Thanksgiving 2019

Thanksgiving mornings when I was a kid, I always woke to the smell of my mother’s delectable breakfast casserole. She prepared it the night before because she knew none of us boys or my dad were going to cook breakfast, and she had other things to do. She was an incredible chef, and Thanksgiving Day in our house was her day to shine.

We’d gorge ourselves on the casserole, and by one o’clock, we were hungry again. No fear: mom whipped out a pint of raw oysters—always oysters—with cocktail sauce and Saltines and a baked brie topped with raspberry jam and slivered almonds. Hunger crisis averted.

Around three, people would start showing up. In the early days, it was usually ECU students stranded in town for the holiday. Later, after mom got sober, they added friends from her AA group who also had nowhere to go, and Thanksgiving became this wonderful conglomeration of disparate people. The conversation and drinking—for those who still drank—would go on late into the night.

All year round, my parent’s house was like a stop on the underground railroad for folks in need of comfort and fellowship. Anyone was welcome, and  I learned hospitality and inclusiveness from them. I learned a home isn’t a truly warm unless you use that space to gather those you love and who love you back. Because life is empty without meaningful, loving relationships.

These were my thoughts when I woke up this morning. I swear I could smell her casserole baking in the oven (which, BTW, Andrew does a really good job at replicating). I lay in bed and thought about them, and my heart grew so full that I know there were there with me. 

I cried for minute, not out of grief, but out of gratitude that I had the most incredible set of parents. We weren’t the perfect family, but we always strived to be better. And entertaining was one of the ways that they achieved that. In fact, I still run into people today who tell me that they went to “one crazy party” at my house. 

Today, be thankful not only for what you have, but what you had.


Jackson Square was deserted on this oppressive Labor Day Monday night inhabited only by the fortune tellers and tarot card readers who floated like spirits between candlelit tables. 

I was there because I had chased a guy to New Orleans for Southern Decadence. He and I had struck up an online relationship that I guess we both hoped would grow stronger when we met in person. Alas, the spark wasn’t there, so he spent the weekend at a blackjack table in Harrah’s while I discovered the pleasures of the Big Easy’s annual gayfest 

As the latest number in Eric’s Big Gay Failed Relationship Tour, he had flown back to Texas earlier that day without a goodbye. All the other revelers had headed home as well, and tonight I had the city all to myself.

I climbed the steps of Saint Louis Cathedral and sat on the cool marble porch in the darkness. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance. 

I thought about the sequence of events over the past year that had led me to this moment, beginning with my tenure as marketing manager at an internet startup in Norfolk. The company, Great Bridge, was one of Landmark Communications “new ventures.” I had already worked in two previous new ventures that had failed miserably after only a few months, and I should have known better this third go round because now it was certain that Great Bridge was going to meet the same fate.

I had been in San Francisco in the days prior to my New Orleans junket to help convince Sun Microsystems to buy out the company. All I remember about those few days was standing in the middle of the bar at the top of the Marriott Marquis in downtown San Fran, some douchebag marketing person from Sun in my face talking about “the big idea.” I was so sick of that jargon and those inane conversations, and I tuned him out, walked over to the bar’s magnificent floor to ceiling windows, and watched an amazing sun burn out as it sank into the Pacific.

My career had wobbled wildly since moving to Norfolk in 1997. Now it looked as if I was about to be unemployed for the first time since I started working at 14. 

On top of that, my best friend since high school, was battling ovarian cancer in Atlanta, and she was losing. Two months earlier, I traveled to see her for what would be the last time. She was emaciated, and her eyes were sad. Her husband took her daughter—my goddaughter—out for a few hours so she and I could spend some time alone.

We sat on a swing in the backyard, and I held her hand. We had been through so much together since we were teenagers: growing up in dysfunctional families, the pain and joy of high school, a failed marriage, a new marriage, and finally, giving birth to and raising a wonderful little girl. Now, at 40, she was dying. 

We sat in comfortable silence for a while. She was the only person in my life with whom silences didn’t feel awkward. Finally, I asked, “What do you want me to do?”

Laurie looked right into my eyes and said, “Make sure my family is ok.” I know then this was the last time I would ever see her. 

As I sat on the steps of the cathedral with the storm grew closer. I recalled that promise to my dying friend, and I shed a few tears. Just as I was contemplating heading back to the hotel, the low soulful baritone of a man singing an old hymn flowed out from the darkness beneath the porch archways behind me.

“Mama put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That cold black cloud is comin’ down
Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”

I listened for a moment, entranced. Then as if God himself was coming down a deafening clap of thunder rattled the Square. I hurriedly headed back to the hotel, the message loud and clear: big changes were coming. 

Back in Norfolk the next day, at a companywide meeting, the president made it official: Great Bridge was closing on Friday, September 4. All employees would receive a severance based on their salary level, and I was happy with mine. What made me happier, though, was to be out of the internet business. It had been a terribly nasty and stressful journey full of greedy, boastful people for whom I didn’t really care.

That last day was a gorgeous late summer offering: sunny and cool with cloudless bright blue skies. I collected my check before lunch, literally skipped to the parking lot, and drove home to my condo by the Bay. Tom Petty’s Free Falling came on the radio, and I sang it louder and more joyfully than Jerry McGuire. My plan was to do nothing but sleep, sit on the beach, and deal with the PTSD that had characterized the past two years. 

I was going to let the next “big idea” find me.

The following Tuesday morning, my cell rang at 9:30. It was my brother. He never called this early, and I knew something was up. 

“Turn on the TV!” he yelled. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center!”

