I’m a fourth generation Eastsider, and my neighborhood at 30th & Shortridge used to be a farm my twice great grandfather bought when he came to America in 1908 from Hamburg, Germany. After my great grandfather married my great grandmother, her father, who came from the Highlands of Scotland’s northwest, moved to my great grandfather’s home. The house where I grew up had been built my great-grandfather so he could be close to the farm after Wilson’s disease crippled him—the trees that lined the front yard was a path to the barn. When he died in the 1958, my great grandmother kept the house, but sold the farm to developers to pay off the medical debt. The house had been designed as a double and the vacant side used for tenants–the tenant side face Shortridge and my great grandmother’s side faced Ashland. When I was born, my parents lived in the Irvington neighborhood, and when money became tight and we faced homelessness, my great grandmother and youngest great aunt opened up the vacant side of the house for us. The act appears generous and compassionate, but there was nothing generous or compassionate about my great-grandmother, my youngest great aunt. Don’t misunderstand, I am grateful for having a roof over my head, and if it had not been for my great grandmother’s garden, I would have gone hungry like many of my school mates surviving on government cheese and canned goods in wrapped white paper and black stencil; but the kindness gave her the right mistreat us, mostly me, with manipulation and abuse.
Growing up with my great grandmother was a mixed blessing. How many kids in my neighborhood grew up in a house where there were family pictures going back to tintype, or had family who enjoyed storytelling? The truth was of little use, and the stories I heard extended back to my ancestor’s life in Europe along with embellishments and modern spins. There were facts like names and personality types along with the time of year, but everything else became an artistic expression of the one telling the story—like their cooking.
My great grandmother made mincemeat pie, and it was a 300 year old family recipe from the Highlands. Mincemeat pie was my exposure to the contradiction that is British Isle cuisine. What is mincemeat pie? According to the family recipe, it’s made with raisins, apples, cinnamon, and suet. What is suet? Suet has been described to me as the extra bits that fell on the floor the butcher processed into hot dogs. My great grandmother would go to the Grassy Creek butcher on East 10th to pick up the excess bits—she knew how to make suet, and it was a source of great pride. When I walked into the house on Christmas Day, the smell made me gag. I did not pay attention to my surroundings and belched my disgust, “Oh my god, that is nasty!” Next thing I know I am facing the back of my great aunt Mary’s hand as she flicks her fingers on my teeth causing my entire skull to rattle, “Just for that you’re taking two slices to teach you some manners. Next time you say, ‘No, thank you. I do not care for any.’” She turned to my eight year old brother who witnessed the exchange, “Tommy, would you like some mincemeat pie?” He looks at me, narrows his eyes and gave me a wicked smile, “No, thank you. I don’t care for any.” Then he runs off to visit other relatives. My mother explained to me the origins of mincemeat pie, and that it’s creation of poor people trying to survive. “Yeah, Ma, but we American poor—we can eat a little better.”
Before I left for Blackburn in August of 2012, I was at my mother’s apartment watching BBC news. At the time Great Britain’s experience with immigration issues similar to what the United States experiences with its southern borders. The correspondent talked about Scotland and how it’s lax approach on immigration allowed foreigners to move about freely and retain their culture in Scottish society. To support his statement, the correspondent commented on Scottish culture in general, and how that attitude went across the Atlantic Ocean into America. “The Scots that emigrated to America stayed Scots, though they are considered Americans.” I laughed because I thought only great grandmother and great aunt Mary were the only people to do this, and leaned on their Scottishness to support their stubborn opinions, bigoted views, and violent behavior. Especially when it came to came to religion. They loathed Catholics and had no love for Episcopalians, “By God, we left the crown, and it’s going to stay that way!” I turned down the television and shared a laugh with my mother—apparently our family’s crazy was cultural.
