeks earlier, he had written his wife: 

“You said you and the children was all well and the baby was talking I cant tell how bad I want to see you and my baby Mary dont kill yourself working and dont grieve yourself about me for I will take care of myself Mary if you can send me a pare pants & a pare socks & a pare galles ses without taking it of you or the children do so So if not dont do it Mary I am as big as Sam Cooner I cant do without galles sis So write to me as soon as you get this letter So hug and kiss the children for me Nothing more at this time I will rite again in a few days Remains your affectionate Frank til death.

During the war, my first college was converted to a military hospital, and able-bodied men being scarce, the dead were buried in shallow graves on campus. At the front entrance to my second college stood a granite monument honoring the 103 students and teachers who fought for the Confederacy, 96 of whom died. The monument has been removed now that any respectful remembrance of Confederate troops is considered offensive.

The South pinned its hopes on two assumptions. One was that Britain and France would aid the Confederacy to assure access to Southern cotton. The other was that Northern men were unwilling to fight despite outnumbering Southern troops two to one and dominating the industries of war. As an example of what the South was up against, when the war started in April, 1861, the South had 30-seaworthy warships and the North 42; eight months later, the South still had 30, while the North had 264 ships with which to blockade Southern ports, depriving the South of guns, ammunition, medicine, clothing, and even coffee.

As it turned out, Britain and France never entered the war, and the textile workers of Manchester, England, even went so far as to vow to Abraham Lincoln that they would refuse slave-produced cotton even if it cost them their livelihoods. A statue of Lincoln still adorns a Manchester city park, and their letter and his response can be seen at its base.

During my childhood and adolescence, the South remained bitter over a war that wrecked its economy, burned its cities, destroyed its infrastructure, caused large scale theft and vandalism, and killed 258,000 of its young men (the Union lost 360,000). By my birth in 1949, the 58% of Mississippians who were white had erected thousands of monuments to honor “our boys,” and held to the belief that the Old South could never die because God loved it above all other places on earth. Yet, Mississippians knew that the rest of America regarded the South in general—and their state in particular—as a backwater of ignorance, poverty, and bigotry. In 1968, Jerry Lewis delighted his Tonight Show audience by boasting that he had recently fulfilled a lifelong dream by using the toilet when his plane flew over Mississippi. Like many of my generation, Ive yet to forgive him.

As did many twelve-year-old Mississippians in the 1960s, I proclaimed my loyalty to Dixie by tying a Confederate flag to the antenna of my parentscar. Having never met a Yankee, I sometimes dialed Northern directory assistance to learn if they really were rude as I had heard and talked faster than they could think. I never found that they were even when I later spent a month in that Southern version of deepest hell, New York City. In fact, upon hearing my accent, New Yorkers took pains to make me feel welcome.

An Afterward

The time was 4:30 a.m. when Edmund Ruffin, a wealthy 67-year-old planter, had the dubious honor of firing the opening shot of the Civil War. His target was Fort Sumter, a federal installation in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. During the following four years, Ruffin lost his wife and eight of his eleven children to war. Weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, Ruffin wrapped himself in a Confederate battle flag and stuck the muzzle of a rifle in his mouth. As he prepared to push the trigger, a visitor knocked, and Ruffin went to greet him. After the visitor left, Ruffin returned to his room to kill himself. This time, the percussion cap exploded but the main charge didn’t, but he managed to reload before his daughter-in-law could investigate the noise. Beside his corpse were these words:

“And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will [be] near to my latest breath, I here repeat, & would willingly proclaim, my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule—to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, & to the perfidious, malignant, & vile Yankee race.”

The North and South Unite at Gettysburg, 1913

The above photo was made at the fiftieth reunion of Pickett’s 6,500-casualty charge at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. During the event, the remaining Confederates charged the Union lines as they had on that disastrous day in 1863, but instead of waiting for the Southerners to reach them, their former enemies ran forward in friendship.

Yankee-hating Ruffin couldn’t have imagined that 150-years after the war, the South would unite under an incendiary politician from New York, but rather than dwell upon words of hatred, I will share the healing words of a New Hampshire infantryman named S. M. Thompson: 

I remember now how we sat there and pitied and sympathized with these courageous Southern men who had fought for four long and dreary years, all so stubbornly, so bravely, and so well, and now, whipped, beaten, completely used up, were completely at our mercy.” 

As the words of former Confederate generals and the actions of the men who attended the Gettysburg reunion suggested, many of those who fought for the South were also eager for reconciliation. Perhaps if the people of America can find it in their hearts to forgive one another for our present day wrongs, a second Civil War can be prevented.

I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.Deuteronomy 30:19


Appendum: Why the South Went to War:

(1) Cultural tensions between the industrial North and the agricultural South had been worsening for years with both sides perceiving the other as hypocritical and degenerate. This was true in that many laborers were legal slaves in the South and de facto slaves in the North).

(2) Many 19th century Americans put loyalty to their state above loyalty to their nation. As Robert E. Lee expressed it: “I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home…. If Virginia stands by the old Union, so will I. But if she secedes…I will follow my native State with my sword, and, if need be, with my life.” 

(3) Because their states had entered the union voluntarily, Southerners believed they were free to leave it voluntarily. 

(4) When U.S. troops and ships entered the South to protect military installations, Southerners believed that they were being been invaded and responded accordingly. 

(6) While parts of the South were strongly pro-Union, men in much of the South were under enormous social pressure to join the Confederate military. 

(7) No one anticipated the war’s incredible misery and expense, most people having believing that war would either be avoided or that it would end within days.

The Dirt on Peggy (there being none on me)

Peggy (age 11) 1962

When we met at Mississippi College in 1971, Peggy had just turned twenty and was shy, honorable, intelligent, soft-spoken, and had no bad habits. She was 5’3,” and had clear skin, brown-eyes, a medium complexion, weighed 115 pounds, had straight auburnish hair, wore light eye makeup, dressed quietly but appealingly, and laughed easily but never immodestly. Sherry, a girl I had gone steady with for four years, had recently broken up with me because I wouldn’t commit to marrying her, yet here I was wanting to marry a woman I had never spoken to and had only seen from across the school cafeteria. When my best friend said he was dating her, I asked him if I could ask her out. He said yes but then told her to turn me down. That alone gave her an incentive to go out with me. 

