Royal dance


I wanted to caption this picture “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well,” but the beloved thought that would be too strange and obscure.  Also, if I used the actual Shakespearean line, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio” and so on, it wouldn’t hook the same way, since we’re all too accustomed to the mis-quote.

At any rate, she’s not holding the swanky PB & J sandwich in her hand like Hamlet held Yorick’s skull, so the whole notion is even farther off the mark.  Plus I don’t think she’s contemplating the capricious transience of life.  It’s not so much “memento mori” here as it is “memento peanut butter is still really gross, and just because I told Baba that I would think about trying it doesn’t mean I have any intention of actually doing so.”

Observant locals may recognize the location as the memorable Garden Court at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel; those familiar with the joint might also recognize that the crown dealie is part of the “Prince and Princess Tea” they offer youngins. The beloved initially thought we were humoring Baba when we went there to celebrate the girlie’s first week of Kindergarten. After all, by the end of the week we both realized that getting through this first Kindergarten week milestone easily took as much out of us — if not more — than it did out of her.

Before we even got onto the subway to head into the city, though, it became quite clear that the upcoming fancy tea was way more huge for the child than for the parent.  For a gal currently fascinated by fairy tales and those who populate them, visiting the closest thing to a palace we could find and then pretending to royalty was as near as she could get to a dream come true. Between first hearing of our plans to whisk her off to this tea, and her finally discovering from Helmuth, the Garden Court maitre d’, that she could, she asked “Do I get to keep the tiara?” at least five times.

For a scepter, she was given an 18-inch long, pencil-width dowel bearing on it an elaborate, twisty, multi-colored lollypop. After she’d eaten her fill of chocolate-dipped strawberries and fancy cakes and slurped down her cup of hot chocolate (peppermint tea was an option, but it’s not like she heard that once the words “hot chocolate” had passed the waitron’s lips), she picked up the scepter and traipsed gentle laps around our table swaying it to and fro.  “Sweets to you, sweets to you!” she repeated in her high falsetto as she wiggled the scepter in our general direction like a divining rod.  On one or two laps she came dangerously close to clipping the gal at the neighboring table. It’s all fun and games until you knock a patron unconscious with your lollypop scepter.

Meanwhile her ma and I ate more slowly. Little salmon sandwiches. Egg salad ones. Cucumber ones. It took a while  before I got to spreading the rose petal jam on the fresh scone, but when I did, the flower scent (more pungent than you’d expect, coming from the jam) was like Proust’s madeleine.

“My mother loved roses, the scent of them. In flowers and in perfume.” Long pause.  “She would have loved to have been here.” I say this to the beloved as if any of the above information would have been news to her.

She looks at me sympathetically. In the background, the pianist renders a lilting, graceful version of “Bennie and the Jets.”

“She was the Anglophile’s Anglophile. Never travelled to England but always wanted to. Insisted I have strawberries and clotted cream when I was in London that time.”

The beloved smiles sweetly, and continues to say nothing. She’s heard all this so many times before. We courted, after all, amidst my year-old mother-loss grief.

“This granddaughter. God would she have loved to have known this granddaughter.”

We both take in and exhale our biggest breaths.

The beloved says to me, “I’ll bet she is here, right now.”

The girlie makes another tip-toey lap, pausing to knight me, then moving on, barely missing the sandwich tray on her way out.

“Yep,” I say, “but I’ll bet she wouldn’t have expected to find me here in this outfit.” Back home the girlie had insisted I get as fancy as possible, which to her always means the light blue tie with the polka dot flowers on it. Dark grey Italian wool suit, BR off the rack. The middle class gal’s Saville Row bespoke.  She is thrilled when I am got up this way. I on the other hand, when I am got up this way and not heading directly for a queer event, feel like ROTC officers probably do on the Berkeley campus on dress uniform days. Or a version thereof. I am proud, I am comfortable in my skin, and I am well aware that I appear unusual at the least, perhaps even surprising.  At the most I might inspire  what I hope will be only isolated pockets of well-restrained, inward derision. I quietly hope I don’t get bopped upside the head, especially in front of my daughter. Old fears die slowly, maybe even never die completely.