The rest of that day was a slow-motion nightmare. Like everyone, I watched the horror in Manhattan unfold. At one point, I contemplated packing a bag and evacuating. The fact that I lived right next door to the world’s largest Navy base did not escape me. I somehow got a grip and opted for a calming walk on the beach.

The day was another stellar one, except there was no one in sight. I mean, no one. The Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel and the port had been closed, and the normally busy traffic coming in and out of the harbor had ceased. All air traffic had been grounded. The only sound was the gentle breeze, broken by the road of three F-16s leaving Langley, headed for DC. 

I could have been the last person on earth.

The next few days were a blur. I watched from the beach as the USS Enterprise departed for the Middle East, draped in American flag bunting mimicked by the throngs of flag-waving people watching from shore. I talked to Laurie later that week, and I could tell she was failing. I stayed up almost all night every night and slept late into the next day. I drank way too much.

I also passed many of those days writing things like this in my journal:

9/16/2001, Norfolk

“I know I will survive all that’s happened lately. I know it will ultimately make me a better person. But tonight, grief has me in its grip and is shaking me to the core. Death is all around, and that long black cloud is coming down.” The world had changed, and I was beginning to understand that I had changed with it.

Four days later, I got the call I had been dreading. It was Matt. “Eric, she’s gone,” he said.

“I knew that’s why you were calling,” I said, my breath catching in my throat. “Was she at peace?”

“She was, and she had no pain,” he said. “And you’ll appreciate this: her last words were, ‘I can’t fight this anymore, and I want to go home’.”

I smiled at the thought. She and I had always shared a similar spirituality, and we both knew that we have been on this planet many times before and would be here again. I also knew that she’d be waiting for me when I went it was my turn to head home.

I told Matt that I would rent a car in the morning and drive down. I damn sure wasn’t going to fly. 

“Would you like to speak at the service?”

It’s Joan, Laurie’s mom, asking me six hours before the service. She is a small, diminutive woman, from all outward appearances meek and unassuming. And yet, she is the one who stood by her daughter’s side for over a year. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for her to watch her oldest child die.

I have always had mad respect for Joan. Back in the Seventies she took both her daughters out of an abusive marriage and started all over again. That was no easy feat in those days, especially for a woman who had no formal education or work experience. 

She had practically raised me as a teenager. I spent more time at her small duplex than I did at my own house, and that tiny dwelling became my refuge. Laurie and I gathered there with our friends on Friday nights to watch “Dallas” or play cards. We skipped school and sat on her bed, smoking Merits and listening to Foreigner or Styx records. 

Joan knew but didn’t really care. She had seen worse.

When I was with Joan, I was always reminded that many families aren’t comprised out of your immediate one. Over the years, I had taken to calling her mom. She was a sight better than my own mother, who at that time was battling alcoholism.

I thought about speaking at the service. I knew that it would be tough for Matt to get up and speak. And I knew Joan was asking me because she was aware of that. 

I had stood up at every pivotal event in Laurie’s life. I was in her first wedding in 1983, although I knew then that she was making a mistake. Five years later, I drove home from Greensboro in the middle of the night after she called me in hysterics to tell me that she had uncovered her husband’s infidelity. I found her curled in the bathroom floor, crying unmercifully. 

I was at her pinning ceremony when she became a nurse. When she married Matt, I was there, lighting candles and toasting. I was in the hospital waiting room in Raleigh the night my goddaughter Sarah was born, and I was on the altar at her Christening, proudly accepting the role as her godfather. I remember her joking with me that if she went before I did, I would have to grow up and be a father figure.

I told Joan that I would speak, that I had no idea what I would say, but it would be an honor. 

Matt, Joan, Sarah, Laurie’s sister Barbara and I piled into Joan’s Park Avenue. On the seat between Joan and me was the wooden box containing Laurie’s ashes. The sky was gray and drizzling. 

We stopped by Barnes & Nobles to buy Sarah a “Bob the Builder” book, a mundane chore on this exceptional day. While we were there I discovered what I was going to say. I bought a single red rose and the small paperback which would serve as the foundation of my eulogy. 

We passed a cemetery on the way to the funeral home. I turned to see gaggle of geese fly low over the mute, gray headstones. Matt steered the car into the lot of Lutz Funeral Home, put it in park, and we sat silent for a moment, all of us close to tears. 

“OK, we can do this,” he said. Joan was crying softly. Somehow, we got out and went inside, Matt bearing the box. The moment had come to say goodbye.

Here’s what I remember from the service:

Before it began, I walked past the funeral director’s office and overheard Matt talking to him about the untested vocalist who was to perform “Ave Maria”. It was Laurie’s favorite song, and Matt was concerned. The last time they had hired a vocalist on someone else’s recommendation had been at their wedding seven years earlier. She had mutilated “Ave Maria”.

“It’s not that I don’t trust your judgment,” I heard him say. “I just don’t want my wife coming back to get me because this girl screwed up the song.”

I walked into the empty chapel with Sarah by the hand. We were alone. It had taken her a few hours to get used to me last night, but now she didn’t leave my side. We walked up to the altar where a family portrait of the three of them stood next to the box of ashes amid a sea of flowers. I laid the single red rose next to the box while Sarah wandered up on the stage. The tears came, and then Sarah tugged my hand. 

“I know where mommy is,” she said.

“Where is that?” I asked.

“Right here,” she said, pointing to the chair next to her. “And up there,” she said, pointing up.

I smiled and wished we could all remember what it was like to be a child, in touch with the forces on the other side, in tune with the fundamentals. As we get older, life dulls the signal.

