As told by Maggie Fitzgerald
As the years weigh upon me, I find myself sifting through a lifetime of memories, marriage to my beloved Seymour and the birth of our seven blessed children can never be matched. My Seymour is gone now, and my children have their own families in faraway places. Except for holidays, when they return for a few days, I’m alone with my three curbstone setters, and my memories.
But there was one family gathering which continues to come back to my mind with such insistence, I feel compelled to record it not only for its historical value to my family but also for its entertainment value to those who will encounter it in the pages that follow.
I hope you enjoy this shocking, funny, poignant, and uplifting story, as much as I have enjoyed recalling it. I am certain the memories of each reader will bring forth their own similar family experiences.
It was Christmas Day in 1973 at Fitzgerald House, my family’s seaside country home outside of Winthrop Harbor near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. It’s a well-preserved and charming Victorian home sitting atop a hill off Buttermilk Lane with an amazing view of Lake Michigan.
The lookout turret on the top floor, where I spent many hours as a young girl, is my personal time capsule. It contains many of my childhood belongings, untouched and gathering dust. Occasionally I visit and sit for a few moments as memories of the past flood my consciousness. When the tears come, I re-lock the door and descend those narrow winding stairs to the reality of the day below.
This Christmas tale happened over forty years ago. I ask the reader to be lenient as the sources of this story are my memory and my heart. If an occasional fact is misplaced, it is only due to the tricks memory plays as one grows older. Conversations ring true, but again, it must be understood they have been reconstructed from memories. Like so many remarkable events in our lives, this one is as fresh and vibrant as if it happened only yesterday, Christmas Day, 1973.
As the holidays approach, decorating the Christmas tree brings back fond memories of the past. The Christmas memories of 1973 were shocking at first but, tempered by the ensuing years and the changing mores of the day, the adventure now seems beautiful if not somewhat comical. Back then, however, no one would have dreamed of attaching such an adjective to that day and the event that unfolded.
The dining room in Fort Knox, as I called it as a child, can easily accommodate family and friends for those long weekend holiday celebrations.
After my parents passed away, the house remained quiet for too many years until this fateful holiday.
And now the tale as best as I can recall it.
I have five sisters and two brothers. Harold and John are Catholic priests who are not the staid and starched preachers of yesteryear. Oh no, not those two. If a practical joke is to be had, they will be behind it. My sister Judy is so off the wall, the rest of us swore she was adopted, much to the chagrin of my mother who would leave the room whenever we brought that subject up. To round out the attendees of this event, there were Lydia and Herbert, Martha and Peter, and Julia and William – staid, conservative, and respectable members of society until this Christmas event which changed everyone’s life. Little did they know all the family closets would come flying open and they would stand in the light of who they really were beneath their well-chosen trappings.
I remember how cold it was that December 25th. The wind was on the verge of howling when the mudroom door flew open. In a swirl of snowflakes, my sister Judy floated in with her handsome twenty-three-year-old son, Buddy, trailing behind. He closed the door and hung up coats as Judy brushed a kiss on my cheek and floated through the swinging dining room door, joining the rest of the family in the living room. She was almost as flamboyant as my favorite, Auntie Marge, who passed away years earlier. I dearly miss her. No one could match her style.
Buddy had recently been discharged from the Marines and was a sight to behold in his perfectly tailored uniform. I had not seen him for several years and was happy he could be with us, but I did wonder why he was wearing his uniform. How he had matured. He was the spitting image of my father, who was also too handsome for his own good. My Mother often remarked about my father’s beautiful face.
Buddy paused in front of me, placed his big hands on my shoulders and grinned, “Oh, Aunt Maggie, you have no idea how much I’ve missed you.” Then he enfolded me in one of his bear hugs. Everyone agreed – Buddy was the best hugger in the family. But, his hug lingered, and his face stayed a second too long nuzzled in my neck. His cold outdoor cheek dispelled the questions which popped into my mind. Then he was gone through the swinging door and into the welcoming chatter coming from the living room.
Someone began playing the piano and a Christmas carol was in full swing which made me laugh since no one in our family could carry a tune, especially Judy. She was the loudest and always seemed to be on a different page.
The lingering hug from Buddy came back to mind. Was he trying to tell me something? Perhaps. But there was dinner to be served. I blocked open the swinging door to the dining room, called for help and the feast began moving out of the kitchen onto the dining room table which had been prepared with holiday place settings. Soon the eleven of us were settled, passing plates of delicious food, mingled with happy conversations and laughter.