We had three dates before summer school ended and she took a Greyhound to San Antonio where her father was stationed at Randolph Air Force Base. A day later, I left with a friend for his home in Alberta, Canada, my plan being to hitchhike back to Mississippi. As we drove, I missed Peggy so much that I couldn’t bear the thought of getting another mile away from her, so I got out of his lime-green Gremlin in Trinidad, Colorado, and hitchhiked to San Antonio where I awakened her father at 11:55 p.m. He flatly refused her request to pick me up alone, and when the two of them arrived at the truck stop where I was waiting, the man with whom I had my last ride was trying to sell me a set of encyclopedias off the hood of his car. The San Antonio River Walk was a romantic place to date, and three days after my August arrival, Peggy agreed to marry me during Christmas break. Our entire courtship lasted four months.

At age 72, Peggy’s hair is still mostly brown; she weighs 138; wears no makeup; and gave up shaving her legs years ago (not that anyone would notice). She is a good judge of character; thinks clearly under duress; is soft-spoken but strong in her convictions; and speaks intelligently when dealing with doctors, mechanics, furnace repairmen, etc (she is currently atop the house getting an estimate for a new roof). She’s no longer shy; can’t be pushed into doing things she doesn’t want to do; and has never made a fool of herself—which is a lot more than I can say.

Lowell (age 7) 1956
Bad habits. Despite being a mild procrastinator, Peggy’s behavior is ruled by moderation and discipline. She has never used drugs or alcohol, while I’ve used quantities of both. She has a fondness for cookies, but bakes them with one-third the sugar.

Education. Peggy has a BS in science and a BS in nursing. I have a BS in elementary education, an AD in computers, and have completed several graduate-level courses in education. I’m also a certified nursing assistant and a private pilot. We are both licensed as emergency medical technicians.

Careers. Peggy has worked as a waitress, lab technician, high school science and math teacher, and registered nurse. I’ve worked as a writer, salesman, stock clerk, carpenter, handyman, phlebotomist, ambulance driver, funeral director, elementary school teacher, respiratory therapy technician, office furniture assembler, newspaper delivery man with a 110 mile route, and liaison between the University of Oregon and a building contractor. My extensive job experience was due to a lack of direction and a resentment of authority.

Morality. I consider Peggy rigid at times, whereas she regards my situational ethics as unethical. We are both outraged by criminals but Peggy
’s loathing is such that I worry about her getting killed while attacking a mugger or  burglar. We are mostly vegetarian (I eat fish), and we view nonhuman life as having the same value as human life. However, we have carnivores for pets, and we eat dairy and eggs, foods that result in the killing of young males and creatures who are past their peak productiveness.
Lowell and Peggy, 1971

Politics. We favor strict gun control laws, are environmentally conscious, vote Democratic, and support assisted suicide, abortion rights, and the death penalty. I’ve always voted, but Peggy first voted at age 36 in support of a ballot measure to legalize marijuana, a drug she never used. After Trump announced his presidential candidacy in 2016, she began voting regularly and staying abreast of the news.

Personal Lives. We are frugal, orderly, live quietly, love our home, have few friends, spend most of our waking hours together, are intensely devoted to our five cats, and keep our house clean and our yard groomed. Our TV preferences lean toward the news of the day; biographies; nature documentaries; history documentaries; movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s; and TV shows from the 50s and 60s. Peggy is a huge fan of the game show Jeopardy. The deed to our home and our investment accounts are so structured that either of us could clean the other out. When she goes traveling, I have humorous fantasies about her returning home to find her house sold, her bank account empty, and the cats and me gone. Surely, trust and intimacy are better represented by financial vulnerability than by hot sex, especially when the savings of a lifetime are on the line.

Consideration. I am by nature more aware than she of other people’s needs, and I count it a privilege to attend to her comfort and welfare without being asked. Peggy is less attune to the needs of others, and so I have to ask for what I want. Like most men, I feel diminished by asking for things. A month ago, I had a full shoulder replacement, and she has since excelled as an
attentive helpmate.

Peggy (age 21) 1972

I would give my life for Peggy, but I wouldn’t want her to do the same for me because I don’t consider it a woman’s place to die for her husband. However, my willingness to die for Peggy doesn’t mean that I would die with her. For example, if she were to fall into a fast moving river or be washed out to sea, I wouldn’t go in after her because I can barely swim. Fifteen years ago, our blue heeler, Bonnie, jumped into the Willamette, and as she was being carried downstream, Peggy yelled for me to go in after her. I would have died had I done so and because Bonnie was a strong swimmer I believed she would make it out on her own, which she did. Shortly afterwards, a woman drowned in the same river while trying to rescue two dogs. As did Bonnie, her dogs survived but, unlike Bonnie, their Mom was dead and they were homeless. I’ll be forever haunted by the knowledge that she gave her life for less than nothing.

Lowell (age 23) 1972
Hobbies. I was happy when Peggy started collecting clothing buttons in 1988 because I thought it would be an inexpensive and space-saving hobby. Now that she has entire legal-size file cabinets filled with thousands of buttons mounted on display cards, I see the situation differently. Likewise, every cabinet in our living room is stuffed with buttons, plus she has numerous wood and glass display cases that she designed and the two of us made. She belongs to five button-related organizations and is prominent at the local, state, and national levels of her hobby. As for me, I’m an avid reader of hundred-year-old novels and books about cats, rocks, and houseplants, most of which I buy for $3.29 at charity-run thrift stores.

Exercise. Peggy works out with dumbbells three days a week and takes long uphill walks on other days. My exercise consists of yardwork, housework, and an occasional two-hour walk on the slopes of nearby Mt. Pisgah.
Lowell and Peggy, 1973
Family. Peggy is close to her sisters who live in Mississippi and North Carolina, but finds it impossible to be close to her 93-year-old father who is respected in his church and community but incapable of intimacy. I have a sister in Mississippi and a half-sister in Florida with whom I exchange an occasional email but never see, and I have a half-brother in Texas with whom I never lived and have no relationship.

