For at least a decade, my parents had been perpetually cleaning out closets and the basement and the attic. As a daughter who lives several states away, I only saw them once or twice a year. So inevitably, every time they visited me, or I visited them, I was gifted with boxes or folders or envelopes of things; pictures, old report cards, childhood art projects, newspaper clippings, and any other manner of memorabilia. They are planners; these parents of mine. So whenever they bequeathed these packages of memories, I understood this was their way of preparing for an inevitable future in which they would sell my childhood home, that house on Albert Avenue in Milltown, New Jersey, and move to a retirement community. Still, there were times when these deliveries felt like my upbringing was being logically and systematically removed from their lives, from their recollection.
One such package was in the back seat of the Ford Explorer I purchased from them and drove back to Illinois. At a rest stop, I decided to hang around for a while, eat lunch at a picnic table, and explore my treasures. As I ate my tuna sub and rummaged, I saw an unlabeled (unusual for my organizational parents) manilla envelope. I opened the clasp and turned it upside down and out slid one of those black and while composition journals they used to give you in grade school circa 1980s. I had labeled it “My Writing Book” in childish script. I put down my sandwich. There was no immediate recollection of said journal, it did not look at all familiar, there was no conjuring of a visceral reaction, a memory, anything; as if it had been pulled from some other child’s parents’ attic.
I shadily glanced around as if the journal were labeled “CIA: CLASSIFIED”. It’s a strange sensation to look at an artifact you know you created yet have zero recollection of. Slowly I was gripped with intense curiosity coupled with a feral, unnameable fear. Of what exactly, I could not say. I took a deep breath and opened to the first page.
Mar. 4, 1981
Dear Julie, I hope that you will give me a chance to exprece my feelings. I have talked to every one I could find about my one problem — nobody can help me so far. You see I like girls better than boys.
I stopped. I am 36 years old and I have been an out lesbian since 18. This whole time, when I have talked with other LGBT people about our coming out experiences (as we are wont to do) I have always said that I did not really understand what I was coming to terms with until I was a teenager. In retrospect, sure, I can see that I had crushes on my older sister’s friends, but I didn’t know that’s what that was at the time. Yet, here was evidence to quite the contrary.
My sister’s friends are the girls I like the most. There all five years older than me and they always will be. How can I solve this problem? It’s really terrible to go around feeling like a boy. I really hope you can tell me something that will help.
I tried to process. First of all, apparently this journal composition notebook was…what? An exercise in correspondence and letter writing? There were three pages of these kinds of notes between myself and this childhood friend, “Julie”, whom I had no recollection of whatsoever. How could it be that this huge swath of my childhood had been entirely erased from my own consciousness?
“Julie” encouraged me to just try to be more like a girl, hypothesizing that the more I behaved like my biological sex, the more I would feel like it. Sage advice from a 9 year old. I became grateful for this child that I could not remember. I kept reading.
You have a good idea for the older girls in this school, but what about my sister’s friends? There gentle, pretty, nice, especially…
And here I went on to catalog the names of my sister’s closest friends; 14 year old girls that I was totally fascinated with, in love with, or whatever the 9 year old equivalent of being in love with was. Though Julie was forever lost to the recesses of my mind, when I read these other names, I recalled them as clearly as if we’d just met for dinner the night before. I had apparently decided that my “problem” wasn’t so much that I felt like a boy, but that I lacked the courage to tell these older girls how I felt about them. Actually, feelings very much like that of a shy boy who didn’t know how to talk to girls at all, let alone older girls.
By far, though, the most poignant thing about reading this journal, passionately penned by my 9 year old self, was the interjection of the third grade teacher, a woman of which I only had a slightly less vague memory of than this crucial turning point in my young life. After my back and forth with Julie, she wrote the following note:
Kelly, would you like to talk to me about your problem? You don’t have to, but I will listen.
Her intentions were good, of that I am certain. It was 1981, and an underpaid 3rd grade educator in a small town in central New Jersey had the wherewithal to offer me a friendly ear to listen tenderly to my am-I-a-boy-I-like-girls grievances. I felt grateful for that. Of course my precocious 9 year old self rebuked that teacher, telling her such matters were private and I had no desire to speak to her about them, thank you very much. I wonder how often that poor empathetic soul worried about me? Did she talk about this issue in the teacher’s lounge with her colleagues? Her family at night over dinner? Was she a closeted lesbian herself? I will never know.
The nature of the writing assignments that school year moved on to little short stories and lists of favorite things and poems and what I did after school and other reflections on 9 year old life. There was no further mention of my problem or the beloved teenage girls. I closed the notebook, left to ponder my 9 year old self and what she undoubtedly went on to endure at 10, 11, 12 and beyond. Living in a world now where gay is old news and trans, non-binary, and intersex are the words circulating in LGBTQ culture, it was difficult to imagine her. I could easily recall my first girlfriend, my first pride parade, my first heartbreak over a bi-girl who chose some man over me. But that gentle and frightened little girl eluded me, hiding in the shadows of a long forgotten past. I closed my eyes, and gently coaxed her forward into my heartspace, then held her more tenderly than my own mother ever had, whispering “There’s nothing wrong with you. You are perfect exactly as you are, and I promise, it will all be okay.”