“So have you set a date yet?” I asked my mother a few weeks ago when she informed me that she was remarrying.

I had mixed feelings about her announcement. My father has been gone for nearly three years now. He was ripped away from us so suddenly and unexpectedly that from time to time, I still experience the shock and disbelief that I felt on that horrible day when I heard my mother’s barely audible voice on the phone and knew that I had to get home as quickly as possible.

He awoke early that day, as was his custom. He loved to take Sadie, our beloved springer spaniel, for a walk each morning before eating a light breakfast and heading off to work. My mother always preferred to sleep a little later each morning, so it was the sound of dishes shattering followed immediately by a loud thud that jarred her awake.

She told me later that she screamed involuntarily as her eyes flew open. Before her feet hit the floor, she knew that my father’s spirit had departed the home they shared for more than twenty years. When she saw his lifeless body on the kitchen floor surrounded by the remnants of a shattered plate, cup, and saucer, she knew that their life together had ended.

As if in slow motion, she dialed 9-1-1 and then, as she awaited the arrival of paramedics to confirm what she already knew, called my apartment. She said only, “Daddy’s gone,” and I too knew, as I pulled on a pair of sweatpants and t-shirt without washing my face or combing my hair and raced up the freeway at 90 miles per hour toward the home in which I was raised.

It was after the funeral, when the “thank you” cards had all been mailed, the headstone ordered, and the dishes all returned to their friends and family who rushed over with pots, pans, and plates overflowing with food, that I broached the topic of selling the house. I was sure that Mom would want to move into a condominium or smaller home that wasn’t filled with memories of her husband of nearly 30 years. His clothes were still hanging in their closet. The door to his study had remained closed for several weeks, neither of us able to enter the room my mother had lovingly decorated for him in shades of navy blue, wine, and brown where he spent so much time reading, watching sports events that held no interest for my mother, and hosting an occasional poker game with his long-time male friends. At the urging of my then-boyfriend, who had lost his own father several years earlier, I waited a few weeks before gently offering to help my mother clean out the closet, sort through his belongings, and make deliveries to her favorite charity.

I remember the conversation vividly. I was standing in the kitchen — on the very spot where my father had drawn his last breath. As my mother sat at the kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee, I reminded her that I had some vacation time accrued and wouldn’t mind spending part of it assisting her.

“Oh, honey, you are so sweet to offer,” she said, “but I’ve been taking care of things little by little. In fact, I’m almost finished with all that. I have some things I’ve wanted to show you, but I’ve just been waiting for the right moment. Come on.”

She rose from the table and gestured for me to follow her down the hallway where I realized, for the first time, that the door to my father’s study was wide open. To my surprise, the room was bare. She had removed the furniture and shutters, and several swatches of wallpaper were taped on the far wall next to streaks of paint in various pastel tones. I turned and looked across the hall into my parents’ room to see that it had already been freshly painted, their familiar furniture replaced with a new bedroom set. My great-grandmother’s hand-sewn quilt, which had graced the foot of their bed each day of my life, was nowhere to be found. Rather, my mother’s new bed was adorned with a brightly-colored print bedspread.

“Mom, . . . ” I struggled to find words. “I had no idea,” I mumbled as I strode into my parents’ bedroom and opened the double-doors of their walk-in closet to find it had been remodeled. Lighted modular shelving units were sparsely filled with my mother’s clothing. My father’s sport coats, trademark light blue dress shirts, trousers, shoes and other items were all gone.

“I donated all of Daddy’s clothing to the homeless shelter. He mentioned once, as we were driving by, that if he died first, he wanted me to give them all of his personal things. So I called the director and he personally came out and picked up all of the bags. He was very kind – and appreciative.”

After a few uncomfortable moments of silence, she continued, “Do you like the way I had the closet remodeled?”

I remember turning to her and looking at my mother as though it were the first time I really saw her. “Yes,” I said quietly, unsure how I felt about the fact that she had veritably wiped any evidence that my father had actually existed from their home without my participation in that process — or my consent.

For the first time in my life, I understood the depth of my mother’s strength and independence, the word “survivor” refusing to leave my consciousness. It was just the first of a series of changes and revelations of truth I would be required to accept over the next several years.

My mother’s childhood friend, Emelia, has always been part of our family. Growing up, I delighted in calling her “Auntie Em” and, although her husband’s name was Paul, I never addressed him by any name except “Uncle Henry.” He died two years before my father after a long, slow descent into complete debilitation due to Lou Gehrig’s disease. My parents helped both of them in every way possible, and continued to provide emotional support to Em after Uncle Henry’s death. I have often wondered if the strain of his illness contributed to my father’s demise. I will, of course, never know.

My mother and Em were inseparable before losing their husbands, but became even closer after they were both widowed. They shopped, lunched, worshiped, and traveled together. I was delighted that my mother had a best friend who could understand her feelings and, because of their shared experiences, provide her with emotional support. My mother told me repeatedly during those first months after my father’s death that she had no intention of burdening me with her loneliness or sorrow, delighting in my visits and luncheon or shopping invitations, but urging me to continue enjoying my young adulthood with my friends.

