Last month, I drove five hours and 30 years back in time to attend my grandmother's funeral in Montmorenci, S.C. Montmorenci is a farming community near Aiken, the town where my biological family has lived since well before the Civil War.
Montmorenci is too small to appear on most maps, so it's easy to miss altogether if you don't know what you're looking for. Search your CD case for the newest ani difranco release, and what passes for the town will be gone by the time you look up again. There are only a few clues that you have even arrived there: the lone brick building that serves as post office, gas station, and stopgap store until the farmers can drive their wives into town to stock up at Sam's Club or Wal-Mart; the farmer's-market awning that stretches above faded blacktop parking spaces; the black and the white Baptist churches that are filled to overflowing on Sundays. "Montmorenci" is spelled out in gold over the post-office door and in no-nonsense plastic letters on both of the church signs. The rest of the town consists of unlabeled farmland and railroad tracks.
My grandmother's funeral notice listed a kind of family survivor history: three sons, two daughters, one living brother, 16 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. With our so-called family units, we all crammed together into the tiny First Baptist Church.
The service was interspersed with old-time hymns that took me back to tent revivals and four-part gospel harmony around my grandmother's upright piano. Several of my relatives performed original music, and most of the rest of us could have. I could not decide which was more beautiful--the organ, the guitars, the tambourines, or the tight a cappella gospel tunes. I left the service filled with nostalgia and relief at escaping my hurried Triangle existence and reconnecting with my roots for a little while.
Just as I was feeling a moment of identification with my musically inclined family, though, the minister reminded me that I am an outsider to them. We were approaching the activities building and I could smell the home-cooked food that the women of the church had prepared. I held out my hand and thanked the minister for his moving portrayal of my grandmother. He looked me in the eye. He tightened his lips. He kept a firm hold on his black King James Bible. But he did not extend his hand to me. I flashed to the narrow eyes of the fundamentalist protesters who always show up at Pride marches--the ones who shout that Matthew Shepard is in hell where he belongs and actually believe it--and I wondered if this man now counted himself among those self-righteous folk. I was unprepared for the fear behind his gaze, and fear is definitely what I saw in the moment before he attempted to convert me.
This country preacher did not need a sign to identify which granddaughter stood before him. My nose ring and nonsubmissive manner were sufficient to identify me as the one whose lifestyle had long worried my grandmother--and as a reminder that there are women in this world who do not submit graciously to convention.
I was raised Southern Baptist, but I converted to Unitarian Universalism so many years ago that I sometimes forget the call to conversion that drives the Baptist faithful. Having grown accustomed to my inclusive denomination, I was unprepared when this minister targeted me as needing his own special brand of salvation.
He pulled me aside. My grandmother died worried that she would be unable to rest, he told me, knowing that one of her offspring cannot join her in Paradise. I hold the key to her soul's earned comfort, he said, and to my own eternal salvation. The hour is late, but I can still find salvation and transform myself anew.
It was hot and I was wearing too much wool. I stifled my one-fingered response, however, by reminding myself that this man did care for my grandmother and that he was sincere in his own way. I really had found his service moving, despite the fact that I silently added "...unless you're black" or "...unless you're queer" to nearly every word he said from his narrow pulpit: She was a stranger who took you in. The world disappoints, but this Gospel will never fail you. I did not have to search very far back in my memory to remember the preacher's biblical defenses of segregated school, abusive husbands and anti-feminist policies.
I told him I do not interpret the Bible the same way he does.
My grandparents lived on what was once a functioning farm, and I escaped there after my confrontation with the preacher. I parked behind the barn and looked to my left, looked to my right, looked behind the barn. Nothing but wide-open fields for as far as my eyes could see. I should have felt free there, so far removed from I-40 traffic and my cell phone. Instead, I screamed in frustration in that empty place where I knew no one could see me.
I sat on my car hood and thought about my own funeral, wondering if I would even recognize myself there. So much of who I am is off-topic to my fundamentalist family that my identity, to them, rests somewhere between who they thought I was back in high school and the recycled family stories they find safe enough for the holidays. I reside in the high-school art projects that hang in my mother's hallway; in my Dean's List plaques that hang in the den; in their stories of childhood adventures in which I attach a steering wheel to my banana-seat bicycle or jump off the roof of my treehouse clutching a pulley on a chain, and the inevitable trips to the emergency room that followed.
The adult I am now is missing from their stories. They are uncomfortable with the choices I have made, so they change the subject when I try to show them who I am and what I value. In effect, I have been erased by the very people who are assumed to know me best, yet the legal system decrees that my biological family can call the shots at my funeral service, that they are my legitimate life-insurance beneficiaries and can dictate my hospital visitors.
My partner could not make the trip down with me, so the person who actually knows me best was far away. I wondered how I must appear to my biological family--as the unmarried cousin/aunt/niece with the nose ring and manly haircut, no doubt, whose personal revelations inevitably result in immediately changed subjects and awkward silences among otherwise sociable people. Of course, my family's comfortable conversations about wedding plans and getting one's nails done and who and what is unnatural and impure have always been awkward to me, too.
I feel as if I return to South Carolina wearing an identifying marker, a kind of oddity-now-entering-the-town-limits sign painted in bright rainbow letters, announcing the fact that I am queer and liberal in a uniform place where the Confederate flag reigns and being different is cause enough for withdrawn hands and suspicion. I dance in and out of this mainstream existence because the biological family I am trying to know again resides there. But I always depart reminded again that the place I left behind is not my home.
Recently, my sister gave me an elaborate family tree based on the genealogical history she uncovered when she was tracing twins in our family. I am listed as single on this tree, just one more name among the numerous Baptists who settled in South Carolina. My partner's name is nowhere in sight.
Huey Newton, a founding member of the Black Panther Party, noted that "power is the ability to define phenomena." The fear I instill in Baptist folk only sometimes translates into power, though. I doubt that anything I explained to my grandmother's preacher, or any of my attempts to share myself with my family, will ever change what they see when they look at me. Instead, the family my partner and I have made will vanish from public documents and holiday conversations alike and be replaced with some tired, old-maid aunt who moved away and returned alone wearing a pantsuit to her own grandmother's funeral.