The Black Forest Cuckoo clock in the piano room announced four o’clock. I thought of Mother and Father, hoping they were watching. They so loved these gatherings – the smell of good food, lit candles, and a good fire blazing in the fireplace. Dad taught me how to lay a fire when I was a child and I never lost the knack, a good thing, too. No one else knew how to get the fire going, let alone keep it going.
It is worth mentioning that no one should ever come out of the closet during dinner, which is what happened on this day. No one saw it coming, least of all me. I felt something was brewing, but as hostess, I was too busy paying close attention to my scattered thoughts.
My brothers, Harold, and John sat on my right. Buddy sat next to them and Judy sat on his right. As I passed the mashed potatoes to Harold, I glanced over at Buddy. Something was wrong. He finished his first glass of wine in two gulps and was pouring a second glass. This was not like him as far as I could remember. I glanced around the table to see if anyone else had noticed – they had not.
I looked back to Buddy and saw a slight tremble to his hand as he lifted his glass. He caught me watching him. I mouthed the words Are you all right? He put his glass down and looked me straight in the eyes with such intensity it frightened me. Then, in a loud and commanding voice, he replied – slowly and deliberately, “NO – I AM NOT!”
Now I was frightened. My right hand moved over and rested on Harold’s arm.
“It’s ok,” Harold whispered.
I was surprised. He knew. But what did he know? Harold kept eating. I did not have long to wait.
Conversations trailed off, heads turned toward Buddy. With his voice trembling and tears welling in his eyes as if something had been burning within him for a long time, out it came. My grip on Harold’s arm tightened. ‘Oh, my God.’
Looking at Judy, Buddy paused and then spoke to his mother, “Mom, I’m sorry. But I’m gay.”
I was stunned but almost laughed when I saw the expression on Judy’s face shift from sublime to confusion to utter shock. Her mouth was so full of food, her cheeks were bulging. She stopped chewing – her wide-eyed gaze fixed on Buddy. As she realized what had been said, her eyes began to bulge.
After a second of silence, her mouth dropped open. The food she had been chewing flew out and scattered across the table as a screech, unlike anything I had ever heard, came out of Judy’s mouth like a flamethrower … “WHHHAAATTT?”
Lydia’s husband, Herbert, the redneck of the family, threw out the first comment, “What do you mean you’re gay? You just got out of the Marines.”
My sister, Martha, who was sitting to the left of Herbert, turned on him with a vengeance, “What the hell difference does that make, you idiot?”
I always felt Martha was too outspoken. At that moment, I could have kissed her. Herb sank into his chair sufficiently rebuked.
Everyone talked at once with little sense coming out of any of it. Judy was the only one who, for the first time in her life, sat there with her mouth open, saying nothing, staring at her son.
Then, Buddy – in a voice louder than usual – addressed the entire family with the determined confidence and precision of someone who knew exactly what they were doing.
“And I’m getting married to my friend, Christopher, in the spring. You’re all invited if you care to come.”
Jaws dropped, silverware clattered onto plates and the table top. Buddy finished his second glass of wine, settled back in his chair and waited.
Harold continued eating his dinner with little notice. I looked at him, “Harold?”
He took the hand I had placed on his arm, turned to Buddy and said, “And I’m going to marry them.”
Another second of silence. Then, everyone at the table screamed in unison “WHAT?”
“You heard me,” Harold fired back. “And I don’t want to hear about it from any of you.” Then he calmly turned to me with a smile, “By the way, Maggie, what are we having for dessert? Oh wait, I should not have asked. A cup of your delicious home brewed coffee and a piece of your homemade pie. What kind is it today?”
William, Julia’s husband, interrupted, “Screw the pie, what the hell is going on? Have you lost your bloody mind?” He got up from his chair like an enraged Cockatrice – leaning halfway over the table with his eyes bulging at Harold.
John came to Harold’s rescue. “Oh, for Pete’s sake, Willie. Sit down”
Peter, Martha’s husband sat up. “What have I got to do with this?”
John stood there completely flummoxed. He looked at me and I broke out laughing.
William withdrew with an audible grunt. Julia’s icy stare grounded him.
Martha put her hand on Pete’s arm and whispered, “It’s ok, Peter; he wasn’t referring to you.”
Peter looked at her, “Oh,” and sat back in his chair. Martha looked at me, smiled and rolled her eyes slightly.
John continued, “Harold and I will perform the ceremony together. It will be a wonderful affair.”
I peeked around Harold. “John?” He shrugged his shoulders.
“So, what kind of pie is it, Maggie?”
I looked at them and half whispered, “Pumpkin … with walnuts … and whipped cream …” trailing off with, “real whipped cream.”
“Oh, goodie.” Harold finished his wine then turned to Buddy, “So, when are we going to introduce Brother Christopher to this lot?”