Travel. I have no interest in traveling more than fifty miles from home. Peggy takes three trips a year: one to visit family in Mississippi and North Carolina; one to the National Button Society Convention; and one to the Oregon State Button Society Convention. She’s afraid to fly but feels she must given how far she usually goes.

Phobias. Peggy is so scared of spiders that I worry about her wrecking the car if one should drop into her lap while driving. Upon seeing a spider at home, she screams for me to get it, and keeps screaming while I capture it with a Kleenex (damp Kleenexes work better) and carry it outdoors. What follows are her words in the order given: LOWELL! ...A spider! ...Come quick! ...Hurry! ...Get it! ...Don’t let it get away! and finally, Are you sure you got it?! Upon my assurance that she is finally safe from the multi-eyed betrayer of beautiful women, she shivers with dread at the thought of seeing the next one. I also take insects outside for her, not because she’s afraid, but because she might vacuum them up if I didn’t. Unlike Peggy, I have no phobias, although I worry a good bit about floods, earthquakes, and her safety every time she walks out the door.
Lowell (age 66) 2015

Religion. We were raised by religious parents in fundamentalist churches. Peggy was taken to church three times a week, and I attended four times—which was three times more than my parents. When I realized that I knew more about Peggy’s childhood religion than she did, I asked her how she spent all those thousands of hours in church, and she said she daydreamed. After leaving for college, she would have stopped attending church altogether had I not I encouraged her to join me in becoming an Episcopalian. Now that religion in America has become violent, xenophobic, pro-Trump, anti-democratic, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-science, pro-prosperity gospel, and anti-environment, we have become intensely hostile to any system of belief that elevates wishful thinking above objective evidence. However, Peggy and I differ in that the subject of religion bores her and fascinates me.
Profanity. Peggy seldom cursed before we
started playing 500-game backgammon tournaments, and her profanity increased when Trump became president. She now curses regularly, especially when she loses at backgammon (she also marks my arms with the red pen with which she keeps score, and on one occasion, rapped me on the head with her clipboard).

Health. Peggy is a diabetic, an insomniac, and a migraine sufferer. I take narcotics to alleviate chronic pain caused by injuries, arthritis, and a compressed vertebra.

Peggy (age 62) 2013
Sex. We haven’t had sex for years, and we sleep separaely; she in her green bedroom where she is surrounded by knick-knacks and button displays; and I in my pink bedroom which is decorated with rocks, potted plants, images of cats, and books about cats. My bedroom is my favorite place on earth, but because Peggy has a double bed, we cuddle in her bedroom for an hour and a half each morning before playing four games of backgammon and having breakfast at 2:30 p.m.

In conclusion. For most of our marriage, Peggy was the primary wage-earner (my disapproving mother called me “Peggy’s kept man”) while I did the cooking, cleaning, yard work, bill paying, investment management, occasional work for wages, and home improvement projects. Now that Peggy is retired, we share the workload according to what each prefers to do. We have never found it necessary to discuss who does what, and we seldom complain about how things are done. Our worst conflicts arise when we take on projects together, the reason being that Peggy is happiest when she
’s in charge, yet some of the things she wants to be in charge of are things that I know more about than she does, having done them professionally.

Our 52-year marriage has had many rough patches, but we remain strong in terms of trust, loyalty, commitment, and shared values regarding diet, cleanliness, orderliness, flexibility, money management, commitment to pets, and a mutual willingness to do our fair share of the work. Although Peggy is arguably more stable than I, she sometimes benefits from my steadying hand. It
’s a very good thing when one spouse can remain calm while the other is falling apart.

Invitation to a Suicide

Walt and Lowell, 1994
On September 14 at 11:00 a.m., Peggy held the hand of her friend, Walt, as he died of an overdose of drugs obtained through Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. Of the six friends he asked to attend, two declined, but one of them told dirty jokes over the speakerphone until Walt’s partner, Laura, asked him to stop. 

I became familiar with death through my work as a phlebotomist, an ambulance driver, a funeral director, and a respiratory therapy technician; and Peggy through her work as a nurse, but being invited to a suicide was a new and surreal experience. As the hour of his death approached, I tried to imagine how I would feel if I were in Laura’s position of holding my partner in bed for the last time.

I wasn’t invited to attend Walt’s death because he ended our friendship in 2016 without telling me why. When Peggy learned of his terminal melanoma diagnosis in February, I emailed him my support, but he became furious that I was so callous as to contact him at so late an late hour. It wasn’t the first time he wrongly attributed unworthy motives to me.

Peggy and I met Walt within months of moving from rural Mississippi to Eugene, Oregon, in 1986. We were all athletic, atheistic, in our thirties, and members of a polyfidelity support group which met at his house. Despite his initial impression that I was morose and Peggy bitchy, we
soon became close friends. Peggy and I considered him warm, strong, playful, relaxed, and so filled with life that he seemed invincible. By vocation, he was a sports car mechanic, by avocation a pianist, mountain climber, and polymath who loved musicals (his favorite was My Fair Lady), had nine beehives in his backyard, and a well-used Oxford Unabridged Dictionary in his living room. I had never Walt also had ethical deficits that might hinder our friendship now that I refuse to ignore bigotry and hypocrisy as long as its not directed at me. For example, he considered Jews greedy, Southerners stupid (Peggy and me excepted), and spoke patronizingly of men who were short of stature. He was a tax-dodging anarchist—“taxes are slavery”—who in the last of his three careers drove a taxpayer owned school bus and drew a taxpayer funded pension. Because he loved the natural world primarily as a playground, he saw nothing wrong with pushing boulders off mountainsides, and he refused to recycle because he blamed environmental problems on parents, and he was childless. 

Walt and Peggy, 1994
The epitome of generosity, he denied that people are morally obligated to help others, and he considered personal happiness the goal to which all other goals are subservient, although he argued that its pursuit shouldn’t lead to victimization. However, he regarded few people as victims. For instance, he excluded people who were on the receiving end of sexism and racism or fell prey to non-violent crime. 

