His Hands, His Tools, His Sex, His Dress: Lesbian Writers on Their Fathers


Cultural Writing. Poetry. Gay/Lesbian Studies. HIS HANDS, HIS TOOLS, HIS SEX, HIS DRESS examines the complicated and critical relationship between lesbians and their fathers and the way it permeates and shapes their lives. This collection of poems and essays by 23 critically acclaimed lesbian writers - including Tristan Taormino, Gretchen Legler, Karin Cook, and Holly Hughes - encompasses the breadth of American experience, white and black, Jewish and Catholic, wealthy and working-class and poor. HIS HANDS, HIS ...
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Cultural Writing. Poetry. Gay/Lesbian Studies. HIS HANDS, HIS TOOLS, HIS SEX, HIS DRESS examines the complicated and critical relationship between lesbians and their fathers and the way it permeates and shapes their lives. This collection of poems and essays by 23 critically acclaimed lesbian writers - including Tristan Taormino, Gretchen Legler, Karin Cook, and Holly Hughes - encompasses the breadth of American experience, white and black, Jewish and Catholic, wealthy and working-class and poor. HIS HANDS, HIS TOOLS, HIS SEX, HIS DRESS expresses all the love, power, and pain of the dynamic relationship between fathers and lesbian daughters. "At last, a book about the father-lesbian daughter reletionship -- the identifications, attractions, conflicts, and joys. A must read" -- Suzanne Lasenza, coeditor of Lesbians and Psychoanalysis.
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Editorial Reviews

Lesbian poets and writers, most of them American, contribute short autobiographical essays and poems, some of them explicitly sexual and most previously published. Reid (a writer) and Iglesias (a poet) co- edited an earlier volume on lesbian writers and their mothers. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781560232100
  • Publisher: Haworth Press, Incorporated, The
  • Publication date: 2/28/2001
  • Pages: 204
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Lover Brother Son

Linda Smukler

My daughter could have been my son a young boy with a crew cut and a t-shirt and little shorts a few brown-blonde curls at the nape of his neck I raise him alone protect and care for him this is my boy who is going to be tall and has a great catch mitt held high a good throw too we dress the same and he pleases me beyond anything I know later he will join me in my medical practice and I am the kind of father to him that my father never was to me I listen and do not impose my will then again he will be a poet and I will be a poet along with him he will take care of me when I am old and I will hold his children or I will hold him because he is also my brother my true comrade the best man at my wedding my brother does not drink or get angry he is not embittered he loves our mother despite her needs and diffuses our father's rage my brother takes my hand and helps me cross the street he teaches me to ride a two-wheel bike and reads to me on the grasses above Delphi he is my lover too he brings me berries and helps me plant my garden architects together living in a home designed and built by our own hands he travels with me on an Alaskan journey to study puffins he and the sky are more than either of us can bear the azure blue the beauty of it all we will cry together and not be ashamed he is present at the birth of my first son whom I name after him even though as Jews it is forbidden to name after the living only the dead

Cheaters at the Wedding

V. Hunt

My dad plays it casual, cool, a wry smile when I ask abouthisnew air-brushed license plate—The Legend—in smoky script, affixed below the car's elaborate grill. He reaches into the dove-gray leather console of the Cadillac Seville and pulls out a cassette. "Let me play you a tape somebody made me," he says. It's an answer, I know, to my question. Stevie Nicks comes on singing, "You could be my silver spring."

    He's just picked me up from the airport. I've flown home-alone-for my brother's wedding. "Laura couldn't make it?" my dad asks, lowering the volume. As he reaches for the knob, I notice a twine bracelet with several tiny black beads almost hidden beneath his watch.

    "Busy at work," I say, shrugging, trying to act like it's no big deal. Laura and I have been together eighteen years; it's been a long time since I've been anywhere without her, especially home. "You wearing bracelets now?" I ask, nodding toward his wrist. He pushes the beads back beneath his bulky metal watchband.