People, some familiar, most not, began flooding into the Chapel. I never have been at entirely at ease in situations like this, regardless of the occasion: weddings, graduations, and funerals. I always wanted to laugh or fidget nervously. But today, I felt this heat radiating from somewhere within, and it calmed me.

The holy man, the same man who married Matt and Laurie, got up to speak, and before I knew it he was calling my name. I pulled my heavy body out of the pew and walked to the altar. When I looked up into the faces of the mourning congregation I knew the time had come for the final testament. 

I told those people how Laurie was the best friend I have ever had. Ever will have. I told them how she was the first and only person up to that point who accepted me as I was from day one and loved me unconditionally for it. I told them that she was not only that way with her friends, but with her husband, her daughter, her sister, and her mother.

Then I pulled out the small paperback with the blue feather on the cover. “Illusions” by Richard Bach. I read the very same passages that she and I adopted as our mantras so many years ago, back in the woods of eastern North Carolina.

“The mark of your ignorance is your belief in tragedy. What the caterpillar calls a tragedy, the master calls a butterfly.”

“Do not be dismayed at goodbyes. For a goodbye is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again is certain for those who are friends.”

And finally: “Your true family is measured not by bonds of blood but of respect and joy in each other’s lives. Rarely do members of the same family grow up under the same roof.”

I returned to my place in the pew and the sorrow came, horrible, overwhelming, inundating. Sure enough, she was gone. An unknown hand passed me a Kleenex from behind. As comforting as those words from Richard Bach were 25 years ago, today was an utter loss. And it hurt so badly. 

It was the first of a long, continuously unraveling realization that Laurie was dead. That so many people were dead. And that I was going to die, too.

Back at Laurie and Matt’s house, I wandered through the sea of unfamiliar faces, working the PR persona that I had become so adept at wearing in stressful situations. The acute sadness that poured out of me at the service had dulled into a gentle heartache and I found more comfort among the people that also loved and missed Laurie.

Matt is in the kitchen with Sarah and his parents gathered around the table. Joan and Barbara are sitting in the living room with their Aunt Bett, a 75-year-old nun. Laurie’s estranged father sits silent and alone in the den watching television. That’s pretty much the same thing he had done for the past 40 years. 

It felt as if we were at one of the many parties we threw over the years, and these are all our friends, come to have a good time, to drink, to laugh, to share stories.

Laurie is upstairs, late as always, in the “Lab” as we used to call it putting on makeup, curling her hair, and getting beautiful. Typical Leo. It was about now that I would go up there and burst into the bathroom.

“What in the hell are you doing up here, incubating?” I’d say, feigning impatience.

Without looking away from the mirror, she’d glance up at me and raise her eyebrows. “Perfection cannot be rushed,” she’d warn. “Go away.”

I’d laugh, knowing it was all part of our shtick. Then I’d go back to the party, killing time, anticipating her entrance, which was usually a gentle drift down the stairs, nonchalant and casual, somewhat removed.

Instead, I find myself sitting next to her Aunt Bett. This is one grand old dame. A bit overweight, possibly a lesbian, very Midwestern. This woman had traveled all over the world in her life, learning four languages and visiting places most of us would never even read about. 

I sit in the uncomfortable dining room chair next to her. She gently places her hand on my arm and gives me a mysterious Mona Lisaesque smile.

“You’re quite the poet,” she says. “Your words at the service today revealed that.”

I thank her for the compliment.

“You know, Laurie talked about you often. She told me a few years ago that you were her best friend.”

The tears were suddenly close and threatening. Somehow I managed to shelve them for the moment. “She was my best friend, too,” I gurgled. 

“But I bet a lot of people don’t really know what that means to you,” she said. I gave her a small nod. No, they really didn’t. 

She leaned in close. “I think I know what it means,” she whispered. “I think it means that you are a very independent, reserved loner, despite your gregarious nature. And she was the only person who truly understood the real you.” I looked directly into her eyes. “And I bet you don’t think you’ll never meet another person who knows you like she knew you.”

I felt my shoulders slump. She had pegged me, and that was too close for comfort.

“You’re a very insightful person,” I said with a feeble smile.

She sensed that I was tottering on the edge of despair and gripped my arm for a brief second, smiled, then turned her attention elsewhere. 

Just as a woman of God should do.

From my journal, September 26, 2001, Atlanta:

Tonight, I’m sitting at a desk surrounded by her pictures: her and Matt at their wedding, her and infant Sarah, her with Joan and Barabara. And of course, she and I at the peak of Mount Mitchell smiling broadly. We all loved the North Carolina mountains and spent many a long weekend as an extended family in Ashville or Blowing Rock.

Across the hall, Matt sleeps in their bed, alone. Everyone else is asleep as well. We’ve stayed up late the past few nights, reminiscing, laughing, crying, grieving, remembering. 

Earlier tonight, Matt suddenly said, “You know what, we’re all here now. Why don’t we drive up to Asheville and scatter her ashes this weekend?”

It was decided, and the next morning we made the journey up to Laurie’s favorite spot, Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway to cast her ashes into the wind. Meanwhile, 900 miles away, New York City continues to sift through ashes of another kind.

We all must become intimately acquainted with grief. What we do with that is contingent upon our ability to allow it to lift us up or cause us to succumb to the darkness. 

From my journal, November 27, 2001, Norfolk:

Two months since Laurie’s death, the attacks on New York and DC, and the failure of Great Bridge. I feel like I had dived into a deep, cold, black lake and I am just now regaining the surface.

I am changed. I don’t understand the complete picture yet, but I know the events of September have fundamentally altered my perception of life on this planet for the better. And just in time. I was no doubt headed for a breakdown of some kind.