Three times a week for years, the three of us hiked to the top of 1,500-foot Mt. Pisgah, which early settlers named for the mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land. We often had the mountain to ourselves, and when we reached the summit, I would sing, The hills are alive with the sound of music,” and Peggy would exult in “standing upon my Holy Mountain with the two men I love most.” Before starting down, we and various dogs would rest and hydrate on a basalt formation while watching the lengthening shadow of the mountain beneath us and the alpenglow on the High Cascades. In winter, we made the entire hike after dark, usually in drizzle.

There were no fees; no posted rules; the road into the park was gravel; cows roamed the mountainside, and the gates were open until 10:00 p.m. Now that the park closes at dusk, visitors can no longer stargaze while enjoying the lights of Eugene/Springfield. The road into the park has been widened and paved, and three parking lots accommodate the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of fee-paying visitors to Pisgah and the adjacent arboretum on pretty days. At the main trailhead, there are two large boards of posted rules and warnings, one of which advises visitors to fight back if attacked by a bear or mountain lion.

In summer, the three of us hiked and camped in the Cascades and occasionally visited his parents in Richland, Washington (a desert town infamous for its nuclear storage facility). In winter, we shared meals, watched musicals, snowshoed, cross-country skied, and made snowy hikes to volcanic hot springs. One year, we donned heavy packs and skied seven uphill miles to a fire tower where we spent two delightful nights. Walt was mellow enough to laugh after I had him backtrack a hundred off-road miles to look for a wallet that had been under the seat of his Land Rover the whole time. Then there was the time he backtracked 60-miles so I could buy a knickknack (see photo) that I hadn
’t bought earlier because I considered it unmanly.

Yet, there were years when he wouldn’t speak to me because he believed things about me that ranged from incomprehensible to absurd—such as the time he thought I was planning to kill himand of which he tried to convince others. One such estrangement ended when I called from a repair shop to ask if he would look at a clutch he had replaced a year earlier and that my new mechanic pronounced defective. Walt repaired the problem within minutes, and our friendship was renewed.

In 1988, Peggy and I married—cake and champagne included—a doctoral student named Paula. Within weeks, my mother had died in Mississippi, and the three of us had moved to Minneapolis so Paula could continue her schooling and Peggy could further her nursing training. When the marriage fell apart two years later, Paula moved into an apartment, and Peggy and I returned to Oregon. Two years after that, Walt proposed a three-way marriage. We turned him down because we were still recovering from our marriage to Paula, and because he was different from us in ways that made him a charming friend but an unlikely spouse. Some examples… After he brought his wok to our house and cooked our supper, I spent an hour cleaning grease from the floor, wall, cabinets, and ceiling… Whenever he showered at our house, he splashed so much water about that I had to clean the bathroom… When someone knocked a drink over while we were eating at his house, he wiped it up with his big orange tabby, Oscar (who had his own place at the table). Then there was his messy house, his overgrown yard, his unwashed Land Rover, and his disinterest in saving money or shopping for sales.

A fan of Winnie the Pooh, he compared me to gloomy Eeyore, Peggy to anxious Rabbit, and himself to boastful Tigger who said about every task, “That’s what Tiggers do best!” He said that if he were to awaken in a strange land with no money, no friends, and no knowledge of the language, he would feel more confident than I would in the same predicament but with a million dollars in the bank.

Peggy and Walt, 1995

When we told Walt why we couldn’t marry him, he promised to change. We didn’t believe he could change to please us anymore than we could change to please him. For example, I had thought that Walt’s house was messy and his yard overgrown because he was busy or  indifferent, so I decided to pleasantly surprise him by taking my lawnmower to his house while he was at work and mowing his foot-high grass (after removing the tin cans, brickbats, car parts, chunks of concrete, rotting boards, and plumbing fixtures). He was indeed surprised, but not in a pleasant way. I later decided to pleasantly surprise him by removing the moss from the window tracks of his Land Rover. When he again accused me of destroying something he loved, I vowed that I would never again attempt to please him by doing work that, in my value system, was screaming for attention. So it was that Peggy and I worried that his promise to change had been made out of desperation, which he later admitted. His apology made me feel closer to him, but I think he was shamed by it.

Marriage being out, Walt suggested that Peggy spend three nights a week at his house. We agreed but were surprised when he called the arrangement a marriage. I came to resent their nights together because I was excluded from her time at his house, and he stopped coming to our house. They also took up sports that furthered my sense of isolation. One was downhill skiing, which they so enjoyed that they gave up cross-country skiing, which I loved. Although they invited me to go, I hated the clunky boots, the long lift-lines, the noisy ski lodges, and the frequent car wrecks. Then they took-up mountain climbing, which I hated almost as much because climbs often start hours before dawn to mitigate the risk of being hit by rocks loosened by melting ice. Climbing also requires long hours of exhausting labor under a sun so intense that one feels like an ant beneath a child’s magnifying glass, all this in a steep, barren, comfortless terrain in which one struggles to breathe and only lichens grow. On the more popular mountains, climbers are required to carry bags to shit in, not that there
Walt and Lowell, 1996

s any private place to shit.

Despite feeling excluded, I was happy that Peggy could do things with Walt that she couldn’t do with me, although her exuberance made me wonder how someone who so thrived on excitement could also enjoy quiet camping trips to isolated places with a quiet man, two dogs, a dozen topo maps, and a library of books with which to study plants, rocks, scats, tracks, birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, history, and place names. I decided that she and Walt were primarily compatible in regard to shared interests, and she and I in regard to shared traits and values.

Walt did his best to make Peggy feel that his home was her home too, but she wearied of having two residences and feeling like the rope in a two-man tug-of-war. She also disrespected his tendency to procrastinate, which she discovered when he entered upon a masters degree program in counseling psychology. She too procrastinates, but while she gets caught-up at the last minute, Walt sometimes didn’t get caught-up at all.

