True Stories From My Life Part I: Christmas, 1976
Mom was a feminist and a lesbian. When we were kids, her feminism manifested itself in all kinds of ways. Mostly it was a lot of badmouthing men, and saying high-minded things like, “I think men should have to wipe themselves after they go to the bathroom, too.” This is not to say that all feminism equals man-hating. Not at all. It just so happens that my mom’s version of feminism did. And she certainly didn’t hate all men. She liked Alan Alda.
Aside from subscribing to various feminist periodicals and throwing around the name “Gloria Steinem,” she was not particularly politically active, although for years, we had an inexhaustible supply of blue note cards that we used for jotting down phone numbers and grocery lists; on the reverse of each card was an exhortation to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, the feminist’s Holy Grail. I think my mom was supposed to hand out these cards to friends, neighbors, passersby. I don’t remember her ever handing out one. The ERA died in 1979, but I think my mom is still using those cards to this day. She is no longer quite the ardent feminist she was in days gone by, but she is still an ardent lesbian.
My parents split up when I was five, in 1976, and we moved into my mom’s partner’s house. That was my first lesbian Christmas, which was no different than other Christmases except that we started referring to Santa’s wife as Ms. Claus. It was also my first blended Christmas – the first Christmas with Arlene and her son Greg, in addition to my brother and sister. So the six of us were in new surroundings and as a result, the holiday took on extra weight that year. Would this year live up to Christmases past? Would Santa even know where I was living? These were the questions I grappled with that winter – not why is my mom making out with another lady. Oddly enough, that thought never even crossed my mind.
I have no idea what I told my mom I wanted for Christmas that year. The truth is, I was indifferent to most entertainments; mostly I just liked running around screaming, but that’s not the kind of thing you can buy. As such, maybe it was hard for my mom to think of something to get me for Christmas.
(A note: yes, I am Jewish. But I am a bad Jew. This is not my fault. Either you are raised with religion or not. We were not. Neither of my parents were observant Jews, and made no effort to give us kids any religious training. While this was regrettable in terms of imparting to us an understanding of our selves in the larger context of our religion’s rich history, it was great for one important reason – Christmas. We had the fake tree, the stockings, the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, and a neglected menorah in the kitchen that we often forgot to light. Bad, bad Jews.)
When Christmas morning finally arrived, I was shocked and astounded to discover an enormous box under the Christmas tree with my name on it. It was easily the biggest of all the Christmas presents that year. As such, it was also obviously the best Christmas present. And it was for me. When you are five, size really does matter. Bigger always means better, and in this turbulent year, I couldn’t believe that something was finally breaking my way. I had no idea what that big box could contain.
The box was probably about the size of a small television set. There was no way it could have been a television set, though. I don’t care how progressive you are, you don’t give a five year old his own television set. Plus, back then, the only TV sets that size were black and white, and who would want one of those? Not me. No, I knew it wasn’t a TV. It wasn’t a remote controlled race track because it wasn’t flat. Too big to be a model car or even a model airplane. Too big to be anything I could possibly think it could be. I was freaking out.
Now that I am older, I have my own son. When he was five years old, the
wrapping paper on a mystery present would not have lasted two seconds.
Had he seen some giant box with his name on it, he would not, could
not, have waited to open it because he did not, and still does not,
understand the concept of delayed gratification. If something is to be
enjoyed, it is to be enjoyed NOW. Which leads me to believe that my son is a hedonist.
I, however, was very mature for my age, and instinctively understood that savoring the mystery was part of the fun. I distinctly remember wanting to save that package for last. I wanted to wait to open up that big beautiful box until, not only did I have nothing else to unwrap, but nobody had anything else. I wanted it to be the last Christmas present opened, period. To accomplish this, I paced myself opening my other presents, unwrapping them as slowly as I could, keeping a careful eye on the diminishing pile of gifts beneath the tree. I can recall none of the other gifts Santa and Ms. Claus gave me that year. None. But I remember exactly what was in that box.
Even now, as I write this, I can still feel a little tremble of excitement as I started tearing off the paper, all eyes upon me. I can still feel the delicious, seething jealousy oozing in my direction from my brother and Greg. (My sister has Down’s Syndrome, and so is never jealous of anybody, not even brothers who are lording their incredibly cool Christmas present over her.) And then, finally, the Christmas Present to End All Christmas Presents was revealed.
It was an Easy Bake Oven.
I was crushed. What boy wants an Easy Bake Oven? Answer: no boy. If a boy wants to cook, he wants to do it over a fire with a stick. He doesn’t want to do it under a lightbulb in a pink and yellow plastic box. If I could pinpoint a moment in time where my sexuality was first questioned, it was this moment: 9:53 a.m., Christmas Day, 1976. My lesbian mom was trying to turn me gay.
She could tell I was disappointed. She said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like it?”
If I asked my son that question after giving him an oven, he would say, “No. No I don’t like it” because whatever other shortcomings he might have, at least he has balls. I didn’t have his courage; instead I mumbled assurances about how much I loved my girl toy.
Perhaps I wasn’t convincing because I remember her saying something like, “I thought you wanted an Easy Bake Oven.” This is typical of my mother. She invents other people’s opinions for them. “I thought you loved plaid,” she might say. When you ask her why she thinks you love plaid, she’ll lie. “You told me you loved plaid.” If you tell her you never said that, she gets mad and insists it is your memory at fault, not hers.
Even at the age of five, I knew this about my mother and so mumbled that yes, I must have at some point demanded that she buy me the most effeminate toy she could find. If she could have put some panties in my stocking to go with it, that would have completed the humiliation I felt under my brother and Greg’s watchful and mocking eyes.
An Easy Bake Oven? Not a miniature, gas-powered Dune Buggy? Not a three stage model rocket? Even some sort of Donny Osmond action figure clubhouse would have been preferable. Anything would have been better than this shit, and yet I did not have the courage to tell my mother and Arlene how I really felt because I knew it would be taken as not just a rejection of the gift. but a rejection of the new, unisexual worldview they were attempting to construct that Christmas. That single Christmas gift represented their entire post-penis existence, which is a lot of pressure to put on a five year old.
That night, we all sat down at the kitchen table and poured the ready-to-bake brownie mix into the little Petri dishes that came with the toy, then watched as the sixty watt lightbulb transformed that watery goo into tiny desserts. How did it taste? I would be lying if I said anything other than this: delicious. Even though I hated them and everything they represented, I have to admit they were delicious lightbulb brownies.
My mother was a certain kind of idealist, I guess. The kind that wanted to transform a patrimonial society into a gender neutral utopia where all little girls played third base and all little boys braided hair. That’s fine if you’re a little boy who wants to play dress-up, but I wasn’t one of those boys. As I said, I liked to scream and hurl myself down the stairs in a laundry basket. I felt like one of those hermaphrodites whose parents are forced to choose a sex for their child and they choose the wrong one. No matter how much my feminist lesbian mom wanted me to embody the new seventies man, I could never be him. Even at five, I was masturbating to thoughts of Cheryl Tiegs. And for all his dewy talk, I bet Alan Alda did, too.
Over the years my mom’s feminism softened. Now she buys my son Hot Wheels and Thomas the Tank Engine toys. My daughter gets fairy princess wings and magic wands. They both love their lesbian grandma. After our initial foray into dessert-making that Christmas, my mother never asked me if I wanted to bake again. The Easy Bake Oven went into the back of the toy closet, never to reappear, and the next Christmas, I think she got me a Big Wheel.