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DECEMBER 20, 2010 2:23PM

My gay uncle in memoriam; or, Christmas cookies

Rate: 8 Flag

When my uncle died, my father found--among other things--packages of unopened Christmas cookies from my mom stacked and dated through the years. At Christmas time my mom always put together a variety of Christmas cookies she'd baked. I can't remember them all, but there was her mother's recipe of almond cookies, those pecan balls rolled in powdered sugar, and certainly sugar cookies cut out in Christmas shapes. She'd place them on festive paper plates with a doily on the bottem, slip them in a baggy with a twist tie, and attach a note saying "Merry Christmas 1976!"

It wasn't just the cookies my dad found. Uncle B hadn't called in a few days, his phone was busy. He used to call after a few drinks and talk to my dad in the evenings. The landlord opened the door for Dad, which is how they found my uncle. The apartment looked like that of a hoarder, except it was more than likely just the result of a gay, alcoholic, bachelor who didn't have the energy to deal with his life. Stacks of newspapers piled up to the knees filled the place. That is the image that remains in my mind from what my father told me.  There must have been pathways between the rubble connecting the rooms. And lots of empty bottles of whiskey.

Gay. Alcoholic. Bachelor (as far as we knew). Are those nouns or adjectives? How do you define a man? First and foremost he was a beloved uncle, brother, son. He was only 50 and his parents outlived him. He was an opthalmologist and as children we loved to visit his office to get our eyes checked. We sat in the waiting room, leafing through stacks of "Highlights" magazines for children with fun puzzles and stories. I felt proud that our uncle was the doctor.

Soon before he died--we presume from drinking--I remember him joining us for a family meal. My mother's divorced sister was there and there was some speculation that they'd get together. Or maybe that was another time. Did none of us suspect he was gay? We kids certainly didn't. What I remember distinctly was that blood trickled down the side of his face. From his ear? That part isn't clear.

Was it being gay, being ashamed, that drove him to drink? Or an unlucky inheritance from his gene pool? He was certainly loved. Early pictures show him with a friend, a veteran Broadway actor dining at his parents' home. They remained friends through the years. Nobody seemed to question. Gammy used to say how she was crazy about all her boys (my dad and his three brothers) and their friends.

Our ten-year-old daughter is transgender. People question our decision to "allow" our child to transition, that is, letting her live as the girl she truly is, even though she is biologically male. "Isn't she too young to know?" they ask. Scientific data indicates that there gender identity could possibly be formed through a hormone wash in the womb. In that case, why wouldn't you know from the time you could speak who you were?

More importantly, the children who are suppressed, unaccepted by family, even banished, are 3-4 times more likely to commit suicide, and are more likely to run away and/or turn to street drugs and prostitution. And, of course, alcohol. It's not really a decision. We'd rather a happy girl then a dead boy. Would my uncle still be alive today had he lived in a more open times for gays, lesbians and transgender people?

This year it was my turn to bake the Christmas cookies. I set aside a plate for my uncle. I imagine him, seeing how we have been raising our daughter, finally sitting down with family to dig in and eat.

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Beautiful and haunting. Thank you for this and for your heart-felt support of your 10-year-old. Just thanks.
Beautifully written. Thanks.
Thanks, great story! Sounds as if you have a great family!
I can't wait to hear more.
You never know what joys, what connections were in a man's life. The physical wreck is only that, the leftovers. Who knows...easier to sum it up ruthlessly, reductively, than to face the vagueness of it all I suppose...but not exactly the whole truth.
@Dr. Lee. You make a point, I hope I'm not really trying to sum up his life. I just feel sad it ended that way, especially for my dad. My uncle had a vacation home in Connecticut next to his actor friend for years. Years later we'd see the actor on summer theater, or broadway and talk about my uncle.
Reminds me of Brokeback Mountain. What a tragedy that a life can be so sad and isolated. Wonderful photo. Thanks for this.
A sad end with many questions unresolved. While no one can say for certain the effect of his unspoken gayness, clearly his life would have been happier had he been able to live it as he really wanted.
My condolences for your uncle. You are a great parent I am so glad you are accepting of your child's choice. :)
Heartfelt in many ways.
I'm very intrigued by your admission about your child too. Years ago, I did a graduate study course on this topic, when gender identity disorder was just being looked at. We've come a long way, if your experience as a parent is any indication.
Not all elderly gay men turn to alcohol. And not all alcoholics are gay. I suppose that being an alcoholic was just what happened to him like it happens to many people. I think that, from what you describe, he might have been suffering from depression.
I think, all in all, that he was very lucky to have you as a niece.