Family Album

I have a thin stack of photographs from my fiftieth birthday party. This morning I’ve drawn them from a crumpled white envelope to look at them for first time since that evening. I’ve delayed looking-the weight the pictures carry is heavy.

That night there were flowers, candles, jazz, blues and salsa, party favors that uncurled like snakes, and a huge sugary cake. My two beautiful grown sons and I and my beloved Leslie gathered with friends in an echoing room. There I usually sat at long tables in political meetings, shoulder to shoulder with others, listening, talking, our hands busy stuffing envelopes for the next demonstration. But that night the room was transformed with balloons, streamers, banners-and photographs everywhere. Leslie had set up tall cardboard stands with pictures documenting my “fifty years of love and struggle.”

At the center were pictures of me and my sons. Each of them as a newborn-in these I am only a pair of hands, an edge of face and hair. Them at seven and eight, sitting knee to knee on top of my VW bug-I am standing by the open car door, one hand turning nervously against the other. I’m about to drive the children back to their father, who wrested custody of them from me. He has had me declared an unfit mother, because I am a lesbian.

In all the pictures of us together we are smiling. There are no snapshots of the moments of terrible pain-the images that flash through memory over and over, like a home movie of agony. In my rearview mirror I see them behind me, as I drive away from their new home. They are crying, running a little after me, then standing still, their hands falling defeated beside them.

Perhaps every family album has these private pictures, the stories we try to guess at from a few hidden whispers and the grief-struck eyes above someone’s smiling mouth.

That night there were other pictures of me. As teacher- in academic robes at commencement; with my pecan pie at a supper I organized for students in my class on lesbian culture. As writer-with other women in an editorial collective as we lean over page proofs, standing alone to read from one of my books; at an anti-right-wing demonstration where one of my erotic poems has been turned into a placard. With friends at an anniversary of the March on Washington for Civil Rights. And being arrested, with some of the same friends, and hundreds of others, in civil disobedience at the Supreme Court, protesting the decision that our love is a “crime against nature.”

That night the photographs showed a humane, creative, justice-loving life that the current law of the land would keep separate from “the children”-my children, all children. But the pictures of the three of us together are still at the center of my years.

This is the family album of one of the many of us who have been told we are not fit to have a family, told that we can stay in the family only if we are quiet and invisible, told not to “flaunt” our life, not to make a scene. This is the family album of one of the many of us who have said, “The old definition of family is too small for us and our children. Not for us the familias based in laws of property, where family means the unfree members of the household, the women, the children, the servants, and the slaves.”

One June day, in his teenage years, my oldest called to talk about a video he’d just seen on public television, a documentary about gay families. I said to him, “You know, I’ve never asked how you’ve felt about my being a lesbian, how you think it’s affected you.” And he said, “Your being a lesbian didn’t affect me. What hurt me was not being able to have you with me.”

My story is but one of many, that of a woman who mothered her children almost in isolation for years. Who struggled to hold them as family even though the law decreed that they could not even enter her home if she shared it with another adult. Who strove to teach them connection to the forbidden others in her life, those who might give them a new kind of family, a different kind of world, where no people would lose their family because of hatred against how they love or the color of their skin, because of their despised femaleness or their poverty.

Today I turn to the photographs of my party after a more recent conversation with my children about family. Do they think of themselves now as my sons? In my relationship with Leslie as our sons? Do they see themselves within a larger extended family like that gathered in my festive birthday room?

I look at the pictures for clues to begin another of the conversations, lifelong, that I hold with my children about who we are together, in a world where powerful malign forces work to break us apart.

I unfold the creased envelope. The pictures from that birthday night show the four of us standing awkwardly together. One son smiles but looks down; the other frowns, turned inward. My smile is tense, Leslie's face is drawn and tired from a recent illness.

Yet beyond that snapshot are the moments where we are smiling. The four of us piling into a car later that night, crammed in with presents, cards, chrysanthemums, and cake, laughing giddily that we are like a clown car in the circus, like a party ready to burst out when a door opens, everything in hand that we need for another feast.

 I hold the pictures that show we are here together. We have fought to claim our lives with each other despite years that we have been physically, forcibly, separated. Despite years of no words to explain to others what we are to each other. How-despite what law, custom, religion may say-we are heart of each others’ heart.

Minnie Bruce Pratt