My Story Begins – The World From the Backseat

My Story Begins – The World From the Backseat

Content Warning! Discretion is advised.

Do you remember how the world looked from the backseat?

My grandma and grandpa, my dad’s parents, literally lived in a log house. What a gift to give your grandchildren. Forested, in the Albertan countryside near the Hamlet of Jarvie, theirs was the first acreage after a gentle creek intersected the range road. Yes, over the creek and through the woods: as it is sung in “To Grandmother’s House We Go.” Seriously. A nursery rhyme incarnate. After kicking the snow off our boots, me and my sister would run into the kitchen where the dough for cinnamon rolls was prepared for us to lather with butter, brown sugar, and the eponymous spice—as we sneaked tastes under our grandma’s overt approval. Plates adorned the bumpy log walls, each one presenting the image of a different bird. High upon the cabinets, the two Siamese cats would occasionally slink amongst the painted Cardinals and Jays as they gazed down at us warily. No joke: two furtive Siamese. Life at Grandma’s was a cartoon made real, if you please.1

A photo of child-Dalton licking cinnamon and sugar from his fingers

Proof that my memory is solid.

Such is the bliss of childhood. This is the world from the backseat. When you’re in the backseat, you don’t have to know where you’re going or how to get there. You get in, and after a handful of “Are we there yet”s, you’ve mystically arrived. When going to Grandma’s, or anywhere, I would only recognize the last minute or so of travel. The rest was a droning blur of highway.

My sister and I spent the time at Grandma’s playing imaginary games in the forest behind her house (yes, the forest!), or in the basement where a foreboding hallway led to the nearby workshop. (Yes, a secret underground passage!) We were perfectly blessed here. Our fortune humbles me now. Every child deserves what we had there. Cruelly, few know it.

The shop accessed via the spooky tunnel was my grandpa’s. His name was my Father’s name: Donald, but we called him Hardy. Hardy was an archetype. When we arrived, he was reliably sat in his recliner near the television. Like a beloved TV caricature, he seemingly owned but one outfit: high wasted jeans in the durable farmer denim, thick multicoloured suspenders, and a light brown shirt. His face squinted around his glass eye under an ever-present yellow hard-hat. When he hauled himself up from his chair for tea time (yes, we had tea time!) he would approach the table with his signature gait: what I call, with great affection, a heavy-footed waddle. He rarely spoke. When he did it was either in a light-hearted tease or stern imperative. His affections were secret. An heirloom stoicism swaddled them within him.

Grandpa Hardy watched a lot of TV. If we were lucky, he’d take a break and let the kids watch something, because Grandpa had a satellite TV, which meant there was Cartoon Network! What a treat. But then we’d get kicked off so he could watch his baseball, sometimes with a second smaller baseball game in a box in the corner of the screen. Oh how the boy Dalton would marvel at such an obsession. “Baseball is so boring” he thought. Though Hardy also watched bowling, curling, news, and other boring things. Regardless, the TV was often on.

My sister and I, heads together on a pillow, watching Barney Rubble from the carpet.

Proper television watching posture.

Then came one particular visit. My sister and I played in the living room while Grandpa watched the news, and a story came on about a group of people picketing something. The story seemed to make everyone there uncomfortable. I remember the furious protesters and their screaming fluorescent signs. The signs said something about God. Something about God hating something. “God hates…” some word I didn’t understand.

I knew God was important. I was a good Christian boy. After a brief stint of claiming I loved the devil just for the sake of being alternative, I had turned my devotion toward the divine. Sunday school was fun because we got to colour with crayons and sing, and I learned things like how Jesus was nice to sheep and how wood turned to petrified wood in water (again, this is life from the backseat; learning is passive and randomly selective). I knew my grandparents didn’t go to church because sometimes we’d visit on Sunday mornings. I surmised it was because old people had gone to church so much that they had learned everything, and thus didn’t have to anymore. So, on my grandma’s carpet, I searched my sunday-school brain for what this new word might mean. What does God hate?

I don’t recall today exactly what that boy thought the protesters may have meant. He knew God didn’t like certain things, like lying. But even if the people with the signs meant God hates liars, that still didn’t seem quite right. After all, satan was the father of lies, but that boy was taught that God still loved even him: Lucifer. His creation. It didn’t add up. Ever the inquisitive child, I asked for an adult to explain it to me but no one would.

Of course, I can now infer from context that the group of protesters getting that coverage was likely some members of Westboro Baptist Church back in their prime, protesting homosexuality. The word I didn’t—thankfully—know, was probably “fags.” Though I didn’t quite grasp the report, I was wise enough even in my gullibility to know that these protesters weren’t representing the God of love I had learned about.

My father has a sister who resided near enough to almost always join us in visiting the log house, along with her partner, now wife. They were both a part of our family, and I share many memories with them—like going to pick wild blueberries at Bear Lake so Grandma could make a pie (Right?!). As a child, following the scripts on gendered relationships I had absorbed, I always assumed the two ladies were good friend or roommates. I had wondered why this one friend was so special that she came almost every time with my aunt, and how she got to be part of our family. Afterall, I didn’t get to bring my friends to Grandma’s house! I was a little jealous, as children often are. I assumed bringing friends to Grandma’s must be another thing that adults do that kids aren’t allowed to do for no good reason!

My aunts2 were there that day. The tension from that report lasted a long moment. My grandma and grandpa, my mother and father, my aunts, my sister, all heard the interview and saw the signs. My grandma was not pleased; she protested the protest. I’m not sure what she said. As far as I can recall, my partnered aunts were silent. Channels were changed. The moment passed, and I resumed my playing undisturbed. And, as always, I was at some point forced to surrender my idle games and make for home.

