Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Little Place Called Home

In the months before my father passed away I would sometimes go to a department store and look for a dress to wear to his eventual funeral.  Often I would be with my ex, as I've had good luck picking out dresses with her, but we never found one that seemed to work.  Of course I wasn't that serious about searching for a funeral dress because I felt it would be a good while before he died, even though his health was poor and failing.  Another big factor was that I would lose weight, of course, before such a dress was needed.  Why buy a dress now when later on I would surely drop a dress size or two?  If I am anything I am optimistic.

For a long time, even when I was getting rid of my male clothes and starting to wear them less and less, I held on to a black suit to wear to my father's funeral.  This was to be saved in the event that they did not accept me as a woman.  Even if I'd had to move away to live my life as myself, I was prepared to come home and put on that suit for one day when the time came.  I thank goodness that I didn't have to do that.  It's no so much about having to go back to a male state for one day as it is the time I got to spend with Daddy, as his daughter after I came out to him.

That year and a half was really special.  I wouldn't trade if for all the money in the world.  The last really special day with him was Memorial Day, which I recounted in this blog post.  As we are now coming up on the Labor Day weekend, I am going take a look back at my father's funeral and the events that occurred during the week after his death.

*****

I feel guilty admitting this, but one of the things that crossed my mind after Daddy passed away was wondering how the funeral was going to go.  Amongst the grief and wishing for more time with him, along with counting my blessings to have had so much time with him including that special year and a half, in the back of my mind I had a little worry over the coming funeral.  My dad had been an extremely prominent citizen in this little city, as you can see by reading his obituary within the blog post Memorial to Daddy.  The city has grown over the years and most of his friends have passed away, but I knew the funeral would still be a big deal.

One of life's bitter ironies is that right after a loved one passes away you have to sit down and plan an event that will be open to the public.  I'm a person who would rather bask in my pain in private, or with a few close loved ones, but the funerals are more of a chance for others outside the inner circle to come show their respect.  Then there is the business side of the event, with the funeral home contracts etc.

At least my dad already had a plot of land, had purchased good life insurance and had spoken with us about what type of service he wanted.  During the planning stage that began the very day he passed away, we decided to have visitors at my mom's house for a few days prior to the funeral instead of setting aside a time for a wake at the funeral home.  I'm sort of glad we did it this way because it would have been terribly overwhelming to meet with all those people for two solid hours in a room with Daddy's casket in it. 

My dad died on a Tuesday and the funeral was Saturday afternoon.  That left three solid days of visitation at my mother's house.  Mitchell was with me that day he passed and he stayed out of work the rest of the week to support my mother and I.  I don't know how I could have gotten through it without him but having him there posed a potentially higher level of awkwardness when meeting my father's friends and relatives.  Worried as I was over how some of them would react to the fact that I had transitioned, I was also afraid having "the boyfriend" there could have made it worse.

Mama never worried about anything like this.  She almost seems proud of the fact that I am trans.  She definitely felt that way when I first came out to her.  She describes her feeling as one of wanting to get on a rooftop and tell the world about me.  She was just happy to finally see me happy and finally know what the deal was with me.  We had to have many "talks" before she pretty much realized that unless someone already knew, or had to know, we didn't need to tell them my life story.  Now things are more normalized and she is happy to simply tell people I am her daughter.

*****

It was Wednesday, the day after Daddy passed away, and they started coming.  The doorbell would ring and there would be somebody with cookies, fried chicken or just a hug and an "I'm sorry."  Part of my duties for the week were keeping up with all the people that brought food or sent flowers by writing them down in a little book.  Later I would send them all thank you notes, and I wrote a lot of thank you notes.

Because there were no set times for people to show up, the doorbell might ring at any time from morning through early evening.  Already in a state of grief and going through daily life at mom's house for the week with my dogs and Mitchell, I wasn't always at my best when people would show up.  I might be having breakfast after having just gotten out of bed, just back from a walk with the dogs or in the middle of a good cry.  It didn't matter, the bell kept ringing.  Half the time I didn't have on makeup, my hair was a mess and had on shorts and tennis shoes from walking. 

Sometimes I was in the shower and missed certain visitors.  Mama was vigalant  and even though these were probably the hardest few days of her life, she pulled her strength from deep within and played the part of the perfect hostess all day.  I don't think she missed a single person that came by the house. 
A few times Mitchell and I walked down the stairs and there would be a room full of people.  I felt sort of awkward sometimes because I thought that at least some of these people either did not understand me or did not approve of me.  What I have to tell you is that, with only 2 exceptions, I was treated nicely by everyone on our visitation list. 

