Eric Poole and his mom.
"Greetings from the hectic Poole household!"
These breezy words set the stage for another of my mother's whimsical letters to her mother-in-law. These monthly missives — literary cudgels apparently designed to bludgeon my grandparents into a state of envy and despair — were routinely filled with the glittering details of our family's latest accomplishments.
Which wouldn't have been a problem, if we actually had any.
And if I wasn't about to come out.
As with many Midwestern families in the early '90s, the truth of the matter was that the Pooles were not so much overachieving as overwhelmed, our lives less dazzling and successful than dreary and stagnant. But in Mother's letters, our "achievements" took on a rhinestone sparkle that made us appear to be a family of freakish go-getters.
Under her pen, my college job manning a Fotomat booth became a managerial position with the Fotomat Corp. with tremendous growth potential, cleverly disguising the fact that (a) I "managed" a Fotomat because those booths were only big enough for one person; and (b) there was indeed "growth potential" since there was nowhere to go but up.
When I scored a free trip to England while working at a travel agency, Mother wrote, "Eric is traveling to London via British Airways' Upper [steerage] class, where he'll be enjoying [touring, at godawful hours] five-star hotels and taking part in a brief official visit with the Queen [standing gawking outside Buckingham Palace with my Kodak Instamatic as her motorcade pulled in]."
I was never quite sure why Mother felt the need to bolster our accomplishments, since these letters were going to two retired people who lived behind a car lot in Kansas. What I was quite sure of was that the image she had created did not allow for a gay son.
"I find it ironic," my cousin Toby said to me one afternoon as we sat at an outdoor café, "that you blame her for not telling the whole truth in her letters when you're doing the same thing. Why don't you come out?"
"My mother," I replied, "is a woman who alphabetizes the Christmas decorations. Who irons bath towels and has my dad vacuum the garage. Who had me rake myself into my bedroom every night so that our carpeting was a flawless sea of shag. A perfect image is everything."
"Well, you're shoving 30 and there's no woman in sight," he said. "I think she already suspects something ain't right in Perfectville."
It took months more to work up the courage; but I finally decided that, since I desperately longed for a closer relationship with my parents, I owed it to them to tell them the truth. Even if this was not the kind of news that added dazzle to a dispatch.
Too much of a coward to do it in person, though, I spent days nervously crafting a finely honed, single-spaced, three-page letter reassuring them that — contrary to certain things they may have heard from our Southern Baptist pastor — I did not consider myself mentally defective, since I rarely had the inclination to shoot at passersby from a clock tower and the only voices in my head were those of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
I had also bought the book Loving Someone Gay, which seemed like a useful tool for parents who, upon receiving the news, might wish to climb a clock tower.
And on Toby's advice, I mailed the letter first, then sent the book several days later.
Guess which arrived first?
Thanks to the vagaries of the U.S. Postal Service, the book somehow arrived three days before the letter.
My parents opened the padded envelope and Loving Someone Gay fell out, accompanied by nothing more than a Post-it note on which I had scrawled the following words, in serial killer Magic Marker:
Hope this helps.
Three days later, the letter finally arrived.
The news was greeted with a nuclear winter of denial.
"Eric's life is a madcap whirl of ad campaigns for an array of blue-chip clients," Mother wrote in a subsequent newsletter, in an attempt to quell any rumors that may have been forming about my dateless existence, "which, as you can imagine, leaves him little time for anything else."
My visit home that Christmas was marked by a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the large, smelly elephant in the room. We discussed my job, the weather, any topic that did not involve the dreaded G word.
And as three subsequent years of holiday visits followed the same trajectory, I began to pull further and further away from them. For although it was clear that my parents still loved me, it was also clear that they hated what I had become.
"You come home," my sister said to me, "but you're never here. You're off with friends, or people you used to work with ... "
"What do you expect?" I replied.
"I know it's uncomfortable around Mom and Dad," she said sympathetically, "but — "
"I'm tired of having who I am being explained away as 'too busy to date'!" I snapped. "You know what? I think I'm just gonna stop coming home."
The next Christmas, thanks to the breakup of a business partnership, I was conveniently broke, and I advised my parents that I couldn't afford to come home. But at the last minute, my Perfect Son complex kicked in and I cashed in my frequent flier miles for a ticket.
I had to connect through Chicago, and weather grounded me there. It was December 23 when I finally arrived, and Mother greeted my arrival at their house with a feigned air of nonchalance. "Hey, I'm off tomorrow," she said casually. "You want to go to lunch?"
I was completely taken aback. Mother and I didn't do that. Although I adored her, and she was an extraordinary conversationalist — well-read and highly articulate — she was a whirling dervish of activity, always busy. We didn't go places alone together.
"What does she want?" I asked my sister later that night.
"I don't know," Val replied. "Maybe she told Grandpa and Grandma you invented the cell phone and figured she'd better fill you in."
The next day, as Mother and I took our seats at a fashionable restaurant, I mentally scanned a list of pre-approved conversational topics I had devised to ease the awkwardness.
"How about that O.J. Simpson?" I said as the waitress brought Mother her extra-black coffee. This should keep us going, I estimated, at least through the salad.
"Yes, it's just terrible." She dipped the corner of her napkin into her water glass and began to sanitize the menu. "So," she said in a valiant attempt at nonchalance, "Valerie told me what you said. About not coming home anymore."
I nearly dropped my water glass. "Oh. Uh ... " Blabbermouth.
"Your sister really looks forward to these visits."
I tried to set the glass down, its base rattling as my hand shook violently. "Well ... "
She closed her menu. "You know," she said, with what appeared to be a whipsaw change of subject, "I know you think I exaggerate things in my letters to your grandmother."
"You do exaggerate things."
She sighed. "I suppose sometimes I've taken a little liberty." She took a sip of her coffee.
"What's up with that, anyway?"
"Well ... " She began to absentmindedly trace little circles on the bone china saucer. "I guess I always knew what was coming with you, and ... I don't know, maybe I was just trying to 'redraw' things a bit."
So many things about her letters began to suddenly make sense. I cleared my throat nervously. "So you thought if you redrew them enough, I wouldn't be ... ?"
She paused and didn't look up at me. "Maybe."
There was no conversation for a moment, only the murmur of other patrons and the clink of flatware and china.
"But I started to realize," she said softly, "that the picture I was drawing was pushing you away."
As she set her coffee cup down, her face a bit flushed, I found myself alternately heartened and terrified by this sudden eruption of intimacy.
"Oh." I began to twist my napkin, embarrassed.
"How about this?" Mother said, her tone brightening. "Starting now, you can tell me what your life is really like. And that's what I'll try to write."
"OK," I said, "but you might be sorry."
"Well," she said, smoothing the mink coat that lay next to her, "you don't have to tell me everything."
Mother's letters didn't change overnight. There was still no mention of the word gay. But as time went on, an honesty and candor began to permeate them. And I began to realize that although it had taken all of us years to tell the truth, it truly did set us free.
"The boys are off to the Panama Canal for a cruise," Mother wrote recently about my partner and me. "Personally, I always preferred to tan alone," she added, referring to the decades she had spent on the patio, browning herself like a crème brûlée, "so a cruise ship deck isn't my idea of a good time."
But as long as they're happy, I'm happy.
Eric Poole is author of Where's My Wand? One Boy's Magical Triumph Over Alienation and Shag Carpeting.