Tatters of Clearness Through the Fog
By Joy Fisher
Fog swirled at the windshield like an army of enraged phantoms defending the road ahead. My father slowed down and switched on the Studebaker’s low beams so drivers on the other side of the two-lane road could see us approaching.
It was 1955, and this was the phenomenon known in Southern California as the “June gloom.” Marine fog rolled in from the ocean in thick waves as the land began to heat up while the ocean was still cool. Dad strained to see the white “fog line” painted and just visible on the road ahead, the only way he could be sure we were still on the road.
In the back seat, I performed a 13-year-old’s squirm, impatient to get to our destination. My parents were driving me down to Oceanside, north of San Diego, so I could stay with my Aunt Gerri, my mother’s “baby sister.” Aunt Gerri had lived with us for awhile in Ohio, taking care of me right after I was born. “You were small enough to fit in the palm of my hand,” Aunt Gerri told me once. I liked to think we had a special relationship because she was my first caregiver and my godmother.
That was before the family began its serial migration to California. My parents and I didn’t follow the family trail west until 1954. It had been years since I’d spent time with Aunt Gerri, and I could hardly wait.
Gerri was born in Helvetia, Pennsylvania, a coal mining town that no longer exists. Her parents were immigrants to the United States. Her father, disabled in a mining accident, could no longer work by the time Gerri was born in 1922, the ninth surviving child born to a woman whose most fervent wish—to be a nun—had been frustrated because her family couldn’t afford to pay the dowry demanded by the Catholic Church in Poland.
After the family moved to Ohio, Gerri’s still-devout mother insisted that she attend St. Casimir’s, a parochial school affiliated with a Catholic Church in a predominantly Polish neighborhood in Cleveland. High-spirited—she’d rather play baseball with the boys than tic-tac-toe with the girls—Gerri was constantly in trouble with the nuns. One broke her finger with a ruler.
That was not the only disfigurement she suffered there. When she was 14, without consulting Gerri’s parents, school administrators sent her to the hospital, where doctors removed some cartilage from the bridge of her nose in a misguided attempt to cure her sinus problems. When I heard about it, years later, I was astonished that school administrators could do such a thing without consulting a child’s parents. I guess times were different then. Or maybe they thought they had the right because Gerri’s family was poor and her parents spoke broken English. Anyway, they did it, and from then on, Gerri was stuck with a “ski-slope” nose resembling Bob Hope’s.
What Gerri lacked in looks, she made up for in intelligence. In the parlance of our family, Gerri had a “good brain on her.” She wanted to go into nurses’ training, but she couldn’t afford it until World War II brought steady factory work, and a chance to save some money. In 1947, when she was 25, Gerri entered training at Cleveland Metropolitan Hospital, where she met Phyllis. They struck up a friendship, and Gerri brought Phyllis home to meet the family.
Phyllis embodied a classic beauty: an oval face like a Botticelli Madonna, arching eyebrows over calm blue eyes, voluptuous red lips. Everyone was drawn to her. Eventually, Phyllis got engaged to my cousin Wally, the son of Gerri’s oldest sister. The family was delighted. Gerri was engaged to a man named Joe Daris in those days, a dark-haired, delicate, sloe-eyed man. Everyone in the family liked Joe, too. The two couples double-dated. The family expected Joe and Gerri and Phyllis and Wally to get married after “the girls” finished nurses’ training.
But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, a rather curious thing happened. After Gerri and Phyllis finished their training, they both broke their engagements and ran away to California, together.
The passage of time can have the same effect on memory as marine fog has on the view of the road. When you see fog move against a backdrop, Annie Dillard says, you don’t see the fog itself, but tatters of clearness through a pervading obscurity. My memory of my 13th summer with Gerri and Phyllis, nearly 70 years ago, is like that.
One night, I remember, Gerri and Phyllis took me to see The Lady and the Tramp, a Walt Disney movie. It was the story of a pampered cocker spaniel (“the Lady”) and her adventures with a resourceful stray mongrel (“the Tramp”). The Lady and the Tramp was the first animated film released in wide-screen Cinemascope, so adults and children alike flocked to it. A memorable Disney production, the iconic “kiss scene,” where the two dogs touch muzzles while delicately eating the same strand of spaghetti, can still be found on the internet. The film had a traditional Disney happy ending, with Tramp adopted into Lady’s home. Peggy Lee sang He’s a tramp, but I love him in her sexy, sultry voice. The Lady and the Tramp was pitch-perfect for a 13-year-old American girl of the 1950s.