After she stopped staying with him, they mostly saw one another during weekly pinochle games with another couple. Although he would sometimes come over to watch a movie, that too ended for various reasons. One was that he suddenly balked at our longstanding insistence that he remove his mountaineering boots before coming indoors. A second was that he began interrupting movies to tinker with the video settings. A third was that he objected to our use of subtitles, which we preferred to raising the volume to hear quiet conversations and then lowering it for loud music. Then came the night that he brought along a friend who spent the evening sulking. Because Walt had trashed me to others when he and I weren’t getting along, I knew he had done so with this man. The last straw came when we got Brewsky, our first cat, and Walt became so angry over our decision to keep him indoors that when Brewsky greeted him at the door, Walt would tell him in our presence how sorry he was that I imprisoned him (he blamed me alone for everything he objected to).

Lowell and Walt 2004
Our three-way friendship continued downhill when Walt went from being arrogant about his driving skills to claiming that he was incapable of having a wreck (a lover of Aston Martins, he had hired me to work with him when he was lead mechanic in a British sports car shop). Peggy and I had long been the only people he would slow down for, but he now stopped slowing for us too. On one trip, he ran into a boulder that had rolled onto the highway; on another, he totaled his car by sliding off an icy road.

Then Peggy told me of the risks he had exposed her to when they climbed together (she had since stopped going with him and started going with a climbing club). I immediately felt stupid for having trusted him to use his decades of mountaineering experience to keep her as safe as possible in a sport that is inherently dangerous. For example, glaciers tend to be riddled with crevasses, many of which have narrow openings that are hidden by snow bridges. Groups of climbers rope together so that if one person falls into a crevasse—or off the mountain—the others can throw themselves onto their stomachs and use their ice axes to arrest the fall. If they fail, the results can be catastrophic as happened when Peggy and her climbing club helped rescue a group of eight climbers who had tumbled down the mountain, their ropes knocking other climbers down with them. Yet with very little instruction, Walt tied himself to Peggy and led her across a Mt. Hood glacier. To make matters worse, he took the lead which not only made him more likely to fall, his hundred pounds of extra weight and equipment could have dragged her in too.

A years passed during which I didn’t see Walt. When I had my left knee replaced in 2017, he surprised me by spending the entire day at the hospital. I thought he wanted to renew our friendship, so when he didn’t visit me during my recovery at home, I emailed to ask why. He wouldn’t say. I again asked, this time throwing-out every possibility I could think of to encourage him to talk. He responded with a single word: “STOP!” Peggy also tried to get him to talk, but he refused, even after she said that his behavior was hurtful, disrespectful, and damaging to their relationship. The only reasons he ever gave were that I refused to take responsibility for my behavior, and that he interpreted my efforts to get him to talk as an attack.

By then, he and Peggy only communicated with texts, so we were surprised when he started phoning. When I first saw his number on the caller ID, I thought he had changed his mind about talking or that he had urgent news for Peggy, so I was surprised when he responded to my hello with a cheerful, “Hi, Lowell. Is Peggy available?” I soon came to dread hearing the phone ring, and I was also hurt when Peggy called him, “Mr. Man,” an endearment that I had thought she reserved for me. 
Lowell and Walt in 2015, our last photo

When I asked that he stop calling, they resumed texting. I missed Walt, wondered how he was, and worried that my relationship with Peggy would be harmed if she compartmentalized their relationship. When I asked about him, she allowed me to read his texts. We have login information for one another’s various accounts, so I could have read them on my own, but after inviolably respecting one another’s privacy throughout our decades-long marriage, I wasn’t going to stop

Peggy’s anger at him combined with her fear of hurting me made things difficult for her following his terminal melanoma diagnosis in February (he blamed the cancer on mountain climbing). All I asked of her was that she act in such a way that she wouldn’t feel guilty after he died. During his remaining months, they continued to text and, as his death drew near, she visited him in a rehab center and hospital. When his condition so worsened that he had a hospital bed in his living room, she twice visited him at home. He asked that she be with him when he ended his life, but her anger combined with her fear of hurting me continued to put her in a bad spot. I again asked that she do whatever it took to avoid feeling guilty when he died. 

On the morning of his death, Walt told his partner, Laura, that he had dreamed of me, but he couldn’t remember the details. Now, it is my turn to dream of him (twice last night) and to hear his cheery, “Hello, hello, hello!” as he crossed our threshold during happy times. I pass him on familiar streets; I watch him load his van for winter outings; I think of him when I pass a house where he lived; I hear his Tigger laugh when Peggy says, “Hoo, hoo, hoo hoo!” and I see him on the scores of benches that dot Peggy’s Holy Mountain. Two days before he died, I wrote:

“I wish you solace, comfort, and the same courageous passage into death that you and I were privileged to witness in July 1994, when my father died. As does his son, and as does his daughter-in-law, he loved you. My dominant feeling toward you was—and is—one of respect, loyalty, and gratitude. I have loved you very much for a very long time, and I am sad to tell you goodbye.”

Peggy stayed with Laura the night after his death, and Laura said he appreciated my letter. In my sorrow, I hold to the following words from a bench on Mt. Pisgah:

Keep a green tree in your heart, and perhaps...

Coming to Age with a Transgender Father and a Germophobe Mother

Tommy 1909-1994

When I was in my twenties, my father and I were installing office cubicles in the showroom of an empty car dealership when he fell from a ten-foot ladder and knocked himself out on the concrete floor. I called an ambulance and my mother, Kathryn, who beat the ambulance to the hospital. When the doctor decided to admit my still unconscious father, a nurse ordered Kathryn and me from the room so she could undress him. Kathryn objected that Tommy was “a very private man who would want his family to undress him.” When the nurse demurred, Kathryn ordered her from the room. Beneath his khaki shirt and striped overalls, my father wore a bra, a slip, and panties. Kathryn made no comment, and I asked no questions.

When he returned to work, Tommy told me that he was a woman in a man
s body. Little boys wore dresses when he was a child, and when the day came that his mother, Fannie, said he was old enough to wear pants, Tommy refused. His mother was accepting of the fact that her son wasn’t like other boys, but she couldnt allow him to violate the wishes of society and her preacher-husband. When Fannie was 85, she broke her hip. Tommy said to her, “Don’t worry, Miss Fannie, you’re going to be fine,” and she replied, “I don’t think so, Tommy.” When I didn’t cry at her funeral, Tommy praised me for “being a man about her death.