“HE’S A PRIEST?” screamed Lydia.
“No, sister dear, he is not a priest. I call him brother because he will be part of this family, this CHRISTIAN family,” Harold groaned and glared at everyone, daring them to say another word.
Then Buddy delivered the final bomb of the day. “And, Christopher is black.”
Two or three shouted, “BLACK?”
Buddy added, “As the Ace of Spades.”
It was then I realized how many bigots and racists were in my family, which surprised, shocked, saddened, and embarrassed me all at the same time.
The conversations became so tainted, I thought they would lynch Buddy. It was obvious why he had worn his uniform – to show his position in the family as a man, not as a nephew to be trounced on.
The questions about Christopher began to fly. How old is he? Where was he born? How tall is he? How much does he weigh? How much money does he have? Does he have any money? Does he have a criminal record? Who are his people? Where are they from?
The long and short of the afternoon – the meal was never finished. All my hard work in preparing that wonderful food came to naught. There were leftovers galore but it was not the same. Even the fire in the fireplace went out.
I went into the kitchen to lick my wounds and found myself fending off my relatives with their questions to which I did not have any answers. “How should I know? I’m not getting married. Ask Buddy.”
Judy got drunker than usual and was carried out feet first, the one thing she had in common with my Auntie Marge.
As the afternoon light faded into evening, all the nonsense floating around came to an end in one sublime moment. The doorbell rang.
Buddy opened the front door and Brother Christopher stepped through the doorway and into the arms of his Buddy. You could have cut the astonishment with a knife – everyone standing there staring.
It was so embarrassing, I rushed forward and embraced Christopher, whispering, “Welcome home, Christopher.”
He picked me up and carried me into the living room, “Merry Christmas, Maggie. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” He kissed my cheek and set me down.
My sisters surrounded Christopher, hugging him, shaking his hands. Poor man, what a way to be baptized into this family. But he seemed to enjoy every minute of it.
Buddy pulled me aside, “I’m sorry, Aunt Maggie. I didn’t expect…”
“It’s okay, Buddy; it’s okay.” I kissed him on the cheek and hugged him.
My sisters’ husbands did not know what to do with themselves. They just stood there, fidgeting, looking at one another. Their wives finally rose to the occasion and maneuvered their men into the group.
Christopher was indeed black as the Ace of spades and handsome. He may have been better looking than Buddy, and a wee bit taller.
I suspected my sisters’ husbands were intimidated and threatened by the two handsome gay men in their midst.
Martha united the family by going to the piano and playing I’m dreaming of a White Christmas. Christopher’s amazing baritone voice rose along with the voices of my out-of-tune family.
And then a miracle happened – it began to snow. I was so overwhelmed at the sight, the words of the song caught in my throat, as they did with everyone else. The twelve French windows of the piano room suddenly had a backdrop of dancing snowflakes. It became so quiet you could almost hear the snowflakes colliding with the window panes.
We looked at one another in wonder. Buddy quietly sealed the moment, “Merry Christmas everyone.” We cheered as Martha’s hands hit the piano keys again. Our voices were filled with more heartfelt emotion than this old house had heard in a long time.
I looked into my heart – Mom, Dad, Merry Christmas.
The rest of the evening unfolded in ways no one expected. Christopher charmed the devil out of everyone seated, standing, or lying down – in this case, Judy. His sense of humor and interplay with Buddy had everyone laughing and giggling. In this family, you had better have a sense of humor just to survive. I watched Buddy playing with everyone. He was bursting with pride at the success of his outing.
Then the heavy snow began and it snowed and snowed – for two days it snowed, trapping us in Fitzgerald House. After realizing no one was leaving, we opened the upstairs bedrooms and once again this old house was bustling with joy and laughter. It was such a good feeling.
The food supply was checked to make sure we had enough until the ordeal ended. Since the Christmas Day dinner had never been finished, there were many leftovers and a store of other foods at the ready.
There were no cell phones in those days so the landline in the hallway was busy as everyone called their homes with all the news. Miraculously, the power did not fail so we continued in comfort until departure time.
When the snow plows got through to Buttermilk Lane, there were cheers mingled with sadness as this remarkable adventure drew to a close. The boys got together and cleared the driveway, intermingled with snowball fights on their way down the hill to Buttermilk Lane.
Then, one by one, and two by two, the family began to leave. There were hugs and tears and more hugs and well-wishing and blessings for the New Year which was almost upon us. Everyone promised to be back for the wedding.
