One of my favorite wedding gifts that Andy and I received was a pair of gorgeous dressing gowns, one of which is shown here. Given to us by my Mom’s cousin Randy, this gift has special meaning to me, because Randy was the first gay man I met. Not that I knew it at the time. All I was told was that he lived with his friend Mark, and they had a farm with chickens. When you’re a ten-year-old kid, all you care about is the chickens, not deciphering the living situation and what it might mean.
I was staying in Hoosick Falls with my Gram, and it was summer. She loved Randy, and doted on him. He, in turn, brought her flowers regularly, and kept her entertained when her immediate family was an hour away. On this particular visit, she had arranged for me to accompany her to Randy’s farm for dinner. We spent the day doing our usual tasks – walking to the store down the street, visiting with a neighbor, inspecting the patch of cosmos and zinnias in the side yard. There’s not much to do in Hoosick Falls, but when you’re a kid spending time with your Gram every moment is exciting, especially when you’re away from your parents. In the afternoon, we walked to my great Aunt Ruth’s apartment complex a few blocks away, and got into the car for the ride to Randy’s.
When I was little, I loved animals and plants, and a farm was just about the most perfect place on earth. We pulled into the dusty driveway and were greeted by Randy and Mark. They brought us drinks on the front porch, where we sat and made introductory talk before Mark brought us on a quick tour. A small orchard ran up behind the main house, and Mark had built an observatory half-way up the hill. Gram and I looked with wonder at the construction of it, the wooden frame-work, and the afternoon sun slanting in through the window. As they made their way back to the house, I hung back – the lone kid present for the afternoon – because I wanted to explore on my own.
I stopped in the small barn, where the chickens were squawking in the dim light. The scent of stale straw warmed the nose, and the dust floated through the few rays of sunlight that peeked around the entrance. Hidden from the eyes of adults, I walked around, watching the chickens and looking for eggs. I leaned over the fence and felt my hand press into something warm and wet. Chicken shit. A fresh pile of it, right there on the gate, and now smashed by the palm of my hand. Fighting the urge to gag, I wiped it off as best I could, then headed back to the house – and the bathroom – to wash up, thoroughly, for dinner. I didn’t care – it was worth it for that little time alone.
Back inside, preparations were being made for the meal. I was giddily lost in the shuffle. The dining room and living room had been photographed for a national magazine, and it looked like it. This was the background for idyllic American summer moments, the stuff that Martha Stewart was just beginning to dream up. I sipped at my soda while Gram drank her beer. For once, I didn’t feel like a nuisance kid, but one of the elite, there to eat, and remain for the duration of the dinner.
A couple of musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra were in attendance that night as well (so there was no way in hell I was going to break out ‘Private Dancer’ or ‘The Rose’ on the piano, no matter how much Gram begged). It was, I now realize, my first brush with gay men. The insinuations were mostly lost on me, but I sensed the camaraderie – taken together they both frightened and enthralled me. I did my best to follow the conversation, hoping to laugh at the right moments, and finally starting to understand adults a little. I had to hold my own, as Gram was seated a few chairs away from me, but I managed to do so without fear. Surrounded by beauty both rustic and refined, this would be one of those enchanted nights that I kept with me for the rest of my life.
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Two and a half decades later, I remembered that evening as I opened up the wedding gift from Randy. The dressing gown, sumptuous in its golden brocade and rich in its emerald hue, embodied that night for me, as well as my relationship with Randy. Though we saw one another but once a year for the most part, he felt like a guardian angel, and an unsaid and unspoken bond between us lent me strength in darker times, when I questioned myself and wondered about my place in the family.
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