Before he and Kathryn married in 1948, Tommy had a reputation for getting into fights, although he never hit a woman or a child. The nearest he came was on a Sunday morning when, at age four, I crawled under the bed after he scolded me. He said that if I didn’t come out, he would drag me out and spank me, so I came out. Not having the heart to discipline his children, Tommy tacitly put Kathryn in charge of disciplining me and my sister, Gay, and we ignored her, especially after we reached adolescence.

Bryd, Tommy, Edward, Fannie, Annabel, 1917

When Tommy’s father, Edward, was in a bad mood, he would sometimes whip Tommy’s older brother, Byrd, as the three of them worked in the fields. When the day came that Edward decided to beat Tommy, Tommy threatened to kill him, and Edward backed-off. In trying to understand how a child could so intimidate his father, I reflected upon the fact that Tommy always did what he said he would do, and that his shyness and soft-spokenness made him seem demonic when he shouted and cursed in anger. Because of him, I still react so strongly to voices raised in anger that I sometimes withdraw for days when Peggy yells at me.

When he was fourteen, Tommy beat someone for tripping him on the schoolhouse steps. The teacher spanked the other boy, but when he prepared to spank Tommy, Tommy pulled a knife. That night, the teacher came to his house and told Edward that Tommy would be expelled if he didnt submit to being spanked. Tommy then moved to Galveston, Texas, where he lived with his older brother, Pat, and became a roofer.

After serving in the Merchant Marines during World War II (he was twice sunk by U-Boats), Tommy moved to New Orleans where he made friends with women who enjoyed selecting women’s clothes for him and watching him try them on. He also started having sex with men in mixed gender settings. In 1947, he moved to Route 4, Bogue Chitto, Mississippi, to care for his elderly parents and work as a building contractor. It was when he was remodeling a house for the Ernie Boone family that he met 33-year-old Kathryn, who was widow to Ernie’s brother, Dustin.  

After Dustin’s death in 1942, Kathryn worked as a draftsman in the Orange, Texas shipyard, while shuttling her daughter, Anne, and her son, Jim Billy, between local families and the Methodist Orphanage. At wars end, she took a job with Sears Roebuck and rose to the position of department manager. When Sears announced the opening of a new store in Jackson, Mississippi, Kathryn offered to transfer, partly because she was from Mississippi, but more importantly because Ernie and his wife, Nonnie, lived close enough that they could care for Anne during the week (Jim Billy stayed behind with Ernie’s sister, Bessie), and she could take the sixty-mile bus ride to see her on weekends. She desperately wanted to live with her children, but she would need to marry to afford it, and the fact that she was 33-year-old with two children left her with little hope. Then she met Tommy.

Tommy and Kathryn at Ernie’s, 1948

Kathryn and Tommy dated on weekends and corresponded during the week. After two weeks, they were engaged, and while his letters gushed with adoration, hers were a mixture of romance and personal news. When she asked him to tell her frankly if his affection lagged behind her own, he assured her that it did not, and they proceeded to write more days than not during their three month courtship. After the first two weeks they were engaged with the certainty that happiness lay in the arms of one another. Tommy had yet to meet eight-year-old Jim Billy (who was still with his Aunt Bessie in Port Arthur, Texas), but he saw a lot of eleven-year-old Anne whom he called our daughter.” He encouraged Kathryn to include her on dates and said he couldn’t love her more if he were her father.

Their engagement was greeted with stern disapproval on the part of Ernie, Nonnie, and Ernie’s four living siblings, all of whom questioned Tommy’s fitness to parent Dustin’s children. They might have looked askance at any man who threatened their control, but in trying to understand their hostility to Tommy in particular, I can only describe the Tommy whom I knew a few years later when his behavior might have become more extreme, as it continued to do.

On the positive side, Tommy was honest, debt-free, kept his word, didn’t drink, and was skilled in what he called the building field. On the negative side, he was paranoid, intolerant, easily angered, had been a brawler, and was believed to have been married three times (Ive only found record of one marriage). Then there were his tantrums. Even something so trifling as splitting a board, misplacing a tool, or bending a nail could bring on repetitions of a litany of profanity: “Goddamn, the goddamn, mother fucking, goddamn, son of a bitching, goddamn nail to hell, GODDAMN IT!” He would work himself into such a rage that he would tremble and choke on his words. In his relationships with others, Tommy lived in the center of a figurative minefield that caused many to avoid him. Until Peggy’s arrival, I was the only person with whom he could harmoniously spend large amounts of time, yet even I often found it hard. When I said to him, How do you expect me to respect you when you act like that?” he responded,Fuck you! I dont respect myself.

In the months following their February 8, 1948, wedding, Tommy concluded that Kathryn had trapped him into marriage, presumably to provide a home for her children. I consider her incapable of such subterfuge, and I think the hostility of Dustin’s siblings was partly responsible for causing an already paranoid man to jump to the worst possible conclusion about his wife’s behavior.  Additional marital stresses were caused by things that each had kept hidden during their brief courtship. On Tommy’s side was his belief that he was a woman; on Kathryns was her germophobia. (When her children kissed her, she would turn her face from them and say, Don’t breathe on me,” while waving her hand to “fan the germs away,” and when I was a toddler, she would scoop me up and carry me indoors when buzzards flew overhead, so I wouldnt be bombarded by germs.)

Gay, age 20

Given her germophobia, Kathryn must have been all the more upset by Tommy’s growing indifference to personal cleanliness. When I worked with him, he would sometimes arrive in the same filthy, sweat-drenched khaki shirt and striped overalls that he had worn the previous day, yet he was so oblivious to the fact that this led people to avoid him that he boasted of his hygiene. 