So my mother’s invitation to her nuptials caught me totally off-guard and it took several minutes for her to convince me that she wasn’t merely teasing.

“We’re getting married on July 4th. We think that getting married on is apropos,” my mother explained in a subdued tone as she studied my expression. I did not understand what she was trying to tell me.

“Mom, you haven’t even been dating anyone. How can you be getting married?” I continued, still convinced that she was joking. “You mean to tell me that you’ve been seeing some mystery man without my knowing it?”

“Not exactly,” she laughed uncomfortably. She paused for a few moments before continuing. “You know, we’ve mulled over and over how to tell you . . . but just couldnt’ come up with any way other than to just blurt it out. So I apologize for my bluntness and lack of tact.”

She leaned forward, put her hands on my knees, and looked determinedly into my eyes. “Honey, your Auntie Em and I are getting married.”

I laughed out loud! “O.K., Mom, joke’s over,” I said as I continued giggling.

After a few moments, as I attempted to compose myself, I said, “Come on, what’s really going on?” I took a sip of the sweet, cold lemonade my mother had poured for me before sitting down on the patio to talk about her plans. Suddenly, when I realized that I was the only one laughing, a shiver ran down my spine as I watched my mother watching me, her eyes moist as she appreciated the extent of my shock and, initially, revulsion.

“Mom . . . ” my voice trailed off. “Tell me this is a joke and your boyfriend is going to arrive any moment so that you can introduce me to him.”

“I can’t tell you that, dear,” she responded quietly. “I never imagined that this day would actually arrive, but now that it has . . . ” she considered her words carefully. “You are a young woman with your own life, old enough to understand that your parents were and are sexual beings, just as you are.”

“Yeah, Mom, I’m o.k. with the idea that you had sex with Dad. It’s been a long time since we had the ‘birds and bees’ talk,” I argued. “But you’re talking about something altogether different.”

I stared at my mother for a few long moments, watching tears softly roll down her cheeks as she quietly nodded her head affirmatively. “Yes,” she sighed heavily, “that is exactly what I am doing. I’m talking to you about something altogether different. Something that women your age — or any age — were not allowed to talk about at all until recently. Something I never thought I would ever tell you. But I also never thought I would lose your father at such a young age or so suddenly, or that my life would ever, ever turn out the way it has.”

“Mom, are you trying to tell me that you’re gay?” I shivered again as I heard the words “Mom” and “gay” reverberate in the same sentence . . . and my own voice.

“I don’t know if that’s the right term,” she replied. “Does this require a label? Do I have to wear a badge?” I saw anger in her eyes for the first time since my teenage years. “Perhaps you could make me a bright red ‘L’ and embroider it on all of my clothing for me.” Catching herself, she choked back a full-blown sob as she put her hand over her mouth for a moment before continuing. “I’m sorry. Truly. I apologize. You didn’t deserve that. Please forgive me. This is as difficult for me to explain as it is for you to hear.”

I realized then that tears were also running down my face as I looked at the woman I thought I knew better than any other human being — but obviously did not know everything about.

“Mom, just tell me the truth,” I said resolutely.

“I have been in love with your Aunti Em for as long as I can remember. Since we were in high school. We loved each other from the day we met. But neither of us had the courage to be honest about our feelings, so for years and years neither of us ever told the other how we felt.”

“And, of course, neither of us could ever have told our parents or other family members the truth. So we were just the best of friends. We double-dated and were each other’s maids of honor in our weddings. We made sure that we married men who would also be friends so that we could always be together. She’s been like a second mother to you all of your life.”

“Yes, she has,” I said sincerely. “Mom, you know that I adore her. But I’m not sure that I’m ready for her to be my new stepfather,” I continued sarcastically. “Are you telling me that my whole life has been based on a lie? That you never loved Dad and your marriage was a sham?”

“No!” she responded vehemently. “No! You must never think that. I loved your father — I love him still. If he were alive, we would not be having this conversation. There would be nothing to discuss. Your father and I were completely faithful to each other and still would be if he were with us. But,” she paused for a moment, “he’s not.”

“So you just need to get out there and date some nice men, Mom.” I was trying to convince myself, as well as her. “You are just going through the grief of losing Dad and Auntie Em has always been your best friend, so this is just some kind of ‘transference’ of your feelings,” I continued breathless. “Isn’t that the psychological term? You’re confused, Mom. It’s completely understandable and natural when you lose someone as shockingly as we lost Dad. I think we should find a competent counselor for you to talk with. I’ll go with you if you’d like me to.”

Stop it,” she said sternly. “Just stop. Listen to yourself!”

“Mom, I’m just trying to help,” I said, my voice full of pity and concern.

“Refusing to hear the truth won’t help anyone,” she replied shortly. “Especially yourself. This is the truth: I am in love with Em and she is in love with me. We’ve been in love with each other for nearly 40 years and we are going to act on that love. On July 4. We are going to be married — legally — right here in this backyard and I want you to participate in the ceremony and our lives. I want . . . no, I need your blessing, your understanding, your acceptance. I know this is completely unexpected and shocking. It’s a lot of information to take in, so I want you to take the time you need to absorb the truth and ask questions.”

