“What do you and Barbara do together?” my 89-year-old Dad asked me, his 55-year-old daughter.
I was driving him to Hudson, N.Y., the upstate town where my parents lived. It was dusk. An ethereal sky hung amid the clouds. It was the summer of 2000 and we’d been visiting Mom, who’d been convalescing from a stroke at a nearby rehabilitation center. She was six months his junior, and he’d known her all his life.
At first, I was taken aback by my father’s question about the woman I’d been living with since 1986. While some might have found it invasive, a taboo subject between parent and child, I saw the question as a brave gesture. My father was struggling to understand my life.
While Barb was disappointed by my mother’s rejection, I was hurt she couldn’t get beyond her stubborn homophobia and be happy for me.
“What do you and Mom do?” I teased. I tried to answer him as honestly as I could. I knew words like “lesbian,” “ lover” or even “girlfriend” would be way outside their comfort level.
“It’s what all couples do. Love is love. You and Mom are also great friends. So are we. I think companionship gets a bad rap,” I added. “It’s our greatest strength.”
I’d met Barb in the city, where we both worked for a nonprofit agency. She was a graphics designer in her late 30s. I was a public relations manager in my early 40s. Although she was two years younger, she was decades wiser and more intuitive. She accepted who she was while I was still wondering who I was.
Since Barb got divorced from her husband in her 20s, she realized she was gay. I, on the other hand, had believed I’d met Mr. Right dozens of times and for years asked my psychotherapists, “What’s the matter with me? Why do my relationships with men not work?” I’d never married, nor been with a woman until Barb and I got together.
My parents met Barb early on. In my mother’s frequent letters to me in Manhattan where I lived, she’d send “regards” to “my friend, Barbara.” Exactly how my parents found out we meant more to one another remained a mystery. Yet, from that point forward, Mom ceased sending her regards.
When Mom introduced Barb to relatives, she rarely acknowledged her presence, even if she was standing next to me. The few times she did, she’d say, “This is Ann’s friend,” not mentioning her name.
While Barb was disappointed by my mother’s rejection, I was hurt that my mom couldn’t get beyond her stubborn homophobia and be happy for me.
However, Dad’s behavior towards Barbara was warm and embracing. He gave her a bear hug each time he saw her, as he did with me.
He was a quiet man, a good listener who let Mom ask the questions and do all the talking. From an early age, Dad worshipped and admired Mom. Both were children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, but the differences between the families were dramatic.
Dad’s was poor and he had to quit school to help support his parents and siblings. Mom’s father was only 12 when he arrived, albeit with a mission. From harvesting ice in the Hudson River to peddling fruit, from bootlegging for the city’s judges to real estate development, he earned enough to provide safe passage for his parents and siblings and afford the first bathtub in town. Mom had had aspirations to be a lawyer, but was sidetracked by being a woman and the Depression.
Since my mother’s illness, Dad had been depressed and unhinged, unable to protect her as he always had. I had seen him as physically strong and virile. A year before, he’d fallen down a flight of stairs on our back porch and walked away with no bruises or broken bones. Seeing him now, slouched down on the car seat next to me, was unbearable.
This was the first time they’d slept apart from one another after six decades of married life. He held back his sobbing in front of Mom, but his helplessness was palpable. Without acknowledging it, we all knew Mom — despite her 5-foot, 100-pound frame — had always taken care of him.
“She seems to be getting better,” I said in an attempt to be hopeful. “Maybe she’ll be able to come home soon.”
“I will do her exercises with her every day. We’ll get her arm and fingers moving again. She’ll learn how to talk clearer, eat with her left hand and swallow,” he replied.
“Thank God, she still has some movement of her right leg; the doctor said she’ll walk with a cane,” I added. “But, knowing her, she’ll only want to hold onto you. Right?”
He smiled, nodded his head, mollified for a moment.
“We will get help in the house, for as many hours in the day as you want, doing for her the things she can’t do for herself, like bathing,” I assured him.