    "It's some kind of a luck thing," he says. "Once it's on there you gotta wait for it to wear itself off."

    "Next thing I know you'll have your ear pierced."

    My father rolls his eyes toward me. "Being a smartass don't become you," he says. He's hoping that will change the subject. I just smile, and he begins to fidget with his hair, combing his fingers nervously, almost womanly, through the thin pieces on top. I've never seen his hair so long. He retired from the Army years ago, but has always kept it regulation short. Now, despite the scalp poking through at the crown, the sides are bushier and the back isn't shaved as high. It's darker, too, but he's been experimenting with get-out-the-gray formulas for years. The tape changes to a new song and Bonnie Raitt comes on, singing, "I Can't Make You Love Me."

    "I like this song," I say. "Now who'd you say made this tape? I thought you were all George Jones and Reba McEntire."

    He smiles. "You don't know her," he says, and rubs his palms down his thighs, as if to dry his hands. The worn white creases in his jeans, ironed in with military precision, barely flatten beneath the pressure.

    We drive down Kingston Pike listening to the music. Now that I'm older I can finally see what others have always told me. No DNA tests needed; we're cut from the same piece of cloth. We've got the same unmistakably large nose, coarse hair, wavy when it gets too long, more freckles than anybody can count. But it's more than our looks; we're both cocky, assured, confident to a dangerous degree. When I was a kid, if I ran inside to tell my father that I'd been pushed down, he'd say, "So. When someone pushes me, that's my problem. When someone pushes you, that's yours. Go push him back." I did. "Don't start fights," my dad always said, "just finish them." I do.

    He never suggested that, as a girl, I should act differently than boys. Like most young soldiers, he had wanted a son, expected one, when my older sister was born. A few years later, when I came along, he was, like any father, delighted in my strong lungs, my dark red hair, my early swagger, but still disappointed in not having a boy. When one more try resulted in one more girl, well, it seemed time to go to Plan B. After all, his marriage to my mother was already shaky. He was downing beers at the bar each night until he knew the girls were asleep, while my mother took diet pills for her figure and birth control pills for everything else. Three girls would have to do. So my father picked, and I was chosen. I would be his son.

    My mother tried to talk me out of it, to distract me with expensive new dresses and a Barbie with her own set of wheels. She tried to point out subtle advantages to being a girl-bright colored sweaters, purses full of trinkets, men who'd give you a half dollar for a smile and a curtsey, but I wasn't convinced. Maybe I missed some Freudian stage, or got stuck in one, or maybe I just looked around and noticed that guys got a better deal. Boys could make money. They could mow lawns and have paper routes. They had sports equipment—helmets, pads, masks, gloves; uniforms. And they could get girls to wait on them. With just a kind word, a compliment, a you-sure-look-pretty-in-that-color, guys could get girls to bring them a Coke, finish a raking job, or run in the house and get them some gum. My sisters were perfect examples.

    In the summer, I would go to work with my dad, riding a bicycle through a giant military warehouse, stamping addresses on big pieces of machinery, while my sisters stayed home and cleaned toilets and vacuumed floors. My father threw the football with me, shot baskets, bought me high-top sneakers, and taught me how to tie a Windsor knot in a tie. All things I think he regretted when I came out. "It's my fault," he said. "Your mother warned me about letting you wear that tie."

    My mother had warned him about a lot of things to which he paid no attention—her waning interest in him, in us; her need to be more than a thirty-year-old mother of three. But discontent was common among soldiers' wives. None of us thought much of it as she slogged along for several more years, getting her girls raised, getting them old enough, for what, we weren't sure. Then, like a miracle, a curse, she was pregnant again, and this time gave my father his son, a parting gift. When she brought the new boy home, my father never seemed more happy; my mother never seemed more miserable. A week before my brother's second birthday, my mother filed for divorce. Wanting to limit her memories, and short on means of support, she left most things behind, including the kids. She took only a few photographs, some clothes she hadn't fit into for years, and a jewelry case made from a cigar box and painted macaroni that my sister and I had once made as a Mother's Day gift. Maybe if I'd known she would never be back, I would've asked about the swelling around my breasts, about something that had recently ruptured, the trickle of blood I'd found. She left, it seemed, just when my dad and I needed her most.