As sad as I am over losing my best friend, as distraught as I am over the sorry state of humanity, and as anxious as I am about being unemployed, there is this bright, calm center in my heart and mind where none existed before. Gratitude for all that I do have? Gratitude for the experiences of the last two months?

A couple of nights ago, I had a dream that I was alone walking along a beautiful forest path, It was autumn, and a gentle breeze sent vibrant leaves tumbling to the ground around me. I came to very narrow and rock-strewn creek crossed by a narrow footbridge. As I looked up to the at the other side, Laurie was already standing there grinning at me. In my dream, I grinned right back, and in my dream, I heard her voice say, “We were right. And it’s beautiful.” With that, she gave me a final grin, turned, and vanished into the forest 

There’s so much of the story yet to be written, but right now, I don’t have anything else to say.

For now, I’m floating, waiting the next big idea to come.

Epilogue, posted to Facebook, September 21, 2021

File this under “A Universe That Works in Mysterious Ways.”

Remember my blog post last week about my experience of September 2001? So yesterday I saw a post on my goddaughter Sarah’s IG page that she was on the OBX.

Keep in mind I haven’t seen her or any of Laurie’s family in 20 years. So I messaged her, she replied, and today, almost 20 years to the day that Laurie died, I drove down to meet what I thought was just going to be Sarah and her boyfriend in Manteo only to find not only my goddaughter, but Laurie’s sister, Barbara, and her mother, Joan.

It was cloudy down there most of the day, and as I headed home west across the Wright Memorial Bridge at sunset, the clouds broke open. The most glorious beam of sunshine illuminated the road in front of me and cast orange diamonds on the Sound. 

I’m just getting home and my heart is full from a wonderful day of laughing, remembering Laurie, and reliving tons of fantastic memories with people who’ve been in my life since I was 16. 

Thanks, Laurie, for arranging it all. 

Free At Last

December 2011

It wasn’t until about a year after my father died that I finally exhaled.

It was one long gargantuan release that began in the depths of my soul and crept through my bone-tired body. I couldn’t stop until every bit of it was expelled into the universe like a huge black cloud of poison.

At that point, it had been six years out of a total of 10 that would ultimately be characterized by sickness and death, anger and fear, and stress so unrelenting that at times I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive it.  

I refer to that time as the Tipsy Teapot. That was the name of a quaint little café in my North Carolina hometown that that my parents loved. It was also a spot-on metaphor for my family’s chaotic and often violent history. 

Let me short hand it for you. The Prince of Tides meets The Royal Tenenbaums. Dysfunction meets genius.

Now, with my father dead and my mother in a nursing home, not far behind him, the teapot had stopped tipping so violently, and my brothers and I could relax our grip. A little bit.

But it brought me to the realization that I was damaged goods, a product of a highly dysfunctional upbringing. And that damn teapot would always be tipping to some degree for the rest of my life.

My brother called me the other night. He had experienced the worst of it. He was molested by a family acquaintance. That, coupled with the fact that he inherited our family’s long-running alcoholic gene had resulted in a miserable sentence of substance abuse that nearly killed him. He had recently sobered up, and we were now able to explore our mutual experiences.

This night, we simply picked up where we left off, which was right in the middle of our marathon 40-year long therapy session. I had consumed a couple of martoonis, and he had probably smoked a fatty (sober was always a suggested guideline in our family). Our conversation was long and uninhibited, and I went outside so as not to infringe on Andrew’s peace.

“I love mom, and I want what’s best for her,” I said, “but I can’t help it, I still resent how she neglected us when we were kids.”

“I know, Eric, she has always just taken and taken, and here we are at the end, still giving her everything,” Jon said. “I know she can’t help where she is now, and she needs our help, but I’m still pissed over everything that came before.”

We continued along this path until I grew weary of hating on her. You have to invoke a lot of bad mojo to maintain that negativity.

We hung up after a quick “later,” and I went inside to my husband-whom-I-cannot-marry.

“So how’s Jon?” he asked.

“Oh you know, same conversation different day,” I replied.

“I don’t know why you two keep going through that same procedure and digging up all that stuff,” he said. “I guess you’re just programmed that way.” He turned back to his cooking show.

I let it go as best I could, but I wondered if I would ever feel anything other than a tumultuous jumble of guilt, resentment, and sadness when it came to my family.

Andrew and I watched the rest of America’s Test Kitchen. Bridget made some delicious-looking chicken and slicks, and Adam tested meat grinders in the Equipment Corner. This is what normal is, I thought. Andrew had demonstrated that love did not have to walk in the room with drama in its hand.

Late that night, I awoke in tears. The last vestiges of my dream were slipping into the abyss, but I still saw my father’s face. He was grinning at me, that same easy, goofy grin brought on by a dirty joke or too much booze.

He had been here, I was sure of it.

I thought about him, and I sank deeper into the realization that he was really gone. My tears began to spring from some deep well of sadness that I had not allowed myself to tap into after his death.

I didn’t want to wake Andrew, so I slipped out of bed and tiptoed to my office. The house was dead quiet and cold. Outside, the oppressive mid-winter’s night pressed against the windows. I sat at my desk, head in my hands, and let the huge lumbering wave suck me under. I cried for my father. I cried for my mother. I cried for a world full of the neglected children. I cried for the abused animals in the Sarah MacLachlan SPCA commercial. I made myself cry over anything so I could begin to get it all out.

My sadness began to come from another place, from a vision of the little boy who never had the chance to be that kid without worries; that kid who never experienced unconditional love from his parents without the expectation of something in return; that kid who was never free from the burden of the awful family secrets of homosexuality, sexual abuse, and drug and alcohol addiction; and that kid who always struggled to get through the goddamn day by keeping the peace and not upsetting anyone.