The girlie pauses in her circumnavigations. “Why, Baba? Why wouldn’t she have expected to see you in this outfit?”

She asks it in the way kids ask questions like these: their tone tells you that they already half-know the answer, and they’re asking as much to discover how you’ll answer as what. By now the pianist is on to the Beatles’ “Blackbird.”

“Well honey.  Every new child invites their parent into a dance. Sometimes it’s a dance the parent knows already and loves, sometimes — most of the time — there’s something new about it.” I check to see she’s still with me, and she is. “My mom was a girlish girl, and she expected me to be that way. But I wasn’t. So she learned how to dance with me as a boyish girl.”

I don’t tell her yet how complicated that dance was. Pain here, grace there. The long, arduous walks through the aisles in Capwell’s, the now-defunct department store where our mother would get my sister and me our fall school clothes. Me, longing for the stuff hanging on the racks over in the boys’ section, and rarely being able to even identify that longing powerfully enough to advocate for myself, much less succeed in scoring the full-on Leave It to Beaver regalia I wanted. And yet the Tonka trucks, the HotWheels, the baseball gloves I did get for my birthdays. My mother’s lingering disbelief that my lesbianism wasn’t rooted in some negative experience with a boy, somewhere, somehow. And yet her tireless, passionate advocacy of my full self — as much of it as she was able to see.

We never got to the end of that dance together. Did not. Death came first, and I will never forget the St. Paul bar I was sitting in, a month and a half after she died, when that realization grabbed me by the lungs. I held my face in my hands and wept without ability to stop weeping, minutes on end, and the three or four people with me could only look on sympathetically and occasionally pat my shoulder.

I have gotten there with my dad, I thank the heavens. One afternoon a few years back, when I was thanking him for the hand-me down shirts he had just given me, an old habit between us by then, I said to him: “Pops, I’m the son you never had.” And right back he said, “Doll, you’re the son I did have.”

I look at my daughter, tiara akimbo, lollypop scepter at half-mast in her limp wrist, this evidently girlish girl. She fixes a level, unblinking gaze back at me, the only Baba she’s ever known. Then she raises her scepter again, and continues her dance.





21 thoughts on “Royal dance”

  1. Thank you so much for this. Your dad’s grace and wit made me cry.

    I took my mother to tea at the Palace for her 70th birthday. I had her one-week-old granddaughter asleep in a baby sling. You remind me to be forever grateful for that day.

  2. lordy you nailed it yet again.
    so many things resonate but mostly the poignancy of the reach we have from our parents to our children….

  3. Thank you, all. Past/present, stretching/reaching. Heck of a thing, indeed.

    Yatima, I’m so glad for each of these: your 70th birthday tea with your mom, that slung baby there with you both, and probably most of all for your gratitude for it. What a gift.

  4. maybe it’s just my frame of mind today, but this made me cry a lot. sometimes it seems so unjust that there is so much trouble for the “boyish girls”. why so much burden of explanation, of longing for what you can’t have. and then the danger, ever present, of punishment for what you’ve dared to take.

    your family is beautiful, and we are so lucky that you are brave enough to share it with us, just as your family is lucky that you are brave enough to be your true self. how lovely that your daughter loves it when you dress up in your best suit.

    • Thank you, freedomgirl. You put it so succinctly. I don’t always feel so very brave, I’ll tell you. So many things I don’t write about for pretty much that very reason: a sense of protectiveness (which isn’t cowardliness, so much, but certainly an abundant awareness of danger). Protectiveness of my relationship’s intimacy, of the feelings of living family and friends, even those (or the memories) of family gone and long gone. Mostly I feel the protectiveness on behalf of my kids, about whom, the older they get, the harder it is to write about in the third person.

      So thank you in particular for seeing the good in here, so long as it’s here and bubbling up to the surface.