    After the shock wore off, after my sisters had learned how to handle all their new responsibilities, my dad and I both started dating, both looking for someone, anyone, to help us manage. No one was shocked, least of all my father, when, at the age of fifteen, I fell in love with a woman. He didn't approve of my first choice, especially since her husband took it so hard. But he knew, had been knowing, that I would need a woman's help. After several failed attempts at domestic life with one girl or another, he was truly happy for me, breathed a sigh of relief, when I met Laura. Still, when I first came out, my father had tried weakly to talk me out of it. "Girly love," he began, and I can't remember the rest. It was something he'd picked up from being around WACS. Something about the difficulties, the trials and tribulations of trying to love women. He seemed to know what he was talking about. Maybe I should've listened. But now it wasn't advice on loving women that I needed. I'd figured that out pretty well by myself. I needed to know how to cheat.

    The tape segued into Mariah Carey's "Dream Lover," a song I'd recently made afternoon love to in a Motel 6 just a few exits down the interstate from my house. That same song was on a tape that my other girlfriend had made for me. I looked over and it seemed like my dad was kind of mouthing the words: Take me up, take me down, take me any way you want to.

    I stared straight through the windshield. A few yards away was a sign for a bowling alley. "Want to bowl a few games?" I asked. I was on a league, and out-of-town bowling tournaments had proven handy excuses for spending time with my other girlfriend.

    He looked over. We both smiled. "They got a million things for us to do," he said.

    "Like what?"

    "The rehearsal dinner," he said. "Stuff at the fellowship hall."

    "Fuck 'em," I said.

    He laughed. "You'll get the girls all mad, then I'll have to deal with them." My sisters always complained that I skated through the hard work of slicing and dicing, only showing up to sprinkle on some parsley then wanting credit for the presentation.

    "Come on," I said, "it's early. They're going to get stirred up whether we're there or not." We were nearing the bowling alley. He slowed but didn't put on his blinker.

    He shook his head. "We shouldn't," he said, speeding up, looking at the bowling alley in his rearview mirror.

    "Getting like Robert," I said, the ultimate insult. It was agreed by all that my uncle Robert was PT-pussy-whipped. A more favorable spin was that April, his new young wife, kept him "fucked down." No doubt he'd become a different man since getting a divorce and remarrying. Everybody swore it wouldn't last, even if he was immature and April was thirteen years younger. My dad's latest wife was younger, too, or had been when he married her. She'd aged over the years and seemed somewhat dowdy now. She was content to stay home piecing quilts or making fig preserves while my father went off to car shows. At least that's where he told her he was going.

    "I'm telling," he said, slowing the car, preparing to turn around. "I'm telling them that it was all your idea."

    Inside, the bowling alley was dark, only a few lanes in use, men who might've slipped off from work a little early but weren't ready to go home, or maybe divorces with no place else to go. They barely looked up when we entered, intent on their rhythm, their scores. Behind the counter, a large man was reading a tabloid. The Weekly World News, an article about a man with a one-inch penis. There was a full-page picture of the poor guy standing nude beneath the caption, his hands delicately crossed to cover his crotch. On the facing page was a picture of him standing next to his smiling wife and several smiling children. The counter man set the paper aside with a grunt, sprayed anti-fungal in the shoes we rented, and pointed us to a lane on the far side of the alley, away from the men already bowling. We looked through the racks of balls, trying to find the right weight, the right fit. I bought us a pitcher of beer and we settled into our lane.

    We hadn't bowled together in years. We hadn't done anything together in years. I only went home regularly for Christmas nowadays, or for a special occasion, and always with Laura, always with a long list of places to go and people to see. My father and I rarely even found time for a drink together anymore. So it seemed fun to be bowling together in the middle of the afternoon when we were supposed to be somewhere else.

