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Truth and Reconciliation

Kelly Cogswell visiting her mother, Jean, in a Kentucky nursing home.

BY KELLY COGSWELL | I decided to go down to Louisville last week, and hopped on a Chinatown bus for a mere 13 hours with a bunch of Asian and African immigrants, two or three South Asians, a couple of Latinos, and a handful of young African Americans, all glued to their smartphones and tablets and largely indifferent to the white dyke shivering in her blue child’s hoodie.

The last time I took the bus down was 25 years ago, when the riders were almost all poor whites and poor blacks sneaking cigarettes in the Greyhound bathroom and drinking 40s to kill the time. Looking around at the vastly different faces, I took it as a sign of hope, a reminder of how much the South has changed despite the gerrymandering by bigots trying to turn back time.

PERSPECTIVE: A Dyke Abroad

They can’t. Progressives can’t either. We cannot return to the world before Trump. White hetero masculinist supremacy is entering its death throes, ranting and lashing out as viciously as a bear we’ve baited with every minuscule victory. If we resist a few more years, though, if we aren’t all burned to a crisp, something interesting may emerge from the wreckage. I suspect it will come from the unthinkable South, which has been quietly digesting its new multicultural existence without abandoning the desire for community, family, a kinship to the land, even beauty.

Culture there is as important as politics. And it cuts across racial lines. When the young black mother in front of me confessed she was considering moving back to Atlanta from New York, she said it was because Atlanta was more chill. She wasn’t at home with New York’s pumped-up aggressive attitude. She also missed her family down South, even if she didn’t get along with her mother. “Me either,” I said, “Though I’m on my way to visit her.” Her face lit up. “That’s just what I needed to hear. Family’s family,” she said. And insisted on a high five.

My friend Leigh picked me up at the gas station. After a slow beer on her front porch, I went to confront my mother. When the attendant brought her from her room, she didn’t know who I was, even though I said, “It’s Kelly. Your daughter.” She just smiled a little worriedly, wanting to please. Didn’t look like a monster at all.

After a while, she relaxed and chatted in a disjointed, mumbly kind of way. She’d pause now and then, stroke my hand with pleasure, and say, “You’re so pretty. You look just like my boyfriend. God is good. Isn’t God good?” And I’d say, “Sure.” It was hilarious that she liked me now that I was somebody else. And could even find my boyishness appealing.

Once my two sisters and I hit adolescence, her general expression was one of loathing and disgust. She was cultural enforcer extraordinaire, slamming us all as being fat and no-good just like my father. Bound straight for Hell. When I came out, she utterly rejected me. Even after 10 years with the same girl, she’d ask when I was going to stop that nonsense and find me a man. She had plenty to say about race, as well.

Of course she hadn’t entirely changed. When she told me that lots of girlfriends visited her, she took pains to reassure me that she wasn’t “queer.” She still asked how much I weighed, but without the same urgency, the same hate. It was just a tape playing in her head. I suppose it always was. She smiled and laughed and praised Jesus. I figured she also said offensive things to her young black caregiver who had just moved down from Chicago, but got a pass because of her illness and age and perpetual smiles.

The attendant said she was actually a favorite at the facility, though of course she had her moments like all the other Alzheimer’s patients. I didn’t try to disabuse her. My real mother, the person responsible for so much anguish, was already dead. Let her rest in peace.

It was kind of freeing, abandoning all hope of reconciliation or understanding. It absolved me, too. I’m the activist who abandoned her bigoted mother. Allowed her to persist in her hate. Pollute her grandchildren, who are now mostly unredeemable bigots who hate blacks, immigrants, queers like me, though I’m not so bad, they say. Not at all what they expected.

I took her outside in the heat for a walk, passing through locked doors too heavy for her to open alone. She started to get unsteady after 50 yards or so and I turned back. “It’s this way.” She stared around her and didn’t recognize a thing. “How do you figure out where to go?” she asked. I couldn’t answer.


Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” from the University of Minnesota Press.

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