That Kathryn was equally blind to her own inconsistencies was evident in her ridicule of Robert, the teenage son of her best friend. His effeminacy was bad enough in her view, but what made him truly ridiculous was his habit of draping handkerchiefs over doorknobs before turning them

Several months into their marriage, Tommy and Kathryn were ready to move Anne and Jim Billy into their home. The night before this was to happen, Ernie’s sister, Bessie, kidnapped eight-year-old Jim Billy from Ernie’s house and drove him to her home in Port Arthur, Texas. Meanwhile, Ernie’s wife, Nonnie, instructed eleven-year-old Anne to refuse to go with Tommy and Kathryn. Upon seeing what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life transformed into a nightmare, Kathryn sobbed in devastation and Tommy trembled in fury. She later blamed her loss of Jim Billy on her former inlaws, but she lay the blame for her loss of Anne entirely on Anne. Later...

Tommy didn’t demand that Kathryn give up her job and their “cute little house in Jackson,” to care for his parents in their unpainted shack at Route 4, Bogue Chitto, but because she was a compassionate woman who yearned to recapture her husband’s love, she did. The shack had an outhouse for a toilet; kerosene lamps for lighting; a wood-stove for cooking; and a well-bucket for water. Most of her new neighbors were farmers, some of whom used mules for plowing and transportation.

Kathryn pleaded with Tommy to at least put a pump in the well and build her a proper bathroom, but his father, Edward, objected that he didn
’t trust electricityand that it was “unsanitary” to eat and shit in the same building. When neighboring women in sunbonnets and flour-sack dresses observed Kathryn in her stylish shorts and blouses, they called her “Tommy’s city woman,” and they also ridiculed her because she was previously married, a head taller than they, and too thin for manual labor.

When Tommy failed to earn enough money as a carpenter to support his wife and parents, he built a store in their front yard and then returned to work, leaving her to run the store while also serving as the family
’s cook, housekeeper, and caregiver for senile Edward, blind Fannie, and meher new baby. When the store burned to the ground, Tommy blamed an unknown arsonist and took up farming. When that didn’t work out, he opened another country store that was practically adjacent to his brother Byrd’s large and well-established one. When that too failed, he returned to working as a carpenter/handyman, this time for Gerald Kees whose holdings included a Buick dealership along with commercial and residential property. The 55-hour a week job didn’t pay much, but Tommy’s growing list of financial failures had so rattled Kathrynwho had spent her life in dire financial straits—that she begged him to work for Kees rather than leave what he called “the sorriest state in the Union” and move to Louisiana in the hope of a better salary. This gave him yet another complaint to spend the rest of his life blaming her for. 

Edward died in 1953, when I was four, and in 1959, Tommy moved his family into a rental house in nearby Brookhaven (population 11,000). Kathryn took a refresher course in typing and shorthand and did secretarial work at home. After Fannie’s death in 1961, Tommy built his family a spacious house three miles north of Brookhaven. In 1963, he suffered an undiagnosed back problem that left him hobbling about for a few years. He and Kathryn then opened a third country store, this one in their garage. After Tommy was well enough to return to work, Kathryn ran the store alone. 

Tommy and Kathryn never denied me anything they could afford, and they never discussed their financial problems in my presence. Starting at age fourteen, I took a succession of part-time jobs (stores, funeral homes, paper routes, and ambulance services). I never gave a penny of my earnings to my parents, and they never asked my younger sister, Gay, or me to do chores. My father’s explanation was that he didn’t want his kids to have to work hard like he had worked. My mother never gave an explanation, but she surely knew that we wouldn’t have obeyed her anyway.

Tension at home often made life hellish, especially at mealtimes where variations on the following script were frequent. Tommy would smack his lips, eat with his mouth open, and loudly scrape his plate with his fork. These things so annoyed Kathryn that she would take her food to the far side of the room. This, in turn, so angered Tommy that he would say, “A pig wouldn’t eat this slop,” although her meal of cornbread, fried okra, iced tea, pork chops (or fried chicken), boiled limas with chunks of fat, white rice with gravy, and lemon pie, was identical to what women all over the South served. 

Kathryn would then—in seeming innocence—say something to further enrage Tommy, who would up the ante by calling her a whore for bettering her living situation by luring him into a sexless marriage. As silent tears began to fall into Kathryn’s food, Gay was working herself into full-blown hysteria. Tommy would then turn his anger on Gay, “If you don’t dry up, I’ll give you something to cry about.” Meanwhile, Kathryn was blaming me “for keeping the poor little thing too upset to eat,” although I so disliked Gay that I hadn’t even looked at her. Tommy would then stalk silently from the room in one direction while Gay ran screaming in the other, slamming every door she came to even if she had to open it first. I, too, would leave, whether to mope in my room, buy some gin (until the Mississippi repealed prohibition in 1968, any kid could buy liquor), kill something with my .12 gauge, or throw my bayonet into a tree while pretending it was a teachers back.
Gay thinks our parents loved me more than they loved her, and she might be right because while I was silently dysfunctional, she
threw tantrums, kept my shins black and blue by kicking them, looked like an escapee from a Nazi camp, and got pregnant by person-unknown, requiring a budget-busting trip to Denver for an abortion on the very day of my college graduation. Gay’s tantrums completely rattled Tommy whose nerves were none too steady anyway, and the fact that he and I often worked together further separated them. Kathryn devoted hours a week to begging Gay to eat and to give up smoking, but all she got for her efforts was Gay’s hatred.

I laughed at her attempts to discipline me, and Tommy didn’t discipline me at all, so I failed the sixth, the ninth, and the tenth grades, and often drove home drunk on weekends. I had been warmed by Kathryn
’s love during prepubescence, but with the first signs of approaching manhood, her affection had turned to disgust. Not a day passed but what she would say, “Boy, I don’t know what’s gotten into you;” “Boy, I raised you to behave better than this;” and, “Boy, you will never amount to anything.” Because I concurred with her belief that I was stupid, I couldn’t argue. Despite years of summer school, I never graduated, although I accumulated enough credits to be admitted to a small Methodist college, an option that I found infinitely more appealing than a Vietcong landmine. 