    Our rhythm was awkward through the first few frames. After missing a couple of easy spares, I took off the vest and bolo tie I'd worn on the plane, and rolled up my shirt sleeves to get more comfortable. My father went back to look for a different ball. His knuckles were knotty in places from arthritis, so he needed one with large holes. I noticed him wince sometimes as he gripped the ball. "You okay?" I asked.

    "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," he answered. "A little stiff." I couldn't help noticing the loose skin on his arms. Even in winter, he wore short sleeves, cuffed up a turn or two, a habit he'd developed to show off what had once been well-shaped biceps.

    We didn't talk much through the first game except to complain about the lanes, the warped spots in the floor, our tendency for nailing the head-pin, all the splits. In the end, I beat him by twelve pins. I went for a second pitcher of beer while he hunted for another ball, maybe one a little lighter.

    During the second game we were looser, rolling the ball hard, delighting in the pin action, even on misfires. We high-fived each other over unlikely pick-ups. I drained the second pitcher as my dad rolled three straight strikes to win. "One more," I said, waving the empty container. We were both feeling the effects of the beer, but it was part of the game. The next would be won or lost under tougher conditions, or maybe neither one of us would give a damn. We both seemed ready to give in. There were things I wanted to talk about, things more important than strikes and splits.

    "Hard to believe Scott's getting married," I said. We were bowling slower now, taking more time between each turn.

    My father reached behind him for his beer cup, took a sip, and shook his head. "Hope he knows what he's doing," he said.

    "She seems nice, a good family and all."

    "I reckon," he said, "but don't seem like Scott's sowed all the oats he should've by now. Know what I mean?"

    I nodded and shrugged, drying my hands on the blower as I waited for my ball to return. "Everybody's different," I said.

    "Not you and me," he said, absently poking the string bracelet back beneath his watchband.

    I smiled, turned and rolled my ball down the lane, picking up the pins I'd left.

    "Maybe he's smarter than us," I said, coming back to the seat beside him. "Maybe he knows how to keep it all working."

    My dad reached back for his beer cup again. "Nah," he said, "it's like this beer here. See them bubbles?" He nodded toward the small streak of foam at the top of his cup. "That's what makes beer good. But they don't last. Just watch it. Don't matter what you do, they bubble up, then pop and go flat."

    I didn't want to talk about beer. I wanted to talk about secluded parks where no one was watching as my hands roamed over and underneath, about little restaurants with pricey menus, romantic even at lunch. I wanted to know how to get the flush out of my face and the tingle from between my legs when it was time to go home. I wanted to know how to do it and not feel guilty.

    I looked at the beer he was holding, then at my own, almost empty, the bubbles gone. "Well, you just get you another one then," I said. "One that isn't flat."

    "That's right," he said, looking up at me. "That's what most of us do." He got up to bowl while I poured me another beer, splashing it into the cup, urging it up to a head. I stared at the foam popping against the rim, looking hard as if it might contain some message.

    We bowled the last few frames in silence, tired now, a little past drunk. We both missed several easy pick-ups, but only shrugged as our ball sailed silently by the pins and clunked into the return. I won, but not on a score to brag about. We took off our shoes slowly. Somber now, as if we'd pulled back the curtain on something we'd rather not have seen.

    "Want this last beer?" I asked, sloshing the last few inches around the bottom of the pitcher.

    "Better not," my dad said. "We've got enough explaining to do."

    There was a whirl of activity at the house. My sisters had never really gotten along with Betty, my dad's latest wife, and the friction intensified whenever they all got tangled in the same kitchen. One of my sisters was fretting over some sausage pinwheels that didn't seem to be rising. The red cabbage leaves, which had looked so pretty holding the various kinds of dip in the recipe cut from a magazine, looked droopy and sloppy as a centerpiece. Betty had burned the peanuts and the Chex mix tasted scorched. And as if all that weren't enough, my brother had waited until just now to tell my sister that she couldn't use champagne as dressing for her fruit salad because of his wife being a Baptist. My father simply strolled past the kitchen complaints, settled into his La-Z-Boy chair, clicked the remote until he found a war movie on TBS, then fell into a beer-induced doze.

