By MARY ALICE HOSTETTER
The first letter was not mine, although my brother Charles and I had spent so much time talking about it that I felt some ownership. I was in San Francisco for the Thanksgiving holiday, and we had read and reread the letter he was planning to send to my father, changing a word here and there, rearranging sentences.
I suggested he replace “gay” with “homosexual,” the word my father was more likely to have heard, usually in the same sentence with “abomination” from the pulpit of the Mennonite church he and my mother had attended for decades.
I was supportive of my brother, respected his courage and was flattered that he valued my opinion about something so important. But I didn’t fully understand.
“You really think he needs to know?” I asked. “How is this is going to help him?”
“It’s not for him,” Charles said. “I’m doing this for me. I’m over 60 years old, and he still thinks I’ll get married if I find the right woman.”
“It’s not like he’s rejected you,” I said. “He thinks the sun rises and sets on his doctor sons.”
“I don’t know what he’ll do with this, but I need him to know who I am.”
I told my partner later, “Charles is obsessed with that letter.”
“Seems like it’s important to him for your father to know,” she said.
“I think our father’s doing the best he can,” I said. “He never went beyond eighth grade and has been a farmer his whole life. His world’s pretty narrow. He’s healthy, but 95. Something like this, no telling how he’ll take it.”
“You may as well let it go.”
The next morning my brother asked if I wanted to walk with him to the mailbox. The sun was glistening off the buildings on the San Francisco skyline against a brilliant blue sky. We walked to Fillmore, and I watched him drop the letter into the mailbox slot.
“There it goes,” he said.
“No taking it back now,” I said.
We took the long way home, through Alamo Square Park, the iconic Painted Ladies lined up in the morning light.
“I wonder who’ll visit first after he gets the letter,” my brother said. “Who’ll get to process it with him.”
Two of our eight brothers who lived near the nursing home in Pennsylvania checked in on him every week.
“I know Abe goes every Wednesday afternoon,” I said, “and I think Ike goes on Friday.”
Abe is a psychiatrist; Ike, a retired farmer and Mennonite deacon. There are 12 of us siblings altogether.
“Doubt it’ll get there by Wednesday,” my brother said.
My partner and I flew back to Virginia, and the busyness of catching up at work and preparing for the holidays distracted me from wondering when the news would hit the family grapevine. It didn’t take long before the reports started trickling in, each tidbit so remarkable I began to keep a record so I wouldn’t forget.
Ike, the farmer brother, was the first one my father showed the letter to.
“Did you know this?” my father asked.
“Everyone pretty much knows it.”
“I sure didn’t,” my father said. “Had no idea.”
By the following Wednesday, when Abe visited, my father had more questions.
“How does this happen?”
Abe said, “Seems some people are just born that way.”
“Are a lot of them born that way?”
“About one in 10, they estimate.”
“Well, if it’s how people are born, it sure doesn’t seem like something that should tear families apart.”
That proclamation rippled up and down the family grapevine, and it seemed it should echo down the halls of Fairmount nursing home, past the nurses’ stations and across the fields to the plain brick Mennonite churches.
After my father received and processed my brother’s letter, he seemed to spend a good deal of time in his sunny room contemplating this new reality. It was clear he gave some thought to the one-in-10 theory, and, from his vantage point overlooking the nursing home entrance, he counted off visitors, wondering. He talked to visiting family members about unmarried relatives, neighbors.
When my younger brother Sanford visited, my father said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about Eli.” Eli was an Amish neighbor. “All those years, he worked that farm by himself. I remember when he was younger, he dated girls, but it didn’t work out for him. I wonder if that was the story with Eli. Makes me feel bad that he never found someone.”
And then the questions started about me.
“It makes me wonder about Mary Alice,” my father said. “What about her?”
“I guess you should ask her,” Sanford said.
Of course my father wasn’t going to. It wasn’t the sort of thing we would talk about.
When Sanford told me about the conversation, I knew it was time to clear things up, to let my father know that I was part of the one-in-10. I could have dispatched a sibling to deliver my news. I could have shouted it to my hearing-impaired father over the phone or on my next visit. A letter seemed like the most reliable way to communicate.
After my brother’s courageous letter, I knew mine would be anticlimactic, not only because my brother’s came first, but also because I was one of four daughters, and in our family, especially from my father’s point of view, nothing about being a daughter appeared to have the same import as it would have from a son.
So I wrote my letter and sent it, but during my next visit the subject never came up. My father was as welcoming to my partner and me as he always had been. I considered asking him about the letter but never did.
Had my mother still been alive, I think the conversation would have been outsourced to her. They had lived at the nursing home together for a couple of years before she died at 95, just a few weeks after they celebrated their 74th anniversary.
For years after she died, my father glanced toward her chair when he needed to tell her something, and I’m sure he would have liked to know what she thought of the letters. I can only hope she would have been as understanding as my father was, but I’ll never know.
The nursing home where my parents lived was run by conservative Mennonites and was consistently recognized for the quality of its care and its cleanliness. Many of the staff members considered their work a religious calling. A steady stream of volunteers cleaned the residents’ eyeglasses, shined their shoes, massaged feet and filled the halls and chapels with music.
My father ate his meals in the main dining hall but insisted on a full-size refrigerator in his room to store his Turkey Hill black cherry ice cream, which my brothers made sure he always had. He kept the bowls and spoons in the refrigerator, along with pretzels and pink mints for the children. He served himself a snack each evening.
As one of only a handful of men in the nursing home, he was much sought after by the widows. He made it clear that he had no intention of remarrying, but he did invite some of them over for a bowl of ice cream now and then.
His vision of heaven included reuniting with our mother. Although he was longing for that time, he first wanted to live to be 100, or at the very least live longer than his older brother, who had died just short of 99.
In time, my father’s focus on who was or wasn’t gay abated. The reality blended into the landscape of carefully tended farms stretching as far as he could see from his nursing home window.
Sometimes I liked to imagine him sitting in the sunroom with the three other men in his wing, all of them hard of hearing, him shouting, “And I have two children who are gay. What do you make of that?”
My father died 10 years ago, a week short of his 100th birthday. I think it gave him peace knowing all 12 of his children had found someone with whom to share their lives. If he’s with my mother in heaven, I hope he has brought her up to date on family news. If he’s run into Eli up there, his Amish neighbor, I expect he’s told him how sorry he is that he had to work the farm by himself all those years.
Recently, many of the Mennonite churches in Lancaster County, Pa., decided to split from Mennonite Church, USA, which has chosen to allow openly gay members. The only thing as important as church to my parents was family.
I’m glad they didn’t live to see this time. Would church or family win? Would my father speak up against his church to tell people, “It’s not the sort of thing to tear families apart”?
Last May, after 18 years together, my longtime partner and I married. I don’t know what my parents would have made of that, but I wish they could have been there.