I think Gerri and Phyllis would have gone to see The Lady and the Tramp even if I hadn’t been staying with them. They had several dogs of their own. The “kids,” Gerri called them. The largest and most memorable of the kids was a Dalmatian named Two Bits who, like so many of that breed, combined a cheerful disposition with the intelligence of a mottled moth. My memory of the rest of them—it seems to me there were about five or six—is less precise than my memory of Two Bits. It seems to me they were smaller. It seems to me they were all very young and energetic. Gerri fussed over them and cuddled them and gave them treats and pats on the head. Even Two Bits was a lapdog, allowed to stretch out on top of Gerri on a La-Z-Boy recliner, paws the size of a child’s fists dangling over the sides.
Another night, Gerri and Phyllis took me grunion hunting. Some people who are not from Southern California don’t believe grunion exist; they think a grunion hunt is a regional version of a snipe hunt, a practical joke inflicted on inexperienced campers.
But grunion do exist along the coast of Southern California; at least they did in the 1950s. Small silvery fish five or six inches long, they swam out of the ocean on certain dark summer nights that could be predicted a year in advance, wriggling up the broad beaches at high tide to lay their eggs in the sand. Early Spanish settlers gave them a name that means “grunter” because of the faint squeaking noise they made while they were spawning.
It’s quite a sight, a grunion run. First one or two fish come in on a wave and strand themselves on the beach. Then others come, then more and more, until the beach is covered with small, flipping bodies, digging into the sand, squeaking in the exertion and ecstasy of reproduction. The female twists herself tail-first into the wet sand up to her pectoral fins and lays her eggs; then the male curls around her like a lover and releases his milt to fertilize her eggs. In a flash, he’s gone, as males sometimes are, on the next wave. Then the female jerks herself free from her sandy tryst pit and she, too, rides a receding wave back into the ocean.
If, that is, she isn’t grabbed and stuffed into someone’s sack, killed by a rock to the head, or decapitated, or carried home to be scaled and gutted and de-boned, fed to the cats or sautéed in butter and lemon. Now I see it from a much different perspective, but when I was 13, I thought grunion hunting was the most exciting adventure I’d ever had.
Covered with tell-tale patches of wet sand from our ambush on the beach, the three of us, victorious, marched away from the killing shore, our gunny sacks stuffed with our doomed captives. Phyllis, a beach towel tied around her shoulders like a cape, strode ahead, a warrior princess leading her devoted foot soldiers home in triumph. She seemed like a goddess to me, Athena, maybe, or Diana the hunter. Gerri and I both adored her.
One night, Gerri and Phyllis asked me whether I’d like to go with them to a party at the home of some friends. I was thrilled they would include me. Then they sat me down at the dining room table for a serious talk. One of their friends was a bit different, Gerri began. She’d been very poor when she was a little girl; she never had any pretty clothes to wear, so she started wearing boys’ clothes. When she grew up she continued to wear men’s clothes because, by then, she was used to that way of dressing.
“When you meet her, you’ll think she’s a man,” Gerri cautioned me, her lively coffee-colored eyes uncharacteristically solemn. “But she isn’t a man; she’s a woman. Her name is Lucy. Promise me you’ll remember that.” A little puzzled, I promised, and off we went.
The party was in a stucco tract house not unlike that of Gerri and Phyllis, perhaps a little larger. When we arrived, the living room and dining room and kitchen were crowded with laughing, exuberant women not unlike Gerri and Phyllis. For the most part, the faces of these women are a blur now; it wasn’t long before I was overwhelmed, forgetting everyone’s name. But I remember that they welcomed me with a smile, touched my shoulder lightly as they might that of a younger sister. It was not unlike my own family gatherings, where my mother’s sisters dominated center stage while the husbands they’d married and brought into the family remained respectful and quiet on the sidelines. Only here there were no husbands.
At some point, I looked up and was startled to see a man walking toward me. What was a man doing here in this crowd of women? I wondered, disoriented. And then I remembered. Gerri had been right. When I saw Lucy, I did think she was a man, even after Gerri’s cautioning.
Lucy had short-cropped black hair, prominent cheekbones, large brown eyes with a steady, indomitable gaze. She wore a black, man’s suit, men’s shoes, a shirt and tie. Gerri introduced us. Lucy gave me an amused, challenging, but not unkind look. Was my mouth hanging open? I can’t remember; but I do remember that I couldn’t stop staring at her. I’d never seen anyone like her. She seemed completely self-assured, aware of the effect her appearance caused, proud of her magnetic attraction. She was, in a word, magnificent, and, somewhere, below the level of consciousness, vague yearnings that I had no name for stirred into existence.