    No one seemed to notice or care that we'd been gone too long. Over and over I assured everyone that Laura was all right; no, we weren't having problems; just busy, a lot going on with her job; she sends her best, sorry she couldn't make it. My brother seemed the most disappointed. "She should be here," he said. "You know, for the family pictures. The ones with everybody."

    "She wanted to, just couldn't right now," I said, thinking of the fight we'd had before I left. I had begged her to come with me. "Think how it will look," I said. "You've gotta do this for me, for my family. They'll freak, ask me a million questions. If you're not there, they'll know."

    "Well, you're good at lying," she said. "You'll think of something."

    "They'll be crushed," I said. "They'll be disappointed."

    "Just tell them you're a chip off the old block," she said. "They'll get it." Despite my pleading, she was adamant in her refusal but did offer to shop for a new outfit I could wear to the wedding. While I wandered in electronics and sporting goods, she scanned the racks in women's wear, wanting me to have something nice, something new, something I'd look good in, and the right kind of shoes. The night before I left, she arranged my clothes carefully—packaged soap, toothpaste, deodorant, and cologne—and tucked everything solemnly into a suitcase, like a wife packing for her traveling spouse who she knows takes off his wedding ring on the ride to the airport.

    I carried my suitcase in from the car. "I wanted you for best man," my brother said, following me down the hall and into the guest room. "I had it all planned, a tux and everything. But Tammy said the bridesmaid that had to walk up there with you would feel funny about it."

    "It's OK," I said. "I appreciate the thought." Actually that would've been great, perfect. I had agonized for weeks, finally trusting Laura's decision over the appropriate thing to wear.

    "I guess it's weird," he said. "But it's like we're brothers, you know. I mean, I've even got that same bad loop in my golf swing." He laughed, trying not to get too sentimental. It'd been a long week and it showed in the circles beneath his eyes. He flopped down wearily on the bed where I'd thrown my suitcase. There was an old quilt as a bedspread, a crazy quilt made without a pattern from whatever scraps could be found. He traced his finger over one of the patches, a blue plaid flannel that had probably been his pajamas. He stared up at the ceiling as I started pulling out clothes that I needed to hang up before they got more wrinkled. He rubbed his hands over his face, lingering near his eyes, trying to push back tears that seemed to keep gathering there.

    "I've warned you about taking up my ways," I said. "Cause you nothing but trouble."

    "But you've done it right," he said, raising up on his elbows. "I mean, in love. I told Tammy, `That's what I want, what they've got.' I mean the way y'all are, the way you've been so long." He looked toward me like I should tell him now, the secret, the words of wisdom that would make his marriage last in a family prone to divorce.

    "There's been ups and downs," I said.

    "Sure," he said, "I know, and just look at you."

    Yeah, I wanted to say, just look at me. Look at someone who hides credit card receipts for wine-drenched lunches and back-of-the-lot motel rooms; who checks the car upholstery for stray blonde hairs, and buries tapes full of sexy songs in the bottom of the console. Look at someone who dreams up lies about the time that got away; who parks the car in the driveway, gives the old lady a kiss with just-brushed teeth, and calmly complains that there's too much salt in the potatoes. I wanted to scream: For god's sake, don't be like me, like any of us.

    "I mean, I could ask Dad," he continued, flopping back, looking up at some invisible message on the ceiling. "But you know his track record." He waited for my response, and when there wasn't one, he rolled to his side and watched as I pulled out the conservative, smartly tailored, navy blue dress with a vest that Laura had bought for me to wear to the wedding. "Wow, you're wearing a dress?" My brother stared at the garment as if it were some brightly colored tribal costume.

    "When in Rome," I said.