I had never grieved for that boy. Sure, I had thrown my share of woe-is-me pity parties. But I had never been able to pull back to 60,000 feet and truly feel what he went through. It was comforting to finally acknowledge him, to see his early life through the telescope of years for what it was. He was a mess in so many ways. But to be fair, many times his life was really fun, exciting, and full of lots of cool adventures and incredible people that many kids would never experience.

There’s a scene with Meryl Streep and Gene Hackman in “Postcards from the Edge,” Carrie Fisher’s hysterical and touching 1994 autobiographical film. Streep plays a recovering drug addict who’s tortured by the memories of her dysfunctional childhood. Her relationship with her mother, an alcoholic played by Shirley MacLaine, is at the root of her self-loathing. Hackman’s character gives her a piece of advice that has stuck with me for decades.

I recite it silently: “She did it to you, her mother did it to her, and on and on, all the way back to Eve. And at some point, you have to say, fuck it. It stops here. It ends with me.”

Without really thinking, I picked up my trusty old Tarot cards, wrapped in the teal bandana I bought in Tortola 15 years ago. I spread them out in a fan on my desk, closed my eyes, and pulled one. I opened my eyes, turned it up, and there, like the baby Jesus had heard my questions, was the two of Wands.

I contemplated the intricate and colorful portrait. A regal man in red flowing robes is holding a small globe and stands on the roof of a castle. He’s looking out over a vast terrain to his right and the ocean on his left. The globe represents a world that is his oyster with huge potential. He understands his ambition, and he knows what must be done–if he can make the choice to release the past and embrace broader life experiences.

He was me.

I smiled, the last of tears drying on my face. I silently thanked my father for waking me up with the message, made my choice, and went back to bed.

Rebels In The Closet

In the late 1980s, I began work on a genealogy of my father’s family. At that time, all I had to guide me was curiosity, a few newspaper clippings in a family scrapbook, and my father’s dim recollections of his family tree.

This was long before the advent of the internet, and most of the work involved diving deep into musty old papers, wills, land deeds and marriage records in the libraries and county offices of North Carolina.

Fine with me. I love research and discovery. I was living in Greensboro, halfway between my father’s ancestral home in the Appalachian foothills and the state archives in Raleigh, so all was in easy reach.

I did not know then that I was about to embark on what would ultimately become a 20-year search (that continues today) for my entire family’s history. What I found was a tale that is as American as America itself.

I found immigrants who fled the religious conflicts in Germany in 1763 and braved the North Atlantic Ocean for the promise of a better life.

I uncovered the forgotten challenges faced by pioneers who carved their lives out of the North Carolina wilderness.

I met patriots who rose up against the oppression of King George III. I met every day laborers and farmers trying eke a living out of an untamed land.

And I found deep connections to the Civil War and slavery.

Like most Southerners, I’ve always had a fascination with the subject. Part of that stems from my childhood in eastern North Carolina where I was surrounded by children of the Confederacy. As young child who didn’t know any better, I tended to mimic some of the racist behavior I saw and heard on the playgrounds.

In seventh grade, I rode the school bus each day, and there was a Black kid on the route who mercilessly bullied me. One afternoon, after I arrived home, my brother and I were sitting at the kitchen table having a snack. My Illinois-born, progressive hippy mother was across the room cooking dinner.  I was telling my brother about that day’s encounter with this bully, and I used that word.


Out of the blue, my mother’s arm grew 20 feet, came at me from across the room, and connected with the side of my head in a full-fisted right hook that knocked me out of my chair.

When the stars cleared, she was hovering over me.

“The next time I hear you say that word,” she said, “I’ll do worse.”

I learned several valuable lessons that day. First, she wasn’t having that bullshit in her house. Second, I had no doubt she would honor her promise of murder. Third, that word was ugly and hurtful.

Fast-forward 15 years to the day I met my Civil War ancestor, Andrew J. Hause, in the North Carolina State Archives. His life was well documented, and he became the focal point of my research.

He was a bricklayer born only a mile from where his great-grandfather had settled after emigrating from Germany. Two days after Fort Sumter fell, he and 12 of his brothers and cousins joined the rebellion. He was placed under Robert E. Lee’s command in the Virginia Theater and in 1862, in a battle outside Richmond 80 miles up the road from where I live today, he was shot in his left eye.

He survived the wound, spent nine months in a Richmond hospital, and was released. He returned to his home in Spartanburg, South Carolina, blinded in one eye, the bullet still in his head. He died in 1906 at 83 years old, the last Confederate veteran in his county.

His tombstone is inscribed with this:

“No monument of fame rear o’er the lonely bed
But carve beneath his name on a stone above his head
A man who wore the gray here slumbers with the dead.”

As I dug deeper into the records, I realized that he and his people were not landed gentry. They were millers and small farmers and house painters. None owned slaves.

At the time, I used the well-worn justification that they couldn’t have possibly rebelled against the Union because they supported slavery. I assumed that, like their grandparents who had rebelled against an unjust King, their motivation was rooted in protection of their homeland against foreign invaders. 

In subsequent years, as I strode into the wider world, I began to more fully comprehend the terrible impact of slavery on our collective psyche. I began to cultivate friends who were working to heal the racial divide, and I engaged in conversations with Black scholars and friends who explained the depth and breadth of the injuries that remained.

It was our original sin as one author labeled it–a moniker that resonates with me today. Slowly, I began to question the pride I felt in my Confederate heritage.

And then came the Internet.