I stared at her, dumbfounded.

“I love you more than life itself. But with or without your blessing, Em and I will be married and start our new life together,” she stated calmly, but with strength and resolve.

The sun was setting and a soft breeze wafting over us as we sat in silence for what felt like hours, but was, in actuality, just a few minutes. I don’t know how long we would have remained there had we not heard the front door slam as Em called out cheerfully, “Sweetie, I’m home!”

I still could not speak, as I turned to my mother questioningly. “Yes,” she said, “Em lives here now. She has sort of gradually been moving in over the past few weeks while getting her house ready to put on the market. We are going to live here together after the wedding.”

Just then, Em opened the sliding glass door and stepped out of the family room onto the patio. “Oh, there’s a nice breeze coming up. It’s going to be a lovely evening. Hello! How’s my favorite girl?” she said lovingly, as she came toward me with outstretched arms. “I didn’t know you were coming over today, but I’m so glad you’re here. How ’bout sticking around for bar-b-qued steaks tonight?” She enveloped me in a warm hug that should have felt familiar and comforting.

When I did not respond in my usual effusive manner, she stepped back a foot or so, holding my upper arms firmly, and studied my face. “Your mother told you,” she matter-of-factly. Then she let go of me and turned to my mother. “I’m proud of you,” she said in a low voice before softly kissing my mother on the lips. “I think this calls for a toast. I’ll be right back,” she said without waiting for either of us to protest.

My mother and I continued staring at the sky which was, by then, a fiery vision of reds, pinks, oranges, and purples as the sun slipped below the softly swaying branches of the large tree from which the rope swings my father had strung for my friends and me so many years ago remained suspended.

Em returned with three wine glasses and a bottle of my father’s favorite Merlot. As she filled the glasses, she explained in her typically no-nonsense fashion, “O.k., it’s a shock. Your mother and I totally get that. But here’s the deal: I love her. She loves me. We’ve loved each other for decades and now we feel free to express that love in a way that we never could before. We loved our husbands and we had good marriages, but that’s over. And we happen to believe that our husbands would be happy for us. So it’s up to you, kiddo. Are you going to be happy and celebrate Independence Day with us?”

After she handed my mother a glass, she offered one to me. “We love you,” she said gently. “You have no idea how important it is to us that you’re all right with this.”

I took the glass of wine as I watched her sit down next to and softly take my mother’s hand in her own. I sighed deeply as I considered them for a few moments and was completely surprised and amazed by what I saw: My mother was, for the first time in a very long while, indisputably happy. It was evident that she was content and comfortable. As was Em.

Against my own stubborn will, I had to admit that, as a couple, they seemed natural together. Meant for each other. And I reluctantly found myself wondering why I had never seen it before. Which led me to question whether my father and Uncle Henry had seen the now-obvious connectedness of these two women that I love so deeply and fully. But that’s where I drew a mental line, acknowledging that whatever they suspected or knew they took to their graves with them because they too loved these women unconditionally — and eternally.

I rose and held my glass up. A soft evening breeze washed over me just as the sun disappeared, leaving behind a red glow rivaling any Independence Day fireworks display.

“All right then,” I said with a deep, weighty sigh. “I guess it is my duty to propose a toast to the happy couple. I will try to understand it as we go along, but you’ll have to be patient with me.”

“And you with us,” Em interjected.

“Who am I to question? It is my mission to accept, right?” I queried.

“Right,” my mother said proudly. “And go with us this Monday to be among the first couples in the state to get a valid, legal marriage license!”

“You’re on. We’ll get up early and be at the courthouse when they open because I want you to know that I love you both, I accept your decision, and I hope you will be happy together,” I announced. “So I’ll be here on July 4th and we’ll all celebrate your very special Independence Day.”

“And liberty,” Em added, “to live our lives the way we see fit.”

“And justice for all,” my mother concluded, unable to suppress her laughter any longer.

“To Mom and Auntie Em!” I said as we clinked our glasses together.

Inspired by the Writer’s Island prompt: Unexpected
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8 Comments

  1. Wow! What great writing. I actually had a tear in my eye as I finished the piece. I really don’t know if it’s fiction or not, but it doesn’t matter. Jenn, you’re a great writer. I’ll spend more time reading other pieces of yours.

    Like I said in my post, Nobody Should Have to be Alone! Bravo.

    ~Laura

  2. Wow.

    I had to take a break in the middle to do something for the kidz.
    But when I came back it hit me pow in the chest all over again.

    Powerful writing, and a lovely sentiment.
    Do you mind me asking whether it was true?

  3. Jenn

    Jane:

    My writing is peppered with familiar details from my own life — people I’ve known, experiences I’ve had, the experiences of people I know. This story, like everything I write, is an amalgamation of many different people and events.

    But no, it is not literally “true.”

  4. hi, i wanted to say thanks for linking back to my work even though you didn’t have to. I enjoyed your story very timely for this day and age

    jenns last blog post..How Fit Are You?