      Oh — and wow am I with you on feeling gratitude that my daughter prefers me in a dress suit and tie. Don’t know how her brother will feel; don’t know how long this will last; don’t know how we’ll take on the battle with mainstream/dominant culture’s narrow visions without any collateral damage accruing to our kids who may very well feel a strong desire to conform to it, for any number of reasons and for an untold amount of time. At any rate I am currently very grateful.

  5. ” ‘Pops, I’m the son you never had.’ And right back he said, ‘Doll, you’re the son I did have.’ ”

    This made me happier than I can explain. So happy.

  6. “Well honey. Every new child invites their parent into a dance. Sometimes it’s a dance the parent knows already and loves, sometimes — most of the time — there’s something new about it.”

    I am committing this one to memory! This is one of those statements that reaches out to every single parent, lesbian or not. You have caputured in words what so many of us parents can never express. Another fine example of how we are all alike.

    I’d bet the farm your mom was there and loved every second.

  7. Thank you both.

    Smurf, that might be one of the most amazing things he ever said to me. He was born in 1921, listened to the Glenn Miller Band, served in the U.S. Navy in WWII, voted for Adlai Stevenson, and tuned in our crummy black & white TV to the moon landing. Many things are possible.

    I can only imagine the ways these kids are going to stretch me, dimplecheek. And yet I know that the greatest challenges — the most difficult new dance steps — are of course going to be those that I can’t even imagine right now.

    Rose petal jam. I can’t imagine how she wasn’tthere. 🙂

  8. @ullalauridsen, I whole-heartedly agree with you about “beautiful and moving,” but have to I respectfully disagree with the rest of your comment.

    I find what you call the “literary flourish” to be the truest note in the piece, and its primary point, both literally and metaphorically.

    Literally true, because practically everything that this magical child does when she is moving is a dance. (Maybe because I know her in real life, this is especially clear to me, but we’ve seen ample photographic evidence on this blog as well).

    And metaphorically true, because this child WILL continue her “dance” all her life, and she is fortunate to have parents to participate in it who understand all of its complexities, twists and turns. And lucky for all of us, one of these parents photographs and writes about this family dance so honestly and clearly.

  9. I have two young daughters. One very girlish, in a way that seems similar to your’s. My older daughter, (but still only 9 years old), is “girly” as well but I have noticed throughout her short life that she also develops intense crushes on many women in that drift in and out of her life (teachers, leaders, friends of mine). My greatest hope is that if the lesbian life is the life for her, that when she’s in the proverbial St. Paul bar, sobbing into her hands, it’s because she is remembering how deep and unwavering her mother’s love and acceptance was, and how much she misses my hugs.

    I think your writing and your love for your family is beautiful. You’re an inspiration.


  10. Beautiful post. I love these little everyday stories, with a smear of philosophical musings.

    My Dad died before I ever had a chance to tell him of my gayness. I honestly dont know how he would have felt, his only daughter, his “rat bag”, a lesbian. He never used to pressure me into doing stuff to my hair or put me in girl’s clothes like my Mum did, so maybe on some level he knew it was better to let me do my own thing. Maybe. I suppose every gay kid hopes on some level their parent’s already *know*.

    And there’s nothing like cream tea! Can’t say I’ve had rose petal jam with it though. As an English person living in Devon and an out and proud Yankophile sometimes I forget the pleasures my own country has to offer.

  11. It takes my breath away that you say things so concisely and inCISively (feeling the knife, cutting to the quick). A beautiful and heartbreaking post, thank you, as always, for sharing it!


  12. I think this is one of my all time favourites of your posts. It’s magic.

    I fear so often that my mother might die at 103 and I’ll still be sitting in that bar with our unfinished dance in my head. The way you describe it makes my chest clench in empathy.

    I have been grabbed by the lungs like that often; but with a gratitude and a consolation (which eludes me at the time, mind you) that we still might have the chance to finish it.

    And so we might, which is something you have reminded me to be grateful for, however impossible it seems.

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