One evening about 20 years ago, I sat down at my computer and Googled  “Andrew J. Hause.” Several results returned, and one caught my eye: “AJ Hause, LD Wright, and WD Hardy to Abraham Lincoln: South Carolinians Offer to buy Hamlin.”

It was a letter archived in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Papers in the Library of Congress. I pulled up the letter’s image, and in a handwritten scrawl that may have been my ancestor’s, I read the words.

At first, they made no sense:

“Spartanburg, S. C.
Nov 27 1860

Dear Sir

We understand you have a very likely & intelligent mulatto boy you would dispose of on reasonable terms being engaged in negro trading if you will let us know what you will take for the boy Hannibal known as Hannibal Hamlin and your price is reasonable we will purchase him and are prepared to meet you with the cash at Richmond Va on the 18 Decr inst. Your early attention to the above will oblige

Yours Respectfully
J D Wright
W D Hardy
A.J. Hause”

I had so many questions. Who was Hannibal Hamlin? Why were Andrew and his friends offering to buy him?

After further Googling, I discovered that Hannibal Hamlin was a Senator from Maine and Lincoln’s running mate in the 1860 election. Southerners were terrified that Lincoln and Hamlin would win the White House and abolish slavery.

To exacerbate that fear, Southern newspapers perpetuated a rumor that Hamlin, who had dark hair, a wide nose, and vaguely dark features was of mixed race and thus an agent in Lincoln’s abolition agenda. Most Southerners took it as gospel, and apparently my ancestor did as well.

Along with that discovery came some disturbing, long-forgotten memories of my father’s family. They floated up from my childhood like lava from a long slumbering crater.

I remembered my grandmother’s housekeeper Rosa. She was 300 pounds of pure African love, had a huge grin and raucous laugh that I loved, and spoiled me rotten on my summer visits to my Mema’s house in Shelby, NC

I loved her to death.

We sat in her tiny back room, watched soap operas, and poured peanuts into our Coca Colas while she ironed every napkin, every sheet, and every stich of cloth in that huge house.

My grandmother, while never overtly ugly towards her, was stern and treated her with only minimal respect. Rosa was not welcomed in the main house unless she had been tasked with flipping mattresses or invited to fix a plate to take back to her room.

I then remembered an incident that happened once while my grandmother was visiting us in Greenville. Our next-door neighbors, the Norcotts, were a Black family with a son about my age, Joe. We were carefree kids, and my brothers and I played together with him most days after school.

My Mema was visiting when he came over one afternoon to watch TV. After he left, my grandmother sat me and my brothers down and admonished us. “Boys, it’s fine to play with them,” she said, “but it’s not right to invite then into your house.”

I then recalled another incident involving William, my best friend in junior high school. He lived across the river with his adoptive aunt. He would often come home with me after school, and we’d hang out, listen to records, and gossip about the day’s events.

He and I talked on the phone every night after dinner, and we’d turn each other on to the music of the mid-70s by playing each other the latest 45s we had bought. We walked the halls of the school dishing on everyone and laughing our asses off at those who didn’t get it. We were writers and to each other’s delight, swapped putrid little stories we had banged out on our manual typewriters.

As an aside, twenty years later, I caught up with him briefly, and we told each other what we already knew: that we were both gay. Then we drifted apart again.

I miss him now because I realize now that he was my first real “sister.” I loved him, and I hope he’s reading this because he was at the center of a shift in my understanding of racism, my family, and my history.

The pivot point was one stellar Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1976. William and I hadn’t seen each other since school recessed, so at my invitation, he rode the City bus to my house.

We went up to Pitt Plaza where we bought a hot dog and fries at Eckerd Drugs’ lunch counter, then went next door to the Record Bar where the clerk put on some of the latest albums we wanted to sample.

When we got back to my house, we were hot and sweaty.

He asked, “Can I take a shower before I go home?”

I directed him to my dad’s bathroom so he could have some privacy. Afterwards, while my mother drove him home, my father approached me.

“Did you take a shower in my bathroom?” he asked. He was very proprietary about his space.

“No,” I answered, “My friend William was over here, and he did.”

“William?” he asked. “That Black kid?”

I nodded yes.

He was very quiet for a minute. Then, without another word, he went into his bathroom and scrubbed the shower from top to bottom.

As I sat in from of my computer 20 years ago with Andrew’s letter in front of me, these memories jostling for space, the epiphany that racism had woven its insidious tendrils through the succeeding generations of my family, right up to my father, and cast a cold shadow of bloody original sin right at my feet.

My ancestor’s role in history was then clear to me. He was a racist, pure and simple.

There was no way around that now, and all the romanticism and justification in the world could not excuse it.

The Day He Jumped Off The Tar River Bridge

My high school friend Henry Wooten has been on my mind today.

Our parents were friends–everyone knows everyone in our small eastern NC town–but we didn’t meet until 10th grade when we both came to the same high school and joined the stage band.

He was the first piano player, and I was the second. He was much better than I was, and at first I felt a bit intimidated by him.

Then one October day, after a poem I had written appeared in the school’s literary magazine, he approached me.

I didn’t think the poem was anything earth shattering. It was an analogy between money and consumerism, and an evil bird made of gold that swooped down to consume the people who were blinded by their greed.

In other words, an adolescent attempt at a well-worn literary device.

But Henry complimented me. He said it struck him deeply, and from that moment on, we were equals.

As we began spending more time together, we bonded through our commonalities: love of music, poetry, spirituality, and pot. Combine all of those things, and you get some meaningful conversations.

Of course, it was the 70s, so I don’t remember all of them, but the connection was still there.

Two summers later, we worked as co-counselors at a summer camp, which was where we really bonded. It all came together one of the last nights of that summer, when the entire camp had gathered in the lodge for movie night.

