All my life I’ve been drawn to mystery in one form or another. My mother, and my relationship with her, will always remain the most profound mystery of my life.
When I was in my twenties, all I could see were the difference between my mother and me. To be sure, we are very different people. But in my forties, I started to notice similarities. Now in my mid-fifties, I’ve begun to examine both the negative baggage my mother passed on, as well as the gifts. Life is a mixed bag, as we all know. We certainly don’t get to choose our parents, but neither do our parents get to choose us. The lesson there, at least in my case, has to do with love and frustration, admiration and anger, and ultimately understanding and acceptance. No mother-daughter relationship is ever simple, but when you throw sexual identity into the soup, it can be explosive.
I want to tell you my coming out story. Along the way, I think you’ll get a sense of some of the conflicts—but also the love— that defined my relationship with my mother.
For ten years, my mother and I had been part of a fundamentalist Christian group called The Worldwide Church of God. I’d attended Ambassador University, the church’s college in Pasadena, California, and graduated in 1971 with a degree in Theology. I left the church soon thereafter. The reason I left had a great deal to do with the sexual and moral corruption in the ministry, especially the head ministers, but also had perhaps, even more, to do with my growing feminism. My mother eventually left the church as well—not because of the corruption so much, but because she felt she’d found too much doctrinal error. In her own studies, she’d discovered the truth, and the Worldwide Church of God no longer represented that truth.
My mother had always been the poster child for the iconoclastic spirit. My partner, Kathy, thinks it’s because she was a full-blooded Norwegian. She was just too damn stubborn to ever be wrong. Although she proclaimed loudly and often that she’d made many mistakes in her life, nothing she was ever involved with at the moment was a mistake. She believed what she believed with total fervency. And what she believed was not only right, it was righteous.
I’m not sure where my mother’s confidence came from, but she had a view of life that told her what she thought about the world—or an idea, a person—was more important than what the world thought of her. She passed that on to me. That particular life lesson was one she might have liked to rescind. As much as she wanted me to be happy, she also wanted me to make the same choices she had. I think many mothers want that from their daughters, and mine was no exception. In a way, if we get married, have children, share the same religious and political opinions, it validates their choices and their lives. The fact that what I believed was more important to me than what she believed always galled her. She spent a great part of her later years trying to convince me of her points of view. The only problem was, the beliefs she held changed so often that it was hard to keep up. But that never seemed to bother my mother. Or, more accurately, she never even noticed.
My mother believed that public education was a waste of money. Public education also passed on a lot of Godless liberalism and should be done away with for that reason alone. All women should home-school their children. She thought Democrats were lying cheats, out to ruin the country financially and morally. She believed in the International Jewish Conspiracy—the Bilderburgers ran the world. All political figures were puppets. She saw no reason for welfare—anyone could get a job in this country and support themselves just fine. If they didn’t, it was because they were lazy. All minorities were lazy. The Pope was the Antichrist. Sometimes the Jews were God’s chosen people, sometimes they were behind all the evil in the world. Women should stay home and not work. The business world was for men. Men were smarter than women. The soul passed into the child’s body through the father. Women were catty and small-minded—except for her. She decried all the violence on TV but loved James Bond Movies. When we went out, she couldn’t imagine why there were so many cars on the road. People should stay home. City water was polluted. All food was polluted. Doctors didn’t know anything. You should drink vinegar every day. You should also drink hydrogen peroxide—it was good for you. Wheatgrass was good for you. Coffee was a drug, just like cocaine, and should be outlawed. Potatoes were part of the nightshade family—they could kill you. So could tomatoes. Corn was for pigs. Humans shouldn’t eat it. Right was good and left was bad. In her sixties, heaven and hell didn’t exist. It was a Catholic doctrine that wasn’t in the Bible. By her eighties, heaven did exist, and she was going thereafter she died. Income tax was illegal. Homosexuality was a sin punishable by eternal death. I think intellectuals were in the same category, but it’s hard to remember now. She didn’t leave me a handbook—just lots of tapes that run in my head.
I’ve often written about my mother in my books. Any author who tells you their writing isn’t a form of therapy is lying. In my Sophie Greenway mystery, Death on a Silver Platter, I describe a woman very much like my mother:
“Simply put, Millie Veelund was a bigot. She preceded most of her pronouncements with ‘I’m not prejudiced, but—’ The spirit of Joe McCarthy was alive and well and living in Minnesota. Margaret Thatcher was her political hero, as was Ronald Reagan, except that he was involved far too much with those Jews over there in the Middle East. Then again, he’d taken on the labor unions and won. He had a good heart. Millie Veelund was Archie Bunker without the twinkle. She used religion and politics like a flame-thrower. She was human Agent Orange. Danny hated her. And he loved her. And that was the problem.”
