On Gay Modern Love: How We Got from Grief to Pancakes


In which The Gay Recluse provides a gay alternative to this week’s Modern Love offering in The Times. Those looking for our quantitative analysis should click here.

How We Got From Grief to Pancakes


Published: March 30, 2008

I WAS nervous about meeting my new partner’s parents, even though — omg! — I’m old enough to be a grandmother. When I told a friend I was marrying again, she said, “What? And lose your widow status?” (She’s always been kind of a bitch, but I like her anyway!)

My first partner, Willa, died eight years ago of brain cancer. She was 50, Dutch, a marathon runner, as graceful as a heron. Then one day, while a spring breeze rustled the curtains, she gazed at me and said meekly, “Who are you?” (Let’s just say this was NOT a good phase of my life.)

Anyway. I’m now older than she was when she died, as is my new partner, Michelle. (For all you math whizzes out there, that means we’re both over 50 — yikes!) Anyway, what’s kinda scary is that I keep a wedding photograph of Michelle and her late partner Nancy, a beautiful reddish blonde, on my bureau and they look really young! Some people find it strange that I would have such a photo on my bureau. I do not. What’s strange is that I obsess about it constantly! (Kidding!) Seriously, these people are our stories, our past, and the parents of our children. (Uggh, pinch me the next time I get all “literary”!)

Anyway. “You have to meet my parents,” my new partner Michelle groaned several months ago. I had seen pictures of them but had thus far been spared the agony. Her asshole father, at 84, is a federal judge — Zzzzzzz — still active on the bench. Her mother, who had been a ballet dancer, is still married to him. (Which is really sad because Michelle is like 98 percent sure her mother had a lesbian love affair in her twenties, like right after she moved to Atlanta.)

Not that anyone talks about that! Accordingly to Michelle, they like to tell everyone that they fell in love and left their small towns in South Carolina to go to the big city of Atlanta; that they were a mythical couple whose friends soaped “Just Married” all over their 1940 Plymouth; that they washed it off, but the “Just Married” message on the roof remained, faded but defiant, baked into the paint and reappearing whenever it rained. The first time I heard this, I was like: how awesome would it have been if the word “lesbian” had appeared instead! LOL! Whatever — tragic case. They’ve been married for 60 years and — sadly but not surprisingly — the ballet dancer’s mind is fading.

I wanted to be nice, though, so I brought her pink ribbons for toeshoes as a gift, to see if she remembers, the color perhaps, a sensual memory from long ago, twirling and smiling in the sunlight. Anything to forget her arrogant husband!

But wait! I forgot to tell you about the first time my son met Michelle’s two boys and they all nodded, “Hey,” and went off into the summer night to play badminton down the street. When they came back sweaty, two hours later, I longed to ask the crickets what the boys had talked about. I scanned their tired faces, desperate for a sign. Did they like one another? Would it be O.K.?

The next morning I asked my son, “What do you think of the big boys?”

“Good,” he said, obviously lying to please me.

“Their mother died,” I said.

“No duh,” he shrugged. “So did mine.”

Wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, meeting Michelle’s parents. Like I was saying: what would my future mother-in-law think of me, a New York girl?

“She might be very cordial when you meet and then five minutes later ask who you are,” Michelle said.

“Could be worse,” I said quietly. I understood. “At least she can’t kick you out of the house anymore!”

Anyway, I have two fears:

1. Of learning to be a family again.

2. Of becoming a widow again.

I admit in the cold winters of the recent years, many nights I let my son sit on the radiator eating macaroni and cheese as we watched the shittiest show ever: “Supernanny.” We were junkies! But even though the children on the show were holy terrors, at least they always had two parents. We kinda longed for unruly. In the days after Willa died, my son would march off to preschool and call out, “Get me a new Mom while I’m at school.”

Here’s how that happened: I wrote a book about Willa dying and Michelle, who is a journalist in Baltimore, felt compelled in the wake of her partner’s death to read books on grief, which obviously hadn’t been my “response.” (Don’t you love psychobabble words like “response”? LOL!) It was all I could do in those days to make a stupid cow costume for my son’s school play. But whatever, my publisher forwarded me a link to an essay Michelle published about grieving, which included a review of my book.

I read it online at 2 a.m., sitting alone in my nightgown, barefoot and shivering, on a winter night last year. Reading it, I felt a complete love for her late partner, Nancy, who was an art historian, just as Willa had been. (Honestly, how freaked out was I?)

In the essay, which included reviews of a few of the more important works in the growing cottage industry of “widowed writers,” Michelle quoted a passage of mine about a widower I had met as a teenager who still had his dead wife’s clothes in his closet. I had been spooked at the time, never imagining that at age 46 I would have a closetful of a dead partner’s clothes, that I would be a lesbian and that it would seem right.

I rather stiffly wrote to her: “Dear Ms. Hill, It’s an honor to be included with such wonderful writers. I am sorry for your loss.”

At least she wrote back, commenting on the passage in my book where I describe how I kept buying basil at the grocery store the summer Willa was dying, and how the smell of basil got me through those months. Since her partner died, she wrote, she didn’t think she could plant a garden again. You know how crazy gardeners are.

Soon we were exchanging e-mail messages with “re: grief” in the subject line. We corresponded for two months, starting with those first cold weeks when Michelle would return to her empty home with her children off at college, and now Nancy gone, and struggle to shovel the icy driveway. Eventually the subject lines changed to “re: thumb-stack of pancakes” and “re: bolts of cloth.” For some reason, I was touched!