Unfortunately, the projector wasn’t having it. To kill time, Henry picked up his guitar and began strumming “Stairway To Heaven.” Without a word or invitation, I sat down at the rickety old upright piano began playing along.

And it was effortless.

We knew each other’s timing and temperament so well that by the end we were singing in perfect harmony. And when we both hit the Robert Plant wailing high notes at the rousing end, the house erupted with applause.

We were a hit. We were Unplugged years before MTV came along.

As tight as we became that summer, though, I always felt a distance between us. He was secretive, and he didn’t let too anyone get too close. That was OK, because, guess what: I was the same. We shared the same secret.

In retrospect, I intuitively knew he was gay. But we never dared talked about it. Hell, I couldn’t even admit it to myself back then. Those were scary times in the late 70s in red Baptist eastern North Carolina. They still are.

A couple years after that summer, I went off to college, and Henry and I fell out of touch. I’d see him at parties when I came home. We’d chat, but something was different. He was burdened and melancholy, and I knew what was bothering him.

I never delved any deeper, though, and I’d go back to school, throw myself into my studies and the girlfriend I had at the time, all the time skating the thin ice of denial.

The ice in Henry’s case wasn’t able to withstand the burden. I heard that Henry began to fall apart. He dropped out of college, played keys in a local band at night, and spent most of his day in a drug-induced haze.

In February, 1985, my mother called me to tell me that Henry had committed suicide.

He tied a cinder block to his ankle and jumped off a bridge into the Tar River not too far from where we used to hang out at the end of a dirt road, get high, and crank Zeppelin on the 8-track.

He had been arrested for taking indecent liberties with a minor just the week prior.

His death threw me under a bus that had been careening in my direction for a long time. I knew why he did it. His arrest was only the denouement.

Of course, all the what-ifs plagued me for months. I felt guilty as I replayed our friendship and ran it through all the alternative, happier endings.

But I in the end, I knew I couldn’t have saved him. The only person I could save was myself.

From that moment on, the crack in my closet door began to widen ever more furiously.

Now, 35 years later, that damn door is history. Still, some days, like today, I think about Henry and silently thank him for his gentle unconditional friendship. He was the first true, gay friend I ever had.

I wish he was here so I could tell him that. I wish we had been able to tell each other our secrets. I wish he had held on long enough to see what a progressive world this has become. With all its hatred and bigotry, we’re still light years ahead of the darkness of high school in Greenville in the Seventies.

But I understand why he had to go. Because for a short while there, it was me who was standing on the edge of that same bridge on a late winter night, looking down at the black water, wanting so badly to be loved.

The difference is that, ultimately, I never lost hope that I would.

An Early Attempt at Escape

The tanned woman was looking down at me, her feathered hair cascading around
a perfectly formed face punctuated by two beautiful blue eyes.

“Are you lost?” she asked.

I remember wondering why she would ask such a question. I didn’t think I was.
The Florida morning was warm but not steamy. Puffy cumulus clouds rode on a
fresh breeze that rattled the palms. It was a gorgeous day, and I had decided to go
for ride.

“No,” I replied, “I live right around the corner.”

“OK,” she shrugged, rolled up the car widow, and drove away.

I grabbed the handlebars, hit the pedals, and took off in the other direction.
I didn’t know that back on Minnesota Drive, my mother was freaking out. See, it
was 1966, I was four years old, and I had disappeared from our house about an
hour before. On my tricycle.

I also didn’t know that she had called the police, and at that very moment she was in
the back of a black and white, riding the streets of our neighborhood in search of
her missing son.

I didn’t care about any of those things. All I knew was that I was having a ball,
riding around in circles in the middle of the Volusia County Hospital emergency
entrance three miles from my parent’s house.

I had somewhat mastered the art of two-wheel tricycle doughnuts, which
involved accelerating to a breathtaking speed, pulling a hard left, then laughing
delightedly as I rose up on two wheels and careened in a circle.

The emergency room entrance seemed in many ways the perfect spot to practice
my stunt.

I don’t know how much time passed before I saw the police car approaching me.
My mother was hanging out the back window, screaming my name. She jumped
out before the car had barely stopped and ran to me.

“Eric, Jesus, you scared me to death Are you OK? Stand up and let me look at

As she examined me from head to toe looking for wounds and some sign of
regret, I looked up into the eyes of a tall dark man in a blue uniform. He had a
black bushy moustache. On his muscular left arm, he had a tattoo of an anchor.
He squatted down next to me. “Son are you ok,” he asked in a deep calm voice.

“I’m OK!” I said. My mother was almost whimpering with relief.

“Well, then, let’s get you home,” he said. I watched with awe as he stood and
picked up my tricycle with one hand.

My mother gripped my arm tightly, and we followed him to the cruiser. He
opened the back door with his free hand, and I scooted in next to my mother.

“Eric, I thought you kidnapped or worse. Don’t you EVER run off like that again.”

I wasn’t listening. Instead, I was peering over the seat at our officer who was
lifting my tricycle into the trunk. I couldn’t take my eyes of him as he slid into the
front seat.

He turned around, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You scared your
mother buddy. Next time, be sure to check with her before you take off, ok?”

I nodded sheepishly. He tousled my hair, then started the car.

As he drove us home, I drilled holes in the back of his head with my eyes. Now I
knew. He had saved me from certain death.

He was my hero, and I wanted him to be my daddy.

My Mother Saved My Life

My mother saved my life. And she had to almost die herself before she was able to save mine.

In 1987, she finally stopped drinking after nearly succumbing to 35 years of alcoholism. And it was shortly afterwards that she asked me during a quick weekend visit home if I was gay.