Later, under the covers in Gerri and Phyllis’s guest room, as light from the street lamp outside leaked around the edges of the Venetian blinds and transformed the room into grey half-tones, the impressions of the previous days washed over me. I lay there in the hushed, grey night and thought about Gerri and Phyllis together in the other bedroom, perhaps exchanging confidences, laughing quietly about some memory known only to the two of them. I thought about Lucy in all her magnificence and mystery and about Phyllis and her majestic, triumphal march home after the grunion hunt. I imagined Phyllis getting up from the bed in that other room in the middle of the night, opening the door of their shared bedroom, gliding noiselessly through the common areas of the darkened house to my bedroom door. I willed her to come to me, to open my door slowly, quietly, in secret, to walk into my room, crouch down beside my bed, look deep into my brown eyes with her calm, clear blue ones, bend over and kiss me full on the mouth with those voluptuous lips of hers.
I don’t know how long I lay there, waiting, before I fell asleep.
Something happened at the end of the summer that, to my 13-year-old mind, seemed unexpected and terrible. There was a disagreement. I don’t remember what it was about exactly. Some opinion I voiced, I think. I talked back, probably. My mother always did think I was “mouthy.” I refused to back down. I remember that Gerri tried to reason with me for a long time, tried to convince me that I was wrong. I couldn’t see it. I stood my ground. Finally, she lost patience.
“If that’s how you feel, then have it your way,” she snapped. “I give up.”
I thought she meant she was giving up the fight. I thought she meant I had won. What she meant was that she was giving up on me. If I were going to be that stubborn, that unreasonable, that wilfully disrespectful of adults who, after all, knew better than I, then I wasn’t worth her time and effort. I didn’t realize it right away, but my godmother had resigned her post; it was the last time I was ever invited to stay with Gerri and Phyllis.
I saw them at family gatherings for awhile. Thanksgiving, Christmas. But things weren’t the same. The closeness, the special connection, was cut. Then something happened that ended even that minimal contact.
In 1954, the Technicolor musical White Christmas had been released. One of the songs in the film was the Sisters song by Irving Berlin. It had catchy lyrics that lingered in popular memory: Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters, it started. Many men have tried to split us up but no one can. It ended: Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister, and Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man.
There was always a lot of drinking and singing at our family Christmases. One Christmas while the Sisters song was still popular, Gerri and Phyllis leaned their heads together, Gerri’s wavy chestnut hair pressed against Phyllis’s fine sandy locks, and they sang a version that turned Irving Berlin’s final warning upside down. In their version, one of the lines went: Sister, sister, who can come between me and my mister...
At the time, I just thought they’d mixed up the lyrics, but someone in the family must have picked up on the implications. I don’t know what was said, but I can imagine it now: they were “the girls;” the family treated them like any other couple, but the nature of their relationship had to remain unspoken; not a word, not a hint that they were anything other than roommates and friends could be uttered.
For many years after that, Gerri and Phyllis spent their holidays elsewhere, travelling or with their friends. That was how they protested their oppression: they dropped out of the family. In the meantime, after that one magical summer, I had reverted to full heterosexual mode, dating boys, going steady, making out in the back seats of cars. If my family disapproved, they didn’t say anything.
About 10 years after my 13th summer I was working as a newspaper reporter in Las Vegas, Nevada. One day I got a call from my mother. Phyllis had moved out. Did I know why? How would I know? I asked, indignant. I reminded her I hadn’t had any contact with Gerri and Phyllis for years. Gerri was taking it very badly, Mom said, but she wouldn’t talk about it to the family. The family was trying to be supportive, but nothing seemed to work; the family didn’t understand why she was so depressed or what to say to her. Why didn’t I give her a call? Mom urged. She reminded me that Gerri was my godmother, and that we had a special bond. I thought about how Gerri had abandoned me when I was 13—that’s how I thought of it, that she had abandoned me—and decided not to call.
Much later, I heard that Gerri had moved in with a woman named Betty, a physical education instructor who taught at San Diego State. They were living in Betty’s house in San Diego. Gerri and Betty began to come to the family’s holiday gatherings. They became “the girls.”
Time passed. I got married. I joined the women’s movement. I came out as a lesbian. I left my husband. I was more outspoken than ever. “Closets” were for clothes, not people, I insisted. My family was scandalized, exasperated.
If I expected support from Gerri and Betty, I was sadly mistaken. They were as horrified as the rest, perhaps more so. Why did I have to be so blatant? Why couldn’t I just be who I was and shut up about it? They were wary; I was scornful. The cultural disparity between our generations kept us apart. It would be many years before I would come to appreciate the courage it took for them to live their lives, albeit in secret, during a time much more punitive than my own.
Then one day Gerri called unexpectedly. She told me Phyllis had died. She’d been diagnosed with cancer and had died within days. Gerri implied Phyllis had ended her own life. She was a nurse, after all; she knew how to do it, and she wasn’t the kind to stick around for a slow, lingering death. Even after all the years that had passed, Gerri was distraught. So was I. Maybe Gerri felt she couldn’t talk about it to Betty, couldn’t show how much it affected her, that it would seem disloyal. Maybe she needed to talk to someone who would understand, who shared her feelings. Maybe she remembered that I had adored Phyllis, too, when I was just 13. Maybe that’s why she called me.