Tommy and me after removing a plaster ceiling, 1980*

By the time I met Peggyat a Southern Baptist collegeI had stopped listening to Kathryn’s insults, but Peggy certainly did, and they turned her against Kathryn. For her part, Kathryn called Peggy my “better half” and meant it, just as she meant it when she said, Peggy is your meal ticket (Peggy earned more than I), and, “Peggy deserves a better man than you.” Tommy adored Peggy from the day they met, but she held both my parents at a distance, calling them called Mr. ___ and Mrs. ___ until the day they died. 

Gay later renounced our parents altogether in favor of calling her second husband’s parents Mom and Dad. They in turn bequeathed her tens of thousands of dollars that she spent on men and drugs—she twice awakened to find that the man she had gone to bed with was dead. After years of watching her use, abuse, and abandon people who made the mistake of loving her, I gave up looking for the good in Gay, who is is now dying of COPD and losing her vision to macular degeneration, which I also have. 

After learning of her diagnosis, I emailed her because I thought it was what a compassionate person should do, and I try to be a compassionate person. Because her feelings for me are as jaundiced as are mine for her, I didn’t expect a response, but she wrote, occasionally requesting money. Had I acceded to her requests, we might still be in touch. Gay’s existence in my life used to be like a thick fog that would occasionally lift, allowing me to see the loving, playful, innocent, and elfin spirit that she used to be. That fog has not lifted in decades, and I doubt that I could recall more than a few hours of happiness in all the years I’ve known her. Here are a few treasured memories...

Lying in my bed and listening to her sing herself to sleep in the next room; watching her serve tea to an imaginary friend; seeing the glow in her face as she watched her favorite cartoon show, Rocky and Bullwinkle, on Saturday mornings; a birthday card that pictured a squirrel cracking a nut on the front and these words by her on the inside: To a nut from a nut.” Finally, there was her buoyant search for islands of happiness within the ocean of her parents misery. 

Despite my problems with my mother, I grieved intensely for 18-months after her 1988 death. My bad memories of her are outweighed by her love of plants; her enjoyment of Dylan Thomas; the litters of abandoned puppies that Tommy regularly brought home from the dump and that she fed around the clock with a baby bottle; the intellectualism she aimed for but never achieved; and her letters to the local newspaper in support of centrist causes and Democratic candidates. I suffered terribly from pleurisy as a child, and I also have fond memories of her rubbing my chest with Vicks VapoRub. Although the grease made me feel dirty, and the sharp pains in my chest were exacerbated by the cigarettes she smoked while applying the Vicks, I needed her affection so desperately that I even submitted to castor oil and enemas well into my teen years. My most cherished memory is of the two of us sitting in her wing-backed chair while watching her favorite TV show, Have Gun Will Travel, the main character of which was portrayed as an intellectual.

Of the three people among whom I grew to adulthood, it is Tommy who I love with an intensity that exceeds any love I’ve known aside from my love for Peggy. But, if Tommy was as bad as I’ve said, why do I still grieve for him 29-years after his death? Many reasons... He worked untiringly to support his family; he never cheated his employer; he exposed those who did cheat his employer; he gave me every advantage he could afford; he and I were the best friends that either of us ever had; and he told me things that few fathers would share and few sons would want to hear. Although much of his behavior appeared to come from weakness, I hold to the thought that transgender people are prone to anxiety, depression, alienation, loneliness, substance abuse, and suicide, even with a support system. My father had no such support, plus he was poor, friendless, poorly educated, unloved by his wife, unappreciated by his children, and unaware that other transgender people existed until he was in his fifties and read a Life Magazine article about the first American to undergo gender reassignment surgery.

Tommy didn’t want Gay to know he was transgender (“she couldn’t handle it”), but I’ve told others over the decades. In the ‘80s and ‘90s many people didn’t know what the word meant (some equated it with transvestism) while those who did know were appalled that I would share such a secret that, in their view, was shameful and might even cast doubt upon my own sexual normalcy. I shared it anyway because while I was very much humiliated by his
tantrums, I wasn’t in the least embarrassed by his transgenderism.

The only thing my father wanted from me was assurance of my love, and I could unhesitatingly say to him. I love you with my whole heart, and what youve told me doesn’t matter.” Were he alive today, he might also ask that I affirm his womanhood, and that I couldn’t do. However, if forced to choose between lying and breaking my father’s heart, I hope I would have the virtue to lie, and the strength to live so that he wouldn’t question my honesty. On my 45th birthday, he wrote what proved to be the last words he set to paper. The room he spoke of was his bedroom in this house.

Lowell I was sitting in my room just thinking back 45 years [ago] this morning how much I loved your mother and how much I miss her and wish I could [hold] her in my arms once again. But [when] she had to leave us, part of my life went to. I thank my [God] for giving you to me. Love Dad”

Birthday card, March, 1994

Five months later, he died in the room in which he had written those words. I remembered his relationship with my mother very differently from how he did as death approached and he was again able to experience the consuming love he had expressed in scores of letters from the 1940s: You cannot really understand my real feelings for anything that concerns you in any way for I love you so much, Darling, that it seems I cannot breathe without breathing your name for it means every hope and desire in life for me.” When you are in my arms, you are just as much a part of me as my heart is because without you there would be nothing in life for me.” 

I celebrate his forgetfulness of the hard years, just as I celebrate the fact that he was my father. He said that his years with Peggy and me were the happiest of his life, and I think it shows in the following photo which was taken when all that remained to him was to relax into the safety of our love and to know that his years of hard labor were over.

Tommy, the summer before his death


* A few years earlier, Tommy donned earrings, let his hair grow, and stopped running from the room when I visited so I wouldn’t see him in women’s clothing, Kathryn explained his long hair to others by saying that he thought it would make him strong like Samson.

Sources: (1) The memories of myself, my father, my mother, Peggy, Anne, and Gay. (2) My parents correspondence from October 28, 1947, to February 6, 1948. (4) The book Time is a Place by Anne Boone Johnson, Ph.D. (5) The book My 100-Year Journey by Mygnone Amazon Lenoir Boone with Anne Boone Johnson, Ph.D. (5)