Maybe they felt sympathy or were just being kind.  Maybe it was out of respect for my father and/or mother.  Maybe, like I have come to accept and believe, people in this town generally and genuinely accept me now for who I am. They seemed to accept my relationship to Mitchell as well.  He is quite the talker and a very personable man.  That's part of why Daddy liked him so much but I really believe he impressed a lot of people that week.


I was meeting a few of these people for the first time but I'd met the majority of them at some point in my life.  It was funny, but some folks I hadn't seen in many years and knew distinctly came up to me and introduced themselves as if this was the first time we'd met.  Perhaps this was their way of dealing with my new identity and I respect that.  Others treated me like they'd known me as Tammy all along and a few others had to get an explanation from Mama as to what was going on.  Most just took me at face value and were kind with their words.

There was one elderly couple that I hadn't seen in many years.  The wife talked to me extensively but her husband seemed to be having trouble understanding who I was and who I used to be.  He was also hard of hearing so that made Mama's attempts to explain me to him quite interesting.  I think eventually she gave up. 

The women were definitely much more talkative and sympathetic to me than the men.  Many of the husbands would speak to me briefly but their wives would talk my ear off.  The crowd was generally older or elderly and included many of the genteel society class of the town.  The only 2 people who gave off bad vibes and barely acknowledged me were two of my male cousins.  These were people who I knew would never make an attempt to understand me much less accept me.  They are from my mom's side of the family and we were never close to that side because of an old family dispute over an inheritance.  It's just as well because I consider much of that family, especially those two, the redneck side.

Overall the days passed quickly.  I actually think having to relate to so many people almost constantly sort of quelled the actual grief.  This was probably more true of my mother than anyone else.  She is always the quintessential southern hostess and has on more than one occasion put on the happy, social face when times are difficult. 

*****

One evening after everyone had left, Mitchell and I went to the mall to try to find me a dress for the funeral.  I hadn't been able to find the right dress in my previous half-hearted searches, but this was crunch time and we had to find something.  I had a couple of black dresses that might have worked but I felt like they weren't quite appropriate.  With Mitchell's help we found the right dress in fairly short order and then went to another store to buy a pair of shoes to go with them.  For someone who loves to shop, I really hated having to buy those things.

Saturday came and it was time for the funeral.  My friend Vicki from Atlanta, one of the administrators in my TBN groups, made the drive up and brought her spouse with her.  I really wasn't expecting any of my friends to show up but here Vicki drives all that way, stayed at a hotel overnight, and attended the funeral.  I'd never met her in person but she and her spouse Rhonda not only hit it off with Mitchell and I, but made instant friends with my mom. 

Mama is such a warm, open and sharing person that everyone who meets her loves her.  She'd only met a couple of my trans friends before but she seemed eager to meet more and hear their stories.  I also was surprised at the funeral when 3 more of my friends showed up.  They got to meet Mama too, after the funeral, and we had our own little get together when the rest of the crowd left that night.  I really think having my friends there made Mama's day and helped take the edge off a very painful event.  Even though it was a difficult period, we had a good time.
My friends Donna, Sabrina, Rhonda and Vicki, along with my mother and I, at Mama and Daddy's house after the funeral.
The funeral itself had been hard.  I cried almost the entire time.  The pastor that delivered the sermon read extensively from my father's obituary that I'd written and took up half a page in the newspapers.  There were a couple of references to how much he loved his daughter and no references to his ever having had a son.  The service seemed to drag on forever but was over much too quickly.  When it ended we had to file out from the first row and walk to the back of the chapel while everyone stood up, watching.  We had been kept in a back room with the close friends and family before the service  and now we walked straight to the limo outside, so we really didn't get to interact with anyone at the funeral.

I was in a daze when we walked down the aisle to the car.  I was aware that everyone was looking at us but my tear stained eyes focused on the door.  I did catch a glimpse of maybe 2 people I recognized but I didn't attempt eye contact.  It was like a surreal bad dream and I've had similar feelings in nightmares.  Having Mitchell there to hold my hand made all the difference and allowed me to successfully navigate those painful steps.

