Tambourine Dancer

Rivka Solomon

"Busy tonight, Rivka?" Mom asked as she gathered up a half dozen economy-sized bags of generic potato chips in her arms. That was just like her, trying to grab hold of as much as she could.

"No," I answered hesitantly, picking up the two she dropped. I still couldn't believe that here I was, 15 years old, and I had nothing to do on a Saturday night. In my high school, in 1978, only the dorks were Saturday-night-stay-at-homes.

"Like to help at a fund-raiser for the theater? It's a women's party," my mom said.

A fundraiser? I'd thought the theater was going to close as soon as my parents separated -- a separation that was happening despite my tears and pleas. Maybe they just needed some cash to make it through the next month. That was the way it usually worked. The theater was always in the red; political experimental plays were popular, but they just didn't bring in the bucks. My parents could always throw another party to help pay for the bills for one more week.

I thought back to the one other all-women's party I'd been to a year earlier, when I was 14. I'd gone with my mom that night only because my friends were going to see Jaws and I'd already seen it twice. But I ended up having a good time. Carol, a rich doctor's wife, had rented a yacht in Boston Harbor with her girlfriend of 10 years. There were as many women in tuxes as there were in fancy dresses. At first I couldn't help but stare. But by the end of the night it was nothing special. Just a bunch of boring adults -- like always.

Thinking back to the good grub and loud music of that party, I told my mom, "Okay. But I don't care if it is a fund-raiser, you better pay minimum wage or I'll be an exploited worker."

"Ten bucks. But you can invite a friend if you want."

"Naw, that's okay." Was she crazy? My friends weren't ready for women in tuxes. It was only a few months ago in Junior High when kids were calling girls lezzies for acting weird -- or for nothing at all.

I threw on a T-shirt and jeans and jumped in the car.

By midnight, my work for the night -- collecting the cover charge at the door and filling the wine cups -- was over. The place was still packed. If there was a building fire code, we had long since violated it. The living room floor was dangerously creaking and rocking as over 100 women bounced up and down in time with the music. I saw a rare open seat on the sofa and grabbed it. I wasn't interested in joining the revelry on the dance floor. The party-goers were adults, too old for me to play with.

A stocky, almost chubby woman sat down on the arm of the couch right next to me. She was younger than many of the others but still older than me by about a decade. She had on cowboy boots and a leather vest.

She tapped her sternum and yelled over the music, "Cheri."

I nodded. I didn't feel like talking: "Rivka."

"You live around here?" Cheri asked as she played with the tassel on her boots.

"Sorta. A 15-minute drive."

"Need a ride home?" She grinned.

I shifted around in my seat. I was never comfortable when a guy hit on me and now I saw it wasn't much easier when the pursuer was female.

"That's okay. I'll get a ride home with my mom." I pointed to the woman in the black sequined jacket who was banging a tambourine above her head as she danced in the middle of a circle of women. She was the center of attention, setting the tone of the whole party.

Just then she looked up and beamed a smile my way.

"That's your mom!?" Cheri gasped and pointed.

I understood; she looked and acted too young to be my mom. I seemed too old to be her daughter. She was playful exuberance; I was stoic maturity.

"How old are you?" Cheri asked, skeptical.

"Fifteen." I said, hoping it would squash all thoughts of romance.

"Well, I'll be... "

"I'm gonna help with clean up now. Bye." I said, bolting. Cheri was still watching my mom dance.

At the end of the party, when the music was turned off and women were collecting their coats and getting ready to leave, I counted the cash. "$817.00!!" I declared with pride, as if I had donated it all myself.

"Excellent," the hostess said flatly. She was scraping hardened onion dip off the floor. My mom was standing by the stereo, gathering up paper half-empty cups of wine, cleaning out overflowing ash trays and talking to Cheri, of all people. Cheri was standing awfully close to my mother. I looked up just in time to see her hand brush over Mom's and then linger for a moment.

Gross. First me, now Mom.

"Party's over! Let's hit the road, Ma. Let's go! Let's go!" I yelled out across the room.

* * *

Behind my house -- the house 10 commune members called home -- there was a tent. That's where people went when they wanted to be alone, to escape the chaos.

