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During the 1990s, I wrote articles for several business magazines in Orange County, California, and was a regular columnist for two of these magazines. I'm sure I was OC Metro's strangest columnist, for I almost never wrote about proper business topics. Instead, I wrote about women with AIDS, the history of Halloween, and other topics the publisher thought were off the wall. (His phrase.) "Real Family Values" is one of my columns. It's a true story about my brother, who had disappeared twenty-three years earlier. Over the years, many people have told me how this story touched their hearts.
When I wrote this column in 1992, it was a season when religio-political conservatives were running a nasty campaign that you may remember. They'd decided that their very narrow definition of "traditional family values" was the only acceptable definition. That definition, of course, was the one we saw in movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and TV shows like Lassie. These values were actually invented by movie directors (Frank Capra) and the heads of movie studios (Louis B. Mayer), men who were creating wish-fulfillment pictures of American life. We saw these fantasies so much that we started believing them. Thus the Republican “traditional” family values. (And what has changed in nearly 20 years later??) Here is what I wrote.
They're preaching traditional family values, but their traditional family seems to be an amalgam of Father Knows Best, Donna Reed, and the Beaver. Those families were make-believe, repressed, and boring. "Traditional" seems to mean 1950s. So here's a story about real family values.
In the late ’60s, my brother Dale dropped out of his senior year at the University of Missouri, where he was an almost straight-A art student. He came home to St. Louis and came out of the closet. It freaked the family.
As I remember it, our stepmother—who is ignorant at best—became more abusive than usual. She lectured. She ranted and raved. Dale tried to explain that, for the first time in his life, he felt good about himself. She sent him to a psychiatrist to be cured. She decided "it" was contagious and refused to wash his clothes with theirs. She inspected his mode of dress every morning before he went to work.
Finally Dale got fed up. He left home. Forever. I mean, he disappeared. That was January, 1969.
No one heard a word from him. Not a letter, not a post card, not a phone call. When I moved to California, my father said, "Now you can find your brother."
"Do you have any idea how many people live in California?" I replied. "Hire a detective." When they came to visit five years later, they searched every face at Disneyland, hoping they'd see Dale. "If he wanted to be found," I said, "he'd be found." What I didn't say was that he obviously didn't want to be found and that I didn't blame him. Nevertheless, when I became a volunteer at the AIDS Services Foundation, I put out the word in the gay community that I had a brother, alive or dead. But no one had ever heard of him.
Not a clue, not a sign, not a hint for 23 years. My son grew up making jokes about his "phantom uncle." When I spoke to our 95-year-old grandmother a month before she died, she was still asking about Dale.
On June 8 , I was awakened by the phone at 2 a.m. "This is your long-lost brother." We talked for two hours, half-crying, half-giggling. We said as much as we could think of, but it wasn't nearly enough. Did I remember how I'd beat him up every time he hid the notebook I wrote my stories in? Did he remember the tissue paper collage he gave me, the wire sculpture? Did I remember how we used to ride our bikes to the little creek? Did he remember how we always finished our Christmas books before New Years?
Dale has been living in a small town up north. He's been happily "married" to a man named Tim for 18 years. I have two brothers now. They're both HIV-negative.
By 8 a.m., I had phoned my Aunt Ruth in St. Louis. "Dale called," I said. "Here's his phone number." I called my son. "Your phantom uncle is alive and well." I called Dale and Tim that evening. "Send photos. I'm sending stuff to you."
By the time I spoke to them again Sunday night, they'd heard from aunts, uncles, cousins, and distant relatives, and Dale had spoken to our father.
How had he found me? Tim said Dale had been talking about me for years, but they didn't know I'd left Missouri. Directory Assistance was no help, but they'd finally found our father's oldest brother, who gave them our father's phone number in Florida, and our stepmother was actually polite and gave them my phone number.
"That's great," I said, "but don't phone me again at two in the morning."
We're pen-pals now. We've sent photos back and forth. My son has spoken to his uncle. They share a common experience: Dale was an Eagle Scout, Charles a reluctant Tenderfoot. Dale drew me a goddess on the back of a Safeway bag. "Is she the goddess of safe ways?" I asked. "She's the goddess of fruits," Tim said. Twenty-three years is a lot to catch up on, but we've got time to do it. This is the truth about family values.
When this column won a first prize, I sent the plaque to Dale, and he promptly hung it on his wall. He died in June, 2000, from a cancer that had invaded all of his major organs. Tim had his body cremated. When he phoned me about where he'd set the urn, though, we both got the giggles. "Tim," I said, "you've put my brother back in the closet!" A month later, Tim phoned to ask me to pray as he released Dale's ashes into the Russian River.