The next stop was the cemetery where a smaller group of people showed up for a fairly brief graveside service.  It was a hot, bight sunny day and Mama and I wore sunglasses.  Daddy had a military funeral and before that day I didn't know exactly what that meant. 

There were a couple of men there from the VA and at the end of the service they played taps and took the flag off the closed coffin.  Ceremoniously, they folded the flag in the silence after taps was over.  They were very meticulous and when they'd folded the flag into a tight triangle one of them men walked over to me, leaned down and said Tammy this is for you.  Then the preacher said the service was over and family would be available to greet the funeral goers.  Getting that flag was an unexpected joy, but at that moment it brought a flood of tears.


The flag from Daddy's funeral, on display at my home.
We stuck around a little while.  I spoke to several people, some distant family, who had not come by the house.  My friends were there in a little group and I talked to them briefly and they got to meet a few of the others as well.  I wondered if anyone noticed or thought anything about the little transgender group, as I am pretty much out around this town anyway, especially after this event.  I'd gotten to a point where I really didn't care what others think and I was just glad to have friends that actually cared enough to show up.  None of my friends from my old life showed up or even called during this time period.  The one friend I still have here from those old days said his wife wouldn't let him attend. 

*****

So here I am, living my life in my little city.  I never thought I could be happy here and never dreamed I could transition here.  One of the main reasons for that was that my father was too well known and I felt like the conservative, southern society people would never accept me.  I think part of dad's legacy is leaving me a place here where I can fit in.  People had enough respect for my father The Judge that they are willing to give me a fair shake.  Either that or I am making it on my own, or both.

My lifestyle now is just presenting as any other woman.  I am not in your face about being different and I blend in (for lack of a better word) pretty well.  The people here are more accepting than I thought they would be, as I found out during the time of Daddy's funeral.  Truthfully though, in a city of almost 60,000 people there are not that many that know me or know who I am.  Most of my daily life I fit in just like anyone else.  If people can tell I'm different they don't let on and I am treated normally.  It's almost boring, lol.

I am coming to the realization that Rocky Mount isn't such a bad place to live.  It's not a good place to find a good job because most of the industry is gone, but the cost of living is low and the quality of life is pretty high.  We are even getting a little culture coming in with some museums, a new beer brewery and some nice new restaurants that aren't chain franchises.

There are some things that bother me about this town.  The Southern Baptists are highly ingrained here.  They are not the most accepting lot and their leadership even issued a statement this year opposing transgender people.  I will say that I socialized with Southern Baptists over the course of our visitation week and everyone was nice to me.  I do realize that some of it is southern "bless her heart" hospitality and some was based on the occasion and respect for my parents.  Some people talk disparagingly behind my back, I realize that.  They are not the people that I associate with or want to associate with so I'm not going to let that worry me.

Being in the south, and not the most cosmopolitan city, there is still an air of underlying bigotry here that bothers me.  It really doesn't affect me directly but I am beginning to speak out against it and not sit silently as I have all my life.  Being Me is bringing an empowerment I'd never known before.  I don't feel like I have to sit idly by when disparaging remarks are made about gays, minorities or even trans people.  This town will eventually make it into the 21st century and I hope to live to see it happen.  On a positive note, I will say that this ingrained racism seems more subtle now and not as prevalent as it was 20 years ago when it wasn't uncommon to hear the N word used by white society.  We have a ways to go but progress has been made.  I am proud to say that I never heard that language in my home when I was growing up.

Before transition I called the area east of Raleigh "The Forbidden Zone," but now I feel I can make it here.  I can fit in with the people and finally feel comfortable enough within myself to freely interact with others.  Maybe I can even change some hearts and minds and bring a little bit of often needed enlightenment.  When people get to know someone like me maybe they will be more accepting of others who are different. 

My town isn't perfect but it is my town.  My mother is here and I need to stay here.  Life's not bad and I am enjoying it now.  Since I have roots here, and a home, I am going to find a way to make this place work for my life.  If I didn't realize it before, my dad's passing and all the people it brought me in contact with made me realize that I will be okay here.  Besides, Daddy is still with me here.  I now know that for sure and I will tell you about it later.  It's not much, but for us it is a little place called home.


I will leave you with a photo from the last time Mama, Daddy and I took pictures together.  Mitchell snapped this picture on Easter Monday, 2014.  This is how I want to think of my Daddy, laughing and having a good time with family.  He is with me now and tagging along on my journey, I know that to be true.  I hope he enjoys it as much as I do.....