During this time of casting about for identity, Lena declared her wish to come out as queer (a blanket term that encompasses most of the others on the list) to my octogenarian Eastern European immigrant mother. This created quite the quandary for me. This is why: As a child, I was unwittingly appointed the emotional protectress of my mother, who had in her own childhood survived genocide under Stalin, slave labor in Germany, watching her mother die under literally unspeakable (for her) circumstances. My mother did not have the opportunities childhood is supposed to present for developing emotional compass and strength. I learned very early to shield her from disappointment, fright, and danger, perhaps especially any that I might cause myself simply by liking what I liked and wanting what I wanted.
Among the many results of this, my mother has no idea who I really am, no more now than when I was a child. I have felt myself to be a walking grenade, pin released and ready to blow up that fragile fortress built up around her should she ever be given access to my emotional life, my true desires, all the putative dangers of my wild imagination. It didn’t matter how small or large, how vital or life giving these seemed to me. And now, not only was Lena refusing to be enlisted to shore up that ever-crumbling fortress with the psychic equivalents of scotch tape and chewing gum—I imagined all the repercussions of her knocking it down with a sledgehammer in a single go and felt very afraid.
Would it really be a bad thing for Lena to show some empathy for my mother’s hopeless inflexibility toward unfamiliar ideas? Not that I was seeing her view of herself as truth, particularly. Truth was a destination, I tartly reasoned, and Lena had not arrived at that yet. I really didn’t understand how close to her heart Lena’s search for her very own sexual identity was, or her wish for closeness with a blood relative whom I had always judged as being incapable of that.
Lena and I had more than a few heated discussions about this topic over the course of several years. Though I presented my position as wise and unassailable, Lena’s determination was like water against rock, molding me over time to see the beauty of her wish. Through the grace of that determination I saw that, by shielding my mother from everything I imagined would be uncomfortable to her, I nourished a place within myself that harbored her darkened view of life. That view strained against the influence of my own hard-earned and joyous truths: for example, that everyone is entitled to the sexual orientation of their choice (so long as no one is harmed); and that children are entitled to the unconditional love of their parents, and to be spared the violence of being squeezed into an unsympathetic mold while they are so pliable.
Yet Lena, trying courageously to find her own path of joy, had been hearing from me that supporting the sick thing I had going with my mother was more important! Two and a half years after our first discussion, I issued Lena a mea culpa and assured her of my blessing to have whatever conversation with my mother she wanted.