You get the picture. Not only was my mother a cantankerous, self-righteous, know-it-all, but she revered ideas—believed they ruled the world. She passed that knowledge on to me. In fact, ideas do rule the world, and those you come to accept and call your own profoundly affect who you become.
Perhaps you can see why the thought of coming out to my mother was a scary one. I was of two minds about it. I thought she might never want to see or speak to me again. If that happened, I didn’t know what would happen to her. By that time in her life—her late seventies—I was her primary caregiver. She was able to stay in her house largely due to the help Kathy and I gave to her. If we became estranged, I feared for her future. But I wondered if her natural iconoclasm might kick in and she might be okay with the fact that I was a lesbian—not condone it, of course, but she’d be willing to live with it. The bottom line was, would her love for me—which I never doubted—be greater than her need to condemn?
Back to the coming out story. The winter that my third book, Stage Fright, was published, I had been asked to do a noon radio program at a University of Minnesota station. My mother didn’t get out much, and since I wrote under the name Ellen Hart (Ellen is my middle name, Hart is the last part of my very unpronounceable last name), she wouldn’t have put the two together if she did happen to see something in the newspaper. On the other hand, she did listen to the radio. The show I was asked to be on wasn’t terribly popular. Actually, I figured that only people surfing the dial—or a few shut-ins—would be listening.
After the show was over and I’d returned home, I got a call from my mother. Her first words were a question. “Do you know who Ellen Hart is?”
“Oh,” I said, trying to sound normal.
We moved on to another subject, but that was the turning point for me. I knew I had to tell her the truth. Not only did I need to come out of the closet about my sexuality, but I also had to come out of the mystery closet as well.
The week after I was nearly busted was a busy one. I had book signings every night until Friday. On Friday night, Kathy and I, armed with three of my novels, drove over to her house. I remember thinking: this is it. This may be the last time I ever walk into this house, the last time I talk to her face to face.
We walked into the kitchen. My mother smiled at us, invited us in, asked if she could make us some tea (tea was okay at that point, but later, it got put on the list of items that could kill—especially herbal teas.) She was always happy to see us, and always very gracious. (Unless she was in the middle of a tirade). In fact, my mother was an incredibly kind and generous person to those she loved. As I pointed out before, humans are an almost insane mixture of qualities.
Before I even took off my coat I said: “You wanted to know who Ellen Hart was. Actually, I’m Ellen Hart.”
She stared at me. After a few agonizing seconds, she said, “Well, I thought so.”
I handed her the books.
She went to get her glasses and then joined us in the living room. As she began to examine the first one, I said, “The main character is gay.”
She stopped briefly, then kept on paging.
“And there’s something else you need to know.”
“Yes?” she said, flipping to the back cover.
“Kathy and I are partners. We’ve been together for sixteen years.”
That was it. I’d said it. I held my breath.
She looked up, her eyes moving back and forth between us.
I tried to read the expression on her face, but I couldn’t.
She studied us a moment more, then returned her attention to the book. “Oh, I know that,” she said matter-of-factly.
I was stunned.
“How on earth did you get this published?” she asked.
And we were off and running. She had so many questions. Did I have an agent? How did I know I could write a book? Where were the books sold? Just in Minneapolis? All over the world! She was fascinated.
We talked for about an hour. When Kathy and I left, we were in a daze. We went to a restaurant, ordered some food and a couple of beers Neither one of us knew what her response would be, Although it hadn’t been, “Well isn’t that wonderful. My daughter is a lesbian!!” it wasn’t the end of the world e either.
The next day my mother called me. She still had lots of questions—not about the lesbian thing, but about the published writer thing. She actually sounded proud of me. During the conversation, however, she did a little walk down memory lane. She went through all the guys who’d proposed to me over the years. She wanted me to know that she didn’t approve of my “lifestyle” and never would. She thought it was wrong and felt that one day, I’d see that, too.
I listened to her, let her talk as long as she needed. She deserved an opportunity to express her feelings. But when she was done, I said, as clearly as I could, that I hadn’t come to her the night before seeking her approval. I simply wanted her to know. “And one day,” I added, “I hope that you see that my choice was a good one.”
And that was it. We never really talked about it again.
In the coming years, as I continued to write, my mother grew ever more proud of my accomplishments as a writer and a writing teacher. When my tenth book was published, she sat next to me as I signed books at Once Upon a Crime Mystery Bookstore. She attended other publication events too, always sitting right next to me at the table. I look upon those moments now as golden.
My mother died in March of 2000. The months before her death were hard ones for her. She was as frail and thin as a sparrow. When I would come to visit, to bring food or to strip and put clean sheets on her bed, or look through a photograph album as we sat together on the couch, I always had the sense that she was looking at me hard—trying to memorize me. Though we still agreed on very little, we did agree on one thing. We loved each other. I understand now that that love was the bridge over which we met and talked, and finally, where we healed the wounds of our differences.
National Coming Out Day 2020