Like it or not, the holidays are coming, and requisite awkwardness is sure to ensue. There's a very real chance that, at some point over the next two months, you're going to be spending time with members of your family. Triumphs and tragedies all under the rouse of mashed potatoes and Pinot Grigio. Think for a moment of all the uncomfortable, embarrassing, traumatic, happy and sad stories that have been dramatically revealed in years past at these gatherings. What are you feeling? Terror? Nausea? Ready to reach for the Xanax yet? Now imagine not only rehashing all these stories with your mother, but co-writing a book with her about your own ridiculous stumbles and painfully embarrassing foibles in your very personal journey to adulthood.
I've done it and lived to tell.
The result was Conversations and Cosmopolitans: Awkward Moments, Mixed Drinks, and How a Mother and Son Finally Shared Who They Really Are. The book begins with my coming out to my parents via U.S. mail -- not the smartest or most direct approach, but hey, I'm a writer, so that's what I do, I write. It's also how Mouse does it in Tales of the City, one of my all-time favorite books, written by Armistead Maupin. The reveal of my sexuality is certainly the jumping-off point but not the crux of the story. This unique memoir is the merging of two worlds: my 20-something gay life in New York City and my mom's empty nest back in a small Illinois town. People often ask if I'd describe this book as a coming-out memoir, and as much as this may disappoint some, the answer is no -- at least not in the traditional sense. Another writer, Robert LeLeux, of whom I'm a huge fan, described the book precisely when he said, "It deals honestly, affectionately, and originally with an experience that's central to our contemporary lives -- the struggle to know and love your parents and children exactly as they are." To which I'd add, "warts and all."
When I came out to my parents I wanted to let them know the real me -- all of me. However, selfishly, I never invested the time to get to know my mom and dad beyond their parental titles. At 21 years old, I arrogantly thought I would be the one teaching my mom who I was with my recent declaration. All of that changed when my mom began sharing her own very personal stories that I'd never known before. I quickly realized that I would once again be learning from her.
Let me be very clear: I grew up in a fairly strict household. While my mother is completely open-minded and loving, she is and always has been my mom first and foremost. She has never tried to play the "think of me like your friend" card. Because she isn't. My mom was not the "cool mom" of whom many of my other friends would boast having, the same ones who would let their kids drink wine coolers or Mad Dog 20/20 in the basement. These forward-thinking parents would attempt to explain to my mom, "If kids are going to drink, we'd rather that they be under our roof." Needless to say, I wasn't ever allowed to go to those friends' houses again. No, the "cool mom" moniker was never awarded to her. While other moms were piling groups of teenagers in the backseat of their minivans to toilet paper the neighbors' houses in a teenage expression of "harmless fun," my mother was more like an extension of the long arm of the law, a well-manicured one that is. She was the same woman who, while my father was away, went outside in her nightgown with a Louisville Slugger when some drunks were shooting out our porch lights with a gun. Instead of cowering, she told them she'd always loved playing softball as a kid and welcomed the opportunity to do so again by using their heads as the ball.
They promptly left.
Several years later in a loud Manhattan restaurant, after a lengthy conversation, and yes, a few cosmopolitans, my mother and I decided to embark on writing Conversations and Cosmopolitans in hopes that it might get other families to open a dialogue. The title was perfect considering the hundreds, if not thousands, of conversations I'd had with her about life. I'm also proud to say that my mom had her first (and second, third and fourth) cosmopolitan with me. We cemented our new venture with the clank of martini glasses.
The writing process was arduous, revealing, and sometimes emotional. I'd previously written two novels, so technically I'm the writer in the family, and yet it was my modest, Midwestern mother who prodded me to dig deeper when we were initially kicking around topics for this book. In fact, she was adamant about it. "Otherwise, what's the point of writing it?" she said when I was home visiting over Christmas. "There's hundreds of coming-out books. That's not us, and that's not the story that we're telling." I nodded politely and went back to my wine and sugar cookies, unsure if her approach was the best one. It wasn't until my flight home that I realized she was once again right.
Then again, that is my mother. She's never been preachy. She lives her life the best way she knows how and is authentic in pretty much every moment of her life. She is who she is. I've had two long-lasting, significant relationships in my adult life. During both breakups, after the initial jolt of heartache, the thing I heard almost immediately was, "I'm really going to miss your family, especially your mom." Typical. Even in my breakups, my mom manages to get the last word.
From my mother discovering midget porn in the linen closet of the apartment I shared with my then-boyfriend to the revelation that she, too, knew the face of discrimination while a pregnant teen, we talked, emailed, and texted about it at all. In a time when bullying is rampant and suicides of gay teens have become all too common, the hope behind this book is that no matter who you are or what your sexuality is, whatever you might be going through, there's always room for a conversation. And what better way to begin that talk than with the misadventures of my mom and I?
If the brilliant people behind the Awkward Family Photos franchise ever wanted to expand their brand beyond quirky images, I'd be happy to offer many of the topics from discussions with my own family. Perhaps they could call it Awkward Family Conversations.
I could write volumes.
Robert Rave is the co-author of Conversations and Cosmopolitans: Awkward Moments, Mixed Drinks, And How a Mother and Son Finally Shared Who They Really Are.