My mother was a fountain of distilled insight for that boy. He learned at a young age that she would tell him things other grownups wouldn’t if he could get her alone. So, on the way home, in the privacy of our car, I asked my mom about that moment: what the protest was about, and why she wouldn’t explain it to me earlier. The edges of this conversation in the car are clouded in vignette, but the core endures. I remember the plushness of the old-fashioned car seats, boxy, with uncomfortable seatbelts that were difficult to fasten. I remember the motion of the evergreen tips against the sky as we chugged that stretch of rural road, bumping over the bridged creek. I remember being short, and the odd angle of talking to a grown person in the front seat. Do you remember that? How you can only see the edge of their face, their hair, maybe the dangle of an earring? Remember leaning towards the center seat for a better vantage as you asked questions? Remember answers coming from a faceless parental voice within the sacred zone of “the front”?

“Why did it make Grandma so upset?” I asked

I can’t remember exactly how the next line went. I know, I know, my mother did not say “fags” to me. No one there would say it. I did not learn that word that day. Though, it was clear to me it was a bad word: a swear. My mother also didn’t say gay, or homosexual, or any term like that. Keep in mind I was a kid! I knew boys liked girls, and that once they married, boys could make girls pregnant by kissing them. Sex did not exist in my world then. I just knew everyone eventually got married and was happy. That’s all. Somehow, my mother helped me understand that my aunts were among the people being targeted by the protesters in the report. I grasped that her partner’s inclusion in our family was part of why they were different, and part of the what made the protesters target them.

“Why did it make Grandma so upset?”

“Well, that’s the kind of relationship [name] and [name] are in.”

I was shocked that the fervour I saw in the protesters was meant for my family. They were saying God hates my aunts.

“But God doesn’t hate them, does he?”

“No he doesn’t.” Mom quickly reassured me.

Suddenly I understood the tension: why the report made my grandma mad, my aunts and parents quiet. And then, in my innocence, I asked bluntly, “Why didn’t you tell Grandma that the people were wrong, and God doesn’t hate them?”

And this part, this I remember clearly, verbatim: “I don’t know Dalton,” mom said after a pause “I should have told her.” She repeats it: “I should have told her.”

That indelible last bit is still so crisp I can feel the tone of my mother’s voice. Maybe regret, but more like a wish. To that boy, it was so simple that God loved everyone no matter what we do. She was impressed by his child-like love. I’m impressed by it. I wish I could still love people so simply, so purely. Would that we could all be so ignorant.

I know this makes me sound like a child-saint, but I swear it’s accurate. I remember it because I was not used to my parents having realizations; they were still the keepers of truth to me. I had assumed that my mother simply didn’t think to say anything. Little did I know that the wish I heard in her voice is one that many Christians often feel, how our desire to express God’s love is held back by fear, social convention, politics, confusion… I now know it would have been hard for anyone to have said anything in that moment and truly have meant what they wanted to mean: to have held firm the reigns of their words. This is the backyard forest where simple love gets lost. That wish becomes trapped and rolls around in our minds like a barrel in the rocky creak: “I should have told her… I should have said this… I should have… why didn’t I…”

That oblivious boy hadn’t the faintest notion those hissing signs would one day be aimed at him. It would still be years before I fully—nay, even barely—understood what made my aunts different. I think that boy might have still assumed his aunts would both eventually marry men like all girls do. Maybe he knew that those two women were a close team, but It still wouldn’t occur to him for a long time that some girls like kissing girls, or that a girl could fall in love with another girl the way Jacob fell in love with Rebecca in Sunday School. He took care of sheep for her. Sheep are very important in the Bible.

The story I just shared is, I strongly believe, the first encounter I had with the notion of homosexuality. This was the moment I realized gay was a thing, though I had no name for it yet, and though it was a mere wisp of a concept. All I knew is some people are different because of who they spend their time with, and others hate them for it. Again, I hadn’t the slightest iota it had anything to do with me. In an instant, this experience slipped deep into that boy’s long-term recollections and he moved on to the next passing childish thought.

I’m so thankful for my mother’s graceful response. Maybe you believe she should not have answered. If so, you’ve failed to imagine the torturous son I was: I’m an implorer, I always got an answer even if it meant my mother inventing nonsense. The poor woman, I drove her to madness. Maybe you believe she could have said more. If so, you’ve forgotten how different her world was from today’s. My mother did right by me.

Think instead on this: what a shame that hate had anything to do with this critical moment in my life. How appalling that a child should grapple with an assertion that his creator hates his family. The images beamed from a satellite into that rustic abode have stayed with me for decades. What did that do to me, as I grew and one day realized I was hated? What was the cost to that boy? What was the damage done by some pink poster board and a marker? It’s so dark that we ever gave such a distributed voice to hate that it could penetrate into a grandchild’s Disney-esque haven. When hate comes your way, any kind of hate, when it slinks around your liver and perches on your heart, remember the boy asking his family to explain to him what fag means. But more importantly, remember his innocent question, remember his untainted love.

I learned something else important that day. Did you catch it? I learned people could be wrong about God.

Notes:
  1. Memory is undoubtedly a nebulous and subjective source. Yet my perception was my reality. This is just my perspective and like all it is skewed. It is your responsibility to collect a multitude of voices. I especially forbid you to use my recollections as fuel to pass judgement on anyone in my life, to do so would be an abuse of the precious memories I share with you.
  2. I say “Aunts” because, in every way, this fabulous woman was (and is) an Aunt to me, even though it was impossible for the two to be legally married until later in my life.

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