We rode in silence the rest of the way home.
Several weeks later, Barbara and I visited my mother at the rehab facility. Mom was sitting in an armchair, and her paralyzed arm and fingers laid limp on the sidearm. Always a book, magazine and print reader as well as a talker, she — as a consequence of her illness — was subdued; more of a listener and observer.
We discussed politics, current events, my sister and her family. My mother liked hearing the news about everybody and everything.
Although my parents rarely disagreed with one another, it was clear my relationship with Barbara was a sore point. However, we had been together a long time and there was no reason to pretend that we weren’t a couple.
I told her that Barb and I would soon be celebrating 15 years together. Though my mother’s speech had been affected by her illness, this time her words were sharp and crisp: “I’ll never understand,” she told me. Looking at Barbara, she said, “You’re a nice person. But I don’t approve.”
She shook her head from left to right, lifting her good arm to place her hand on her forehead, as if seeing me with Barbara gave her a headache.
Mom came home from rehab soon thereafter and my folks had help 12 hours a day. My parents didn’t volunteer at our local hospital like they used to, but my mother continued reading her People magazine, the Hudson Register Star and the synagogue Bulletin and Dad had his sports on TV, plus his card-playing buddies. He had a beautiful tenor voice and loved to serenade Mom with songs like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” popularized by Bing Crosby in the 1930s.
As Dad promised, he worked with Mom daily on the doctor’s prescribed exercises. They were together; that was the most important thing.
Barb and I visited frequently. Barb fixed items in the house that needed fixing, like placing an elastic band between the lid and the top of the washing machine because it couldn’t stand up on its own. She was comfortable with Dad. They enjoyed one another and he had a lot of respect for her resourcefulness and smarts.
One particular Sunday in the summer of 2001, the four of us were seated at the kitchen table, eating stuffed cabbage, mashed potatoes and vegetables, which we had brought with us — all items Mom could eat. Dad got up and came back to the table carrying a wrapped package. In a formal manner, he presented the two of us with a framed portrait of himself. On it was inscribed: “To Ann and Barbara, with love, Dad.”
We were overwhelmed. We both kissed him on either side of his cheek, and gave him a big “Thank you.”
“Now, Sam, you have two of us for the price of one,” Barb said. She laughed. So did he.
A few weeks later, we made an announcement.
“We have some news for the two of you. Barbara and I are having a commitment ceremony — it’s like a marriage — over Labor Day Weekend at our house in the Catskills. We want you to come.”
“Well, we have a surprise, too,” Dad responded.
He walked into their bedroom and came back with a small ring box that he handed me. I opened the lid. It was my mother’s diamond engagement ring.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
With pride, he smiled, “Absolutely.”
I looked at Mom, and said, “Really?” She nodded yes.
I knew he wouldn’t have done this without her approval. He spoke for the two of them now; Mom had become the quiet one. He told us they couldn’t join us, because she wasn’t feeling well enough to travel. But, he — and she — wanted to know all about it.
“What kind of ceremony is it?” he asked.
“Jewish, of course,” Barbara and I said in unison.
“Chuppah and all?” he questioned. [A chuppah is a canopy a Jewish couple stands under during a wedding ceremony.]
“Wait just a moment. I have something else for you.” He walked into their bedroom and came out holding a small purple suede bag, which he unzipped.
“Here’s my tallis [a Jewish prayer shawl],” he said, “for the top of your chuppah.”
I ran for the Kleenex. Barb needed one also. We had our ceremony two weeks later.
Dad died of terminal lung cancer in 2002. Several weeks before his passing, while Barb and I were visiting him in the hospital, he pronounced, “I’m glad you found one another. It’s like the two of you are one.”
“Like you and Mom,” I said.
He nodded before shutting his eyes.
Ann Jackowitz, a freelancer, writes on issues relating to social injustice, education, philanthropy and breast cancer advocacy. Her work has appeared in The Forward, Lilith and .mic