After we commiserated with each other for awhile, I told Gerri about the phone call I’d gotten from my mother while I was living in Las Vegas. What had happened to split them up, I asked, after all their years together?
It was an old story. One I knew from my own experience by then: another woman.
Gerri had pleaded, but Phyllis had fallen hard. She moved out of their little stucco house, moved in with the other woman. Gerri refused to accept it; kept calling, begging, pleading for her to come home. One day, in desperation, Gerri had said, over the phone: “What about the kids? How can you desert them?” It was irrational, of course. The “kids” were dogs after all, old and infirm by then, but it was the only argument Gerri had left.
The next day, when Gerri came home from work, the “kids” were missing. The yard was empty. Gerri searched the neighborhood, but no one had seen them. She called the pound, but they weren’t there. She was frantic. Then she called Phyllis and learned that, while she’d been at work, Phyllis had come to the house, herded all the dogs into her VW bus, taken them to the vet and had them all “put to sleep.” The kids were gone.
“That’s when I knew it was over,” Gerri told me; “that’s when I knew Phyllis was never coming back.”
It broke Gerri, not just her heart, it broke her spirit. It shocked her to the quick, the violence of it. It was a long time before she recovered, a long time before she could venture out into her social world again. Eventually she made new friends, went to a party at Betty’s house, stayed after everyone else had left. Betty had taken her in. Years passed.
Gerri sighed. Even after all the years, she told me, even after what Phyllis had done, even though Gerri was with Betty now, some part of her still missed Phyllis. Missed her or the memory of what they’d had together, or of what she thought they’d had together.
“Lord knows I loved that girl,” she told me. “Oh, how I loved that girl.”
Maybe Gerri just needed to say that to someone, and she knew it was safe to say it to me. I like to think that. I like to think that, after a lifetime of being silenced, she trusted me enough to share those feelings with me.
Gerri’s words made her visible to me in a way she had never been before. Like an ultrasound that penetrates the flesh and reveals the beating heart that gives us physical life, her words uncovered the feelings that gave life to her spirit. My godmother had disclosed her love and, despite our generational differences, I felt the strength of our kinship. It seemed to me then that we were part of a Great Chain of Being of women-who-love-women, a chain stretching back to the days when god was a woman and ahead until the last women perish from the Earth.
We did have a special relationship after all, my godmother and I, if only for those few minutes. At least, I like to think so.
Gerri’s dead now. She died of Alzheimer’s in June of 1999, four days after her 77th birthday. Betty kept her at home as long as she could, until Gerri started wandering, until Betty had to get n the car and drive around and around until she found Gerri, walking as if she were searching for something important she’d lost but couldn’t quite remember.
When Betty couldn’t keep her safe at home anymore, she found Gerri a cheerful little private care home, a house painted pink, a well-kept yard planted with flowers. The yard was surrounded by a tall wrought iron fence to prevent the inhabitants from wandering away. Betty took me to visit Gerri there once when I was in town.
By then, Gerri had lost the ability to speak. I don’t think she remembered me, but she still recognized Betty. Like Phyllis, Betty had sandy hair and blue eyes, but those were the only attributes they shared. Betty was as butch as Phyllis had been femme: Charlton Heston to Phyllis’s Lana Turner. I’d often wondered what had drawn Gerri to someone so different from her previous partner. That day I found out.
We took Gerri for a walk in the neighborhood, Betty on one side, I on the other. The sun shone down from a clear blue Southern California sky as the three of us marched past front yards blazing with brilliant red hibiscus and emerald green lawns. Gerri seemed indifferent to the spectacle of color surrounding us. But when we brought her back, escorted her safely inside and said goodbye, Gerri trailed us to the front door. She wanted to come with us. She was insistent, clawing at the doorframe, making incomprehensible, desperate sounds.
Was she afraid of being abandoned again the way Phyllis had abandoned her? I couldn’t ask, not in front of Betty; and Gerri, literally now, couldn’t say. I looked as deeply as I dared into her eyes, but there was no answer there. The tangles in her brain had drawn a veil between her mind and the outside world; they guarded the threshold to a private world no one else could fathom.
There was no bringing Gerri back from that place she now inhabited, no rescue; but there was still solace. In a soothing voice as reassuring as a solemn oath, Betty told Gerri she would come back to see her in the morning. I don’t know whether Gerri comprehended the words, but she understood Betty’s tone of voice, her trustworthy promise. Gerri’s agitation waned.
She let us go.