One night my son appeared at my desk at midnight, when I thought he was asleep, while I was writing restless e-mail messages.

“I see how you get, all flirty-flirty with Michelle,” he announced. He didn’t actually say “flirty-flirty” but I always tell the story like that cause I think it sounds cute! LOL!

Anyway. Michelle was coming to New York in a few weeks, to see Joan Didion’s play “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Did I want to get together for coffee? I agreed to meet her at the Morgan Library.

Two days later I panicked. “I have a middle school meeting all day,” I boldly lied. “Perhaps another time.”

But then my friend the bitch advised: “Go. You’ve been scared your whole life. Go.”

Another eqally bitchy friend said: “A lesbian in a 27-year relationship will never get over her partner. Aren’t you jealous?”

“No, and fuck off!” I said. “I already love Nancy. She would have been my friend, and probably my ex, too! I don’t want Michelle to let her go. The four of us would have been friends.”

My friend was like: “Isn’t that kind of ‘Our Charty’?” which ok, was kind of funny.

But whatev, I wrote Michelle and told her I could get away for an hour. “How will I recognize you?” I asked.

“I’m 5-9 and need a haircut,” she replied. “I’ll be wearing a baseball hat. And you?”

Typically — because it was my first date in like a zillion years and I was nervous, so whatever! — I wrote something non-responsive, non-linear, stilted and rather confusing: “Years ago, when I was in Oklahoma, I met a woman who said: ‘You look like Bonnie, you know, Bonnie and Clyde. She was a little woman like you, with messy hair.’ ” Ridiculously I added, “Not Faye Dunaway.”

I waited nervously at the door of the Morgan Library until a woman of Michelle’s description walked in. I leaned forward and put out my hand. “Michelle?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, shaking my hand. We talked for several minutes and realized we had dated like 100 years ago. She said, “I’m sorry, but why are we here now?” And we realized — omg! — she was not the Michelle I thought she was. I was relieved and disappointed. This was a nice woman, and even kinda hot, but I felt no magic. I was “Ex-hausted” LOL!!!!

Five minutes later another woman in a baseball hat walked through the door. This was the woman I had been writing to day and night for two months, who liked the words “bolts of cloth” as much as I did. (Don’t ask.)

We did not look at any exhibits at the Morgan Library. I cannot even tell you what the exhibits were. Instead we sat side-by-side at these weird things called “computers,” — I am so not into technology, LOL — clicking randomly on virtual tours, and showing each other JPEGs of our sons.

“Don’t you have to get back to the middle school meeting?” Michelle asked over lunch, while I pushed my food around. (Btw, the food at the Morgan Library? Ew.)

“No, somebody can tell me about it,” I demurred, staring at her…wrists. (lol!)

Our second date, I met her at Penn Station under what we’ve come to call the “flip-flip sign.” (I can’t decide if that’s funny, but whatev.) Then we walked west and she took my hand. While buying tickets for the Circle Line around Manhattan, I confessed to her that there had been no middle school meeting. (As a wise-ass friend had said to me: “There are no all-day middle school meetings. Couldn’t you have come up with something better than that?”)

As we filed onto the boat, a photographer took our picture. We sat on deck in the sunlight, with all sorts of idiotic Germans and Japanese seated next to us. The breeze was soft; the guide made garbled announcements about Henry Hudson and the Little Red Lighthouse (let me pause here to give a shout out to all my peeps in WAHI!!! LOL!!!), and Michelle touched the back of my neck. When we got off the boat all the photos of the passengers were hanging up for sale. There we were, a middle-aged lesbian couple with two dead partners, but yes, in love. All together now: awwww. Sweet, right?

Anyway. LAST week I met her parents. Don’t worry: I was nice. I gave the mother — who btw was totally fried — the pink toeshoe ribbons. She thanked me, taking them lightly in her fingers. I even reintroduced myself to her each time I entered the room. When it was time for me to return to New York, Michelle’s blowhard father hugged me and said in his South Carolina drawl, “Welcome to the family.” I was like in your dreams, buddy, but I just smiled!

I told her mother I loved her daughter. I felt bad for her, honestly, married for six decades to that blowhard asshole! Jesus. I’d lose my mind, too.

“We enjoyed having you here. We’ll miss you,” said her mother somewhat automatically, holding the pink toeshoe ribbons, although it was not at all clear to me if she remembered sewing similar ones to toeshoes long ago. Like I said, she was seriously out to lunch, the poor thing.

Anyway. It is almost time for Michelle to plant her spring garden. A button broke on the cuff of her shirt recently, and as she stood with the cracked button in the palm of her hand like an offering, I could see her missing Nancy. I kinda missed her too! OMG! Is that crazy?

I hesitated, then went into the back of my closet and pulled out one of Willa’s flannel shirts. Although I’m no Betsy Ross, I retrieved my box of sewing things, full of threads and needles from Willa’s mother’s Dutch sewing kit. (So I guess I kind of am Betsy Ross! LOL!)

Working carefully with like the tiniest scissors ever, I snipped a button off Willa’s shirt and sewed it onto Michelle’s cuff. OMG, I thought, they’re like both so totally butch. Love it. Love. It. Don’t you?

Patty Dann lives in New York City. Her latest book is “The Goldfish Went on Vacation” ( Trumpeter, 2007).

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2 Responses to “On Gay Modern Love: How We Got from Grief to Pancakes”

  1. 1 sarah m

    i saw your blog on gay uncle’s guide. Anyway. that piece was really good. I am not gay but i get sick of how modern love is the same all the time. I understand! I really do!

    your piece was funny and surprising.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Sarah M!

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