Buddy, Christopher, and I sat at the dining room table while Judy gathered her belongings upstairs. I brought the coffee pot out and we relaxed in each other’s company for a few moments. We reminisced and did a good deal of laughing about the events of the last few days. I told Buddy and Christopher how happy I was they had found each other and gave them my blessings for their future.
Judy descended the stairs and still looked like she was in shock. I took her hand and led her into the kitchen where we had a long sisterly talk. She came out of her funk and was more cheerful. We talked about the forthcoming wedding and I assured her she would be the grand dame of the event which got her attention. The four of us hugged, wished ourselves a happy new year, and then I was alone again with my three pups.
Everyone had pitched in and put the house back in perfect order. I found myself with nothing to do. It was so quiet I was truly sorry it was over. I blessed the snow gods for extending everyone’s stay and set my sights on the nuptials to come, consoling myself that spring was just around the corner.
And before I knew it, the wedding event was only days away. My sisters arrived a few days beforehand with their husbands trailing in here and there. Buddy came the night before the wedding and explained that Christopher would be coming with his parents in the morning
And so the wedding day began on a beautiful spring morning with a soft breeze from Lake Michigan. The Major Wheeler Honeysuckle was in full bloom, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds seeking nourishment from those beautiful red flowers. The cold salmon and fresh strawberries arrived on time along with more Champagne than I had ever seen.
Everyone showed up. Some a little more reluctant than others, but they were all there, including four Golden Retriever puppies, Faith, Hope, Charity, and Bob, the start of Buddy and Christopher’s family.
Christopher’s parents arrived on time. They were tall like their son. As soon as I saw his mother I rushed to her. “Lillian, I am so pleased you and Clark are here.” I stood on tiptoe and kissed her on both cheeks. I knew she and I would be good friends. She dropped her guarded demeanor immediately, “Oh, honey, you have no idea how glad I am to meet you. Christopher thinks you’re the bee’s knees.”
“Did he say that?”
Lillian laughed, “No, but that’s what he meant.” We laughed and joined the others. She was received by everyone as if she had been part of the family forever.
Clark, Christopher’s father, eyed the white guys, the white guys eyed him back. Then, he broke into laughter and gave a toast to the two grooms. Everyone relaxed and soon they were trading stories on every subject imaginable.
I left the windows of the piano room open so I could hear the cuckoo clock. When it announced the noon hour, I rang the outdoor dinner bell, signaling the ceremony was about to begin. Harold and John, dressed in their ceremonial black suits took their positions under the canopy of an old Amur Maple tree, the same tree under which my Seymour and I were married so many years ago.
The family gathered the grooms together and brought them before Harold and John. Instead of taking their seats, everyone remained standing close to the two grooms. That gesture brought tears to my eyes when I realized how everyone had closed ranks on this unusual event.
Harold and John launched into a brief preamble after which Buddy and Christopher recited their vows to one another. Harold and John handed rings to the grooms which they placed on their partner’s finger. Harold blessed the betrothal, which was then sealed with a kiss between Buddy and Christopher. What surprised me, even more, was the silence that followed. There was no cheering, just smiles, and hugging. When everyone had been properly hugged, the festivities began with toast after toast. Even the pups received their share of toasts. The strawberries, salmon, and champagne began to disappear.
At 2:30 the couple bade farewell to their well-wishing families and began their wedding trip for a week in the wilds of California’s Yosemite Park.
I volunteered to keep their puppies until they returned. It was fun dealing with all seven pups, but I must admit, I was relieved when Buddy and Christopher returned and claimed their own.
The family had rallied, embracing this unique union. Everyone knew of the jeopardy Harold and John would be subject to if leaders of the Catholic Church became aware of the ceremony they had performed. It was not to be discussed outside of the family.
Buddy and Christopher adopted twin Chinese toddlers – a boy, Ming-húa (brilliant light), and a girl, Lì húa (beautiful pear blossom). Their American names are Mathew and Cindy. A widowed Army friend of Buddy became terminally ill and asked if he and Christopher would adopt his twins. There was no hesitation in their answer.
The twins were so young, there was only a brief time of confusion before they identified with their new fathers.
Their union was not legal in the eyes of the law back then, even though we felt differently. With the laws changing, Chris and Buddy are entertaining the idea of making it legal – at the insistence of their now grown children.
And there it was, two adult gay men – one black, the other white, two grown Chinese children, and more puppies from the original Golden Retrievers, along with our revolutionized families – gathering to witness the legal marriage of Christopher and Buddy. I sighed with a sense of relief when I realized that all racism, and bigotry had vanished from my family.
As the holidays arrive, I wish everyone a happy day and caution them to be prepared for just about anything at a family gathering, especially across the dinner table. Saints preserve, what a day that was.