As I sat in the backseat of my daughter Chelsea's SUV, being granddaughter Mary's designated adult — handing her Simply Cheetos (the non-GMO kind) and flipping thick chewable pages of her picture book, asking her, "What does the horsie say? Neyyyyyy!" — I realized that way back when, we had no grown-ups to distract us, or prevent us from killing our little selves by swallowing small objects. My three little brothers and I grew up in the Wild West of car travel, the 1960s.
Back then, only the brand-new baby was strapped into a flimsy plastic car seat in between our parents in the front. Once a kid could sit up, our Mom tucked the baby between pillows and blankets and us bigger kids in the expansive wood-veneered back end of our Ford Mercury station wagon.
Our Mercury wagon had a cavernous back end — seriously, all four of us could stretch out, arms at our sides, and neither our heads nor toes touched the back of the bench seat or the cold metal of the rear tailgate.
In the very back, on the gray steel floor, we discovered this super-secret hatch, that when pried open, revealed an extra padded seat, facing backwards. And even though sitting backwards in a crowded, speeding station wagon smelling of boys and an oily beagle is the quickest way to get carsick, commandeering the special seat was pretty much the pinnacle of each road trip.
The best part of that rear-facing seat was, of course, staring directly at the driver of the car behind us. As ingenious and inventive children, we had a litany of things we could say or do, to the confusion or consternation of those drivers, and to our general hilarity.
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One was to mouth the words "Olive Juice," over and over. My brothers and I had decided that looked like we were saying "I love you." The adults behind their steering wheels peered at us, their eyes narrowed. We did our best to look dreamy and in love, until the light changed and we pulled forward, slapping our knees.
Our absolute favorite — besides chugging our arms at passing semi-truck drivers to make them honk their horns — was to smile with our best Catholic-kid innocence at the drivers behind us and wave cheerfully. What they didn't know, what they couldn't know, was that we were also saying between our clenched teeth: "Wave if you're gay! Wave if you're gay!"
So when the duly-charmed adult smiled and waved back, we would fall over in hysterics. We had duped them into admitting they were gay. That one never got old.
But we did.
Years later, I had grown up, married, had kids and moved from Los Angeles to the Seattle area.
My baby brother, Tom, was now 19. He had just completed his first year at our shared Catholic university, and was driving north for a visit. He told me on the phone before he left Southern California that he wanted to talk with me about something in person. He had decided to come out. He was gay.
He said when he had shared his news at home, he had been confronted with many negative reactions from our family, friends and parish community.
But this was something about Tom I had long ago accepted.
When I opened our front door, and saw Tom standing there, road-weary and squinting at me through the glass of the storm door, I just smiled and held up my hand, saying, "Wave if you're gay."
He slowly raised his hand and wiggled his fingers.
We both laughed as I let him in.
When he dropped his duffel bag, I hugged him. He started to cry, his head heavy on my shoulder, his body shuddering with each sob.
We stood there for a long time. When he finally straightened up and sniffed, wiping his dripping nose on the back of his sleeve, I saw that his tired, sad eyes made him look a lot older than 19. I had moved away to college when he was 11, and never moved back. He had been through a lot since then.
During that week, I mostly listened and Tom mostly talked, about those years since I left home, about his puberty and trying to fit in at our Catholic high school, in our Catholic community and Catholic family.
He talked about trying to be a regular guy. About going out for manly sports like football, but finding it was agony being in the locker room, naked with other boys, trying to hide his attraction, and his shame. About asking girls to high school dances, dating them, making out with them in cars, trying to force himself to be normal, but knowing they were not what he wanted or desired.
When he was a little boy, he said, he just wanted to join little girls playing hopscotch, help me construct massive Barbie condominiums, hang out with our Mom, and avoid our two rough-and-tumble brothers.
I said, "I know, Tom. I've always known that about you."
He was surprised. I guess he thought he had us all fooled. He said, "How?"
I was feeding my baby son Nick in his high chair. As I spooned smashed peas into Nick's mouth, I said, "When you were 3 years old, and I was 10, you walked into my bedroom, and said, 'Amy, there's been a big mistake. I was supposed to be a girl. Who do we talk to?' "
He said, "I don't remember that."
I smiled, "Tom, you were 3. Of course you don't. But I do. I don't remember what I told you, but I do remember that you were super disappointed that I couldn't fix it for you. I mean, I was your big sister. I was supposed to know everything, right? I felt bad."
He looked down at his coffee, "I knew when I was 3? Wow." He looked back at me, "I always knew who I was. Why did I forget? Why did this have to be so hard?"
I wiped Nick's face and shook my head. "I don't know, baby. I don't know. But I am proud of you. And I love you."
This was in 1989. Rock Hudson had died from AIDS in 1985. Being gay and all that went with that risky lifestyle was making headlines. So, I asked Tom a lot of questions, about HIV and how it is spread, about if he had been tested, about his community in West Hollywood. I was happy he had been brave enough to come out, but I was still scared for him. And for us.
I would love to say that once Tom came out, things got easier for him, but that would be glossing over his very difficult journey. He has achieved much success, writing, producing and starring in a very funny musical and becoming something of a celebrity in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in the gay communities of Seattle and Los Angeles.
But perhaps due to our Catholic upbringing, the era in which he happened to be born, Tom seems to have been trapped at the edges of our family. I hate that he has been — or feels that he has been, which amounts to the same thing — marginalized.
A couple of years ago, we were on the phone and I mentioned in passing about when he was 3 and had made his big announcement. My brother, a 40-plus-year-old man, burst out crying. He had forgotten that story again. The pain of knowing exactly who he was at three years old — followed by a lifetime of continually striving for dignity and acceptance in a world that can still be harsh and judging and dangerous — seemed just as fresh as it had been more than 20 years earlier.
I feel it is important to note — since the transgender journey is dominating recent headlines — that though Tom announced he "was supposed to be a girl," that seems to have been his 3-year-old way of describing the situation in which he found himself. Tom is gay — a man who loves other men — not a woman in a man's body.
We can't get a do-over for our childhoods, rewrite the culture into which we were born, the sequence of events and choices that brought us from there to here. But this I promise. If one of my kids or grandkids walks into my room, and says anything like, "There has been a mistake. Who do we talk to?" I promise to offer a better answer than I could when I was 10.
I promise an answer full of love and acceptance and hope. One that says God doesn't make mistakes, and we are each created to be exactly as we are. That above all, we are family, and we are on this journey together. And that I promise to be your designated adult, to do my best to keep you safe from everything I can — from choking on small objects to having to face unkindness or injustice all alone — forever and ever, amen.
[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]