Walking into my great grandmother’s side house was like walking through a wormhole into Scotland; but a turn of the century Scotland. The kitchen has a dulled yellow tint and is filled with the different aroma of the various spices above the stove. The utility room to the right, where the washer and dryer are kept, are mason jars filled with canned vegetables, fruits, jams made from the plum tree in our front yard, and homemade sweet chili sauce. Towards the wall is the oak table my great great grandfather brought over from Scotland and there is a three foot gap between the table and the refrigerator before entering the living room. The space is already tight when it’s just myself, my great grandmother, and great aunt, but is a cause for cartilage snapping asphyxiation when all the relatives from all over the country converge on Thanksgiving and Christmas day. My great grandmother has her end of the table with her back to the hall way and surrounded by family photographs from the 1860s. When there aren’t family gatherings my great aunt Mary has her place at the other end of the table with her back to the front door. Behind her are the things she bought while she was a missionary to India.
One of the benefits my mother found in living next door to her grandmother and aunt was child care. They were family and they could be relied upon if something last minute came up and she and my father had to leave. I didn’t mind this either because I liked being around them for the most part, but their demeanor changed toward me after I turned ten. I am a sensitive person, and much of my personality can be considered feminine. When I finally came out last October, a good friend told Ronnie, “God! It’s about time he came out—I knew when I first met him.” My family is quite perceptive, and looking back, I think they saw the same thing in me—and they hated me for it. On a cold December day when the sky is overcast, and the yard is haunted with the naked bones of the tree’s limbs, I hurt myself. While playing with the tree branches, I lost my grip, and the branch smacked the bottom of my nose. I don’t know what it is about cold air that intensifies pain, but I was in tears. My parents weren’t home, and ran into my great grandmother’s house crying and looking for comfort. My great grandmother roared at me, and her Highland accent came out like thick stones breaking my head with her disgust. “I took care of your great great grandfather who was a foul tempered Scot, I survived being nearly burnt to death, and the Great Depression—you’re going to cry to me over a goddamned twig?! You come from great Highland warriors! How dare you behave like such a little girl!” My great aunt Mary chimed in to echo the antipathy, and not once did it dawn on them the irony of insulting their own gender. I’ve watched how they publicly humiliated men who treated them as weak girls—even physically breaking their jaws with empty mason jars in their purses.
This treatment was not a one-time thing, and happened consistently until I became an adult and severed the relationship. I was alone during this time. Everyone knew what was happening, and there were people in our church who said I deserved everything they did to me because I was such a bad kid. I needed to be dehumanized and controlled because there was something off about me. They knew it, and had the bible to justify the monstrous behavior; but I didn’t know. What I did know was my home was not safe, at school I received similar treatment so that wasn’t safe, and when I had to start working at sixteen, my work environment was the same as home and school. I wore leather jackets and combat boots to put on a mask of toughness, I verbally lashed out at any authority figure taking them to task on any issue, I created a narrative where I appeared hard so people would leave me alone—so I wouldn’t get hurt anymore. On some level, I think that disguise worked because I wasn’t attacked after the race riots in my high school junior year. I learned to sever any connection with my heart to find solace in my mind. There is nothing good or bad about what I had done as an adolescent. I believed I didn’t have any options, but I needed to cope and get out as soon as possible. The downside to such coping is the mask soon becomes the identity, and there is a disconnect with the heart making it impossible to relate to people. As awful as my family was to me and others, I have never met anyone who could come close to comparison—even the ones who have done violence towards me have lines they will not cross. I had to unlearn my coping mechanism, take off my masks, face my broken heart, and be honest.
I think my coming out in October of last year was the first best step in facing me without any insecure bravado. Who I am is ok. In no way do I blame my life or my current struggle towards healing on my great grandmother and great aunt. I worked with what options were available to me, and when I became an adult I stayed behind my masks. I chose to do that and the consequences of that choice are on me. In recent months, I have had to deal with the same maltreatment from my mother who claimed I was a mistake and kept her bound to a man whose instability made her life a painful struggle. To hear it as an adult is rough, but with her disclosure, I understood why my home life was a bone rattling, soul dissipating hell. I found freedom in that final rejection. One of my masks has been the cultural history of my family, and I attached myself to an identity as a working class, Scot-American from Indianapolis’ East Side; but that wasn’t my story, nor has it ever been my story. That’s my family’s story, and the only connection I have to such a narrative is biology. Beginning to face myself with honesty and acceptance has opened a door for me to start my own story with each chapter better than the first.