The oldest keepsake I have is a beige audio cassette labelled “January 1979.” I routinely dust it off and listen to my three-year-old voice through the warble and static, singing You Are My Sunshine while beating a Fisher Price piano to its tinkly death.
Then comes the enigma that has baffled me for years.
“Do you go to school?” my aunt says on the tape.
“I go to school with Lulu’s kids,” I answer. “Lulu’s kids has a broken foots.”
“Tell me about Lulu.”
“She looks like Uncle Morris.”
Lulu was what I called my mom’s cousin Louise. I figured out there was something different about her by how my family pronounced her name. “Loueeeeze.” Somehow, I knew that drawn-out syllable meant she was a dangerous character. Later, I understood that my cuz Lulu, who I thought looked like Uncle Morris, was in fact the family dyke: outspoken, proud and taking shit from nobody.
Louise and I saw each other only a handful of times in my adult life, on the rare occasions we attended a family gathering together. We exchanged hellos under watchful eyes. She told me about her job as a social worker and always gave me a big bear hug.
But I never disclosed my sexuality to her.
Then came a family funeral that changed things. Death does stuff to me, makes me think about renewal. I was sick of a lifetime of missed opportunities to get closer to my Big Cuz. So, in a crowded knot of great aunts and uncles, amnesiacs, unknowns and likely closet cases, I came out to Louise. This was years after I had come out to everybody else.
Lulu’s not the type to bottle emotion. Not two feet from the corpse, she yelled, “Welcome to the family, Danny boy!”
She was referring to a different kind of family, of course.
Recently, Big Cuz and her wife, Dolores, invited my partner, Mark, and me over for dinner. On the drive to their house in the country, we saw hundreds of people windsurfing on a frozen but thawing lake, manoeuvring around holes that had melted in the ice.
After we had settled in the living room and wrestled with the dogs for a while, Big Cuz lost it. She was pissed.
“Why did it take decades for me to find out you were queer? I asked the family about you every few months and always got the same evasive answers. ‘How’s Danny?’ ‘Fine.’ ‘What’s he doing?’ ‘He’s a journalist.’ ‘Is he seeing anyone?’ ‘He has a girlfriend.’ ”
“But I did have a girlfriend,” I said.
“Ok, but why couldn’t they tell me the truth about you?”
She was right. Our family had been keeping us apart for years, if not expressly, then by omitting information they knew was important. Were they afraid that two queers were stronger than one? But it wasn’t just them. I could’ve made contact with Louise a long time ago, to show her she wasn’t the only fag in the family. To break her isolation.
Either way, it should never have taken that long.
We had a fabulous afternoon, pigging out on homemade lemon pie (Dolores is a mean cook) and catching up on the decades we were apart.
Big Cuz told us about Jilly’s, a Montreal dyke bar she called a “speakeasy.” She went pawing at the door when she was 16, wearing a baseball cap to try to look older. The bouncer let her in, on the condition she drink only Coke and stand beside the secret back door, in case they had to throw her out during a police raid.
“I’ll never forget the time a 35-year-old woman propositioned me at Jilly’s. I was terrified, so I excused myself to the bathroom and then disappeared out the window. How embarrassing to see her there again the following night!”
As reported in Xtra, police later raided Jilly’s, in 1976, as part of a pre-Olympics morality sweep, toting submachine guns and searching patrons. This was around the time I was born.
Back at Louise’s house, I slipped the beige cassette into my Walkman and pressed play.
“There’s something I want you to listen to.”
She pressed the buds into her ear and listened intently. Her face lit up, and I could see the resurrection of a 30-year-old memory.
“I need to know who Lulu’s kids are,” I said.
Louise explained she used to take care of physically disabled and hearing-impaired teens. I used to come over to her apartment to play with them, and, because most used wheelchairs, I assumed they had “broken foots.” I thought they were her kids.
“You sat in their laps and made them wheel you around the house. You were a real brat back then.”
“Only back then?”
Then she pointed out the big bay window and sadness came over her face. “One of Lulu’s kids was killed not far from here. On her birthday.”
Anee Khudaverdian came to Canada from Lebanon in 1963, when she was two years old, for polio treatment. A drunk driver hit and killed her in 2008. I had read about Anee, but had no way of knowing she was one of Lulu’s kids. She had probably even given me wheelchair rides.
Another death linking me to Louise.
But if tragedy is going to result in amazing things like reuniting me with my Big Cuz, then I’ll accept these bitter moments without complaint.