I was in the closet up to that point. I moved away from my small eastern NC hometown three years before and was in the middle of my first real love affair in the big city of Greensboro.

When I arrived at my parent’s home that Friday afternoon, I called my boyfriend to let him know I had made it. My mother was in the adjacent bathroom, putting on makeup before going to her evening Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and listening in on our conversation.

When I hung up and walked past the bathroom, she stopped me.

“I want to ask you a question,” she said, not looking away from the mirror as she continued her makeup application. “And if you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to.”

“OK,” I responded.

“Exactly what is the nature of your relationship with Danny?” she asked.

In that moment, my thoughts went down three drastically different paths:

  1. I can continue my miserable existence as a liar.
  2. I can say “None of your business” and walk away.
  3. I can tell the truth because if she’s asking, she already knows.

I picked door #3.

“I see,” she said, still not looking away from the mirror. “Well, let me finish putting on my makeup, and we’ll talk before I go to my meeting.”

By the time she finally blew into the living room where I had been sitting for 15 minutes chewing my fingernails, I was a wreck.

She sat down with a big sigh and said, “First of all, I’ve known you are gay for some time. Don’t ask me how because I don’t want to embarrass you.”

I silently went through all the Sears catalog male underwear pictures I had stashed under my bed and my unhealthy obsession with all things Stevie Nicks, but I gave away nothing. It didn’t matter. Mothers always just know.

“More importantly, I’m glad this is out because I know what it means to keep a horrible secret and how it can kill you, and I don’t want that for you.”

Immediately the gigantic oppressive steel block that had been resident on my heart for years was lifted. I knew she knew, and she was cool with it.

For the next 20 minutes, she talked to me about being in college at the University of Michigan and hanging out with the gay guys: playing piano at their parties, having them serve her drinks and light her cigarettes. “ I was, as you might say, a fag hag.”

I loved her so much in that moment.

She then went on to tell me that my future father, a Southern Baptist from the mountains of North Carolina whom she was dating in college, tried to forbid her to hang out with the queens.

“And I put a stop to that right there,” she said. “If he couldn’t accept my friends, I couldn’t accept him.”

How in the world those two diametric opposites ever made it work is beyond me, but they were in love for 50 years. More on that later.

“Speaking of your father, are you going to tell him?” she asked.

I was still flabbergasted by this little ambush, and I had not moved that far ahead in my thinking. “Um, probably not this trip,” I said. “But I will.”

I quickly added, “And don’t you tell him, either.” My mother was huge drama queen, and she excelled in the role of gossip bearer.

She nodded in silent agreement. But it wasn’t an enthusiastic nod, and I already knew she wouldn’t be able to stand it for very long.

She wrapped up our little chat by saying, “My only hope is that you’re careful with your health.”

I smiled. “I’m aware, mom, and I’m ok.”

With that, she gave me a kiss and a hug then walked out the door to go save some more lives at her AA meeting. She went to those meetings religiously three times a day for the next 35 years until she physically couldn’t any longer.

Two nights later, I had just arrived back in Greensboro, and she called.

“Well, I had to tell your father,” she bleakly intoned as if she’d been tortured. I wasn’t buying it.

“Really? You HAD to tell him?”

She went on to explain how, at the dinner table earlier that evening, my father inquired if I had made it home safely. According to her, one thing led to another, and, well, it just came out.

After a quick flash of anger (because she was ALWAYS doing this shit), I felt a second huge stone lift, and it was OK. I knew she planned it that way all along. Truth was, it wasn’t fair to ask her to keep that secret.

“What was his reaction?” I asked.

“Well, the first thing he said was, ‘He doesn’t have to be that way’,” she replied. “And I said, Robert, you just don’t get it, do you?”

I got it. He was a product of the stereotypical rural Southern Baptist upbringing, complete with Jesus and Confederate flags and suffering. But I knew that he was doing his best to be a different progressive person, and my Chicago liberal mother was his guide on that journey.

My father and I never overtly talked about my homosexuality. But from that moment on, our relationship changed for the better. He began hugging me when I arrived home and when I left. That was a first.

Over subsequent years, he met many of my gay friends, accepted us all in his house and invited us to sail on his boat. He met most of my love interests, too, and treated them all with gentility and respect.

And, thank God, just as he was beginning to slide downhill into the abyss of Parkinson’s, he met Andrew, my future husband, and embraced him completely.

Don’t get me wrong. It was never easy with my mother or my father or my brothers—we are all passionate, volatile artists prone to drug and alcohol abuse, violent outbursts, and loud, outrageous behavior. In fact, we’re ALL drama queens.

But in the end, when both of my parents were ill and in dire need of rescue, I took care of them.

Shortly after my father died, my mother was next. When she succumbed to dementia, I brought her to Norfolk and placed her in a nursing home not far from my home. At that point, she was incoherent, and there wasn’t much left.

Two months before she died, I rode with her in an ambulance to the doctor’s office. We were in the waiting room, and she was strapped into a stretcher, agitated and out of her mind. I pulled up some old family photos on my phone, hoping it would calm her down.

I scrolled through them with one hand while holding hers with my other and talking to her quietly.

“Here’s dad, remember this picture? And there’s Jon and Evan, and your granddaughters…”

She began to relax until finally we were laughing. In that moment, she looked me in the eye and said clearly, “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

I couldn’t respond because the tears were so close. But I wanted to say the same thing to her. I probably would be dead if not for her unconditional love on that summer day in 1987.

Those were the last coherent words she said to me, and shortly afterwards, I held her hand again as she slipped away.