    "The whole world's gone crazy," my brother said, sitting up and shaking his head. "I hope it's not some kind of sign or something."

    I wanted to stop his shaking head. I wanted to tell him everything, how easy it is to fail, to disappoint. Tell him about the look on Laura's face when she found the letters, the cards, the pictures I thought were well hidden in my desk. I wanted to talk to him like a sister, like a woman. I wanted him to hold me while I cried.

    My brother sat on the edge of the bed, pale, looking washed out against the swirl of colors in the quilt. He was waiting.

    "You've picked a good girl," I said, saying what I knew he wanted to hear. "You're going to have a good marriage."

    He smiled, looked at me hard, trying to see if I was lying, joking; if there was sarcasm in my eyes. I looked back as sincerely as I could, the steady gaze of a brother. Satisfied, he said, "I can't believe you're going to wear a dress."

    "Aren't you supposed to be somewhere practicing vows or something?" I asked, pushing him off the bed.

At the wedding, there was something dark about the church in spite of the bright poinsettias. A December wedding, Christmas plaid the featured color. The black, white and red blends of bows and cummerbunds made a bouncy contrast to the polished pine of the country church, but it all seemed falsely cheerful against the sheets of rain falling outside. As we waited for the ceremony to begin, a male-and-female duet sang hymns and Christmas songs to a karaoke machine. I looked around, almost wishing my mother would come busting down the aisle, dressed to the nines, and assume her place in the mother's pew. But no, even though invited, my mother wouldn't come. It had been over twenty-five years since she left. Perhaps we wouldn't even recognize her. She was the only notable absence; otherwise, the church was packed. Ushers escorted old ladies down the aisle, including my great-aunt Mamie, who everyone said had been my grandfather's mistress. The story goes that he couldn't decide between the sisters, so he married one and moved the other up the hill. She sat with the other widow women, a solid block about halfway back. Finally, the organ music started, the ceremony began. My father, the second choice, served as best man. My sisters cried uncontrollably. They dabbed wadded tissues around their eyes, trying not to ruin the make-up they'd spent hours applying. Mascara-free, I could've cried all I wanted. But I held up, brother-like, in spite of my dress.

    My dad stood at the edge of the altar like a sentinel, his eyes focused on some unseen object on the horizon, his shoulders squared, his thumbs in line with the seams of his trousers. There was a drop of sweat dangling from his nose, but standing at attention, he wouldn't wipe it. He'd gotten a haircut that morning, and there was something boyish in the clean razor lines above his ears, the crisp height of the tux collar. I looked, but couldn't tell if he was still wearing the string bracelet with the lucky beads. It was a rented tux, and the sleeves fell a bit long in the cuff. When the preacher shifted the bride and groom toward the center, my father used the opportunity to quickly mop the moisture from his face with a clean white handkerchief. A calm fell over the church as my brother began the solemn recitation of his vows. His voice was strong, full of conviction. There was no doubt. He believed in this love, this marriage. As my brother kissed his new bride, my father pulled out his handkerchief again and put it up to his eyes, catching a tear before it could roll down his face. I reached for the tiny blue clutch bag Laura had sent along, "just in case," and pulled out the hanky folded inside, allowing one small sob for all of us.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Lover Brother Son 14
Cheaters at the Wedding 15
from You're Just Like My Father 27
A Dad Called Mama 37
Duke 44
My Father 51
What Died with Him 55
Tzimtzum 69
Shooting the Moon 72
Monkey Boy 83
Tales of a Lost Boyhood: Dolls 84
from Clint Notes 87
My Father's Eyes 96
Blood 105
Distance 114
Mulberry Tree 118
Processions 123
Conversations with My Father 127
The Trouble with Horses 152
The Trouble with Boats 153
Because There Was Nothing to Do with the Hands 154
Earbobs 156
Pa 158
Just Like Him 160
Victoria Told Me Her Secret 168
Fishergirl 170
By-Pass 199
Contributors 201
Acknowledgments 205
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