I had a conversation with my mother this weekend about my 85 year old great-uncle who is having health issues. He's my mom's favorite uncle. He's only ten years older than she is so he was more like a big brother to her growing up than an uncle.

My uncle Van is a homosexual. He's not gay, he's not queer, and even though the entire family has known for decades, he's not out. If my mom even insinuates that she knows that he's gay and that it's okay, he emphatically denies it.

He grew up in a ridiculously small farming community in the Southern Tier of Western New York during the depression. He was in World War II... he didn't fight, but I've seen him break-down when recounting the horrors liberating German concentration camps. I'm not exactly sure what his role was, but I think it was some sort of administrative job.

After the war he moved to NYC. His first job was at Radio City Music Hall. Evidently in those days you could transition from a theater gig to a corporate job, because he made a name for himself as an executive at RCA and came up with some sort of innovation (I've never heard exactly what it was) that allowed him to retire handsomely in the mid 1960's.

My mom didn't see her uncle very much when he lived in New York. She visited once in a while and she said that he would always send her nice things... which was a treat for her since she was stuck on a dairy farm back upstate. She started seeing him again when he purchased a small farm in the Hudson Valley in the '60s. He lived there with his "gentleman friend", Charles. They named the farm, Johnny-Cake farm. They worked the land as more of a hobby than an actual money-maker... vegetables, berries, a few animals here and there.

Eventually, my uncle and Charles sold Johnny-Cake and moved to the Poconos to another small farm-house that they named Sweetbriar. This is the place that I remember visiting. It was a beautiful little Colonial house surrounded by perfectly manicured lawns and gardens. I remember a house filled to the brim with antiques and oddities. I could play for hours with his stereopticon or collection of toys and board games from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I always felt good on visits to see Uncle Van and Charles… it was not heavy and oppressive like a trip to my Grandparent’s house.

In the early 1990’s Charles passed away. My mom went to help my Uncle pack up the house so he could move to his winter house in West Palm permanently. I didn’t go on this trip, but I’ve talked to her about how hard it was for her to console her closest relative about the death of his lover when he would absolutely not acknowledge that he and Charles were partnered. My mom returned from Sweetbriar with boxes of antiques that my Uncle had wanted her to give to me... My favorite was the stereopticon as well as several framed prints of Pan chasing various Greek ladies... and even a man in one!

After I came out to my mom we talked about her uncle a lot. She talked to him about me being queer in hopes that he would open up to her when he saw how accepting she was of me. He didn’t open up… and unfortunately even made the mistake of trying to “console” her about me being queer… something that she didn’t take too well.

Over the last couple of months Uncle Van has been suffering from various ailments. My mom and one of her sisters moved him from the assisted living he was in to my Aunt Linda’s spare bedroom. Because of his condition, my Mom had to go to his apartment and gather his belongings and bring them to his new residence. She called me last weekend to tell me about the extensive collection of gay porn videos she found in one of the boxes. I actually had my mom read me some of the titles just to make sure that there wasn’t anything important from the 70’s or anything. This was by far one of the best conversations I’ve ever had with my mom… listening to her describe the guys on the porn tapes… “Ohh... ‘Backdoor Boys’ has a really handsome man on the front with a spiral perm”… almost too much for me to handle! I told her to keep an eye out as she continues to go through his things for any porn on film instead of video.

Porn aside, what I was really interested in was a shoebox that my mom was telling me about. She discovered a box filled with snapshots from decade’s worth of parties and outings. My Uncle and Charles were in many of the shots with various friends over the years. There were shots of them embracing on vacations, laughing at parties, and obviously being in love. There are groups of people that, according to my mom, are all very gay. It’s as if my Uncle’s whole gay life is stashed away in that shoebox… everything that he was afraid to share with his family or anyone except for his select group of friends ended up in the box.

This morning my friend Jesse sent me a link to an amazing article in today’s Times about Casa Susanna… Tito Valenti’s cross-dressing retreat in the Catskills. It got me thinking about Uncle Van’s shoebox. I wonder if he crossed paths with Valenti… I wonder if any of his closeted friends from back in the day partied up at the retreat.

I can’t wait to see the photo’s next time I go home. I also feel like I really need to attempt to communicate with Uncle Van... it would mean so much to me to be able to talk openly with him about his experiences. I want to hear about hay life in NYC in the 40’s… I want to know about pre-Stonewall NYC. I just know for sure that he has a wealth of information that I want to hear form him firsthand before it’s too late.

Anyways… thanks Jesse. Here’s a link to the article… it’s worth a read for sure. It’s got my head swimming in a sea of Scrabble in housedresses and Town Sheriffs in bad wigs. And of course... made me think of Uncle Van.


Blogger Joe said...

What a wonderful post! Thank you.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

so whats the story with porn on film, rather than video?

I have a shelf full of old 8mm & Super8mm films. Should I be treating them better?

1:45 PM  
Blogger circleinasquare said...

It's so clear in the old family photos which of us were
"in the life". Never mentioned, never discussed, even now.

7:34 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Great post, kid. :)

Miss ya!

3:36 PM  

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