"Come on! Where else can we go?" My new boyfriend nudged. He was brand new, days new.

"I don't think so." I knew what it would mean, and I wasn't ready. He was my first boyfriend, ever. It was only a week after the party, and already I had to face pressure, again, from someone who wanted something from me -- something I wasn't eager to give.

"Come on..." He took my hand and pulled. The rest of me reluctantly followed. Actually, I didn't know what would happen if I went with him into the tent. And I didn't know if I wanted to know.

I was pulled all the way to the canvas door. Jonathan pushed it aside as I stood at the entrance. He held the green cloth flap open as our eyes adjusted to the darkness inside. Then I saw what looked like movement.

"Oh! Mom! Sorry!"

"Oh. Rivka. No, that's okay... uh, Cheri, you remember Rivka."

"...Um, yeah. Hi, Rivka."

"Uh, hi. Um, this is Jonathan... Okay. Bye." I could have died.

"What was that?" Jonathan asked when we were almost out of earshot. He was rushing behind me, trying to catch up.


"Cheri? Who was the other one?"

"My mom."

"What were they doing?"

"I don't know. Let's go inside the house."

"Hey, is your mom a, you know, a lesbian?"

"Cheri's just a friend."

"Your mom does it with women? Awesome... Hey, if she's out here, can we go in your bedroom?"

* * *

It was awful. Awful. I had seen them on the floor of the big green tent, legs entwined. The tent, where you only went if you didn't want to be bothered, if you wanted to be alone. Even if it had been a man I would have hated it. But it wasn't a man, it was a woman. So, what did that mean? I didn't know, and anyway, it didn't really matter much who, just that it wasn't Dad.

It was all so confusing, especially because Jonathan had wanted to do just that with me. It was all around me, this sex thing, and I wanted nothing to do with it. At least they'd still had their clothes on.

* * *

Cheri's presence in my mom's life soon became a constant. She wasn't half bad, really, giving my mom cuddly stuffed animals until there was no room left on her bed. But I never forgave Cheri. How dare she: hitting on both daughter and mother in the same night! I carried this resentment with me into all my interactions, all my conversations with her. I also felt funny about Cheri being so young -- the age of an older sister, not someone my mother should be dating.

Looking back now as an adult myself, I wonder why it was these things that bothered me and not the fact that my mom was having an affair with a woman. But somehow that didn't faze me. Perhaps I had seen too many gay couples at my parents' theater and in their plays to be shocked. The theater was where my parents worked for social change, producing plays about sexism, women's liberation, and male-female relations. And, in the mid-'70s, they did yet another innovative play: In one scene a woman brushed another's hair, gently, tenderly. So tenderly you got ideas. Then, just before the lights dimmed, they kissed. Men too -- one scene ended with two men rocking each other in a tight embrace.

So I was used to the idea that two men or two women could be together. The shock was more that my parents were separating, period. They were a pair, and the theater was their life work. But when Cheri entered our lives, my parents had been sleeping in separate rooms for over half a year, and Mom was to move out completely in just a few months, before the end of school. She was on her own and could live her life as she pleased, we all recognized that now. And Cheri's presence didn't seem to bother my father much either. Maybe he just saw it as my mom experimenting -- I don't know, I never asked. Mostly though, I think that (like me) my father was too preoccupied, too devastated, over the fact that his wife was leaving to care whom Mom happened to be snuggling with.

* * *

My sister Tally left home at 17, soon after my parents separated. She had been itching to get out for years, always complained loudly, "Why can't I just have a normal family?" We were anything but. With the other theater performers, Mom and Dad dressed up like bizarre creatures and performed in front of strangers, even on the streets. They smoked pot occasionally and sometimes experimented with drugs. And now one of them was having sex with her own kind. Tally was mortified. She never told anyone about Mom becoming a lesbian.

I was different. It didn't bother me. Not when I was almost through with my first year of high school and had my own group of close friends -- most of whom were as weird as my parents. We were '70s teen hippies; the alternative kids at the high-school. We wore long skirts with hiking boots, or torn jeans with huge psychedelic patches. We smoked reefer during lunch. We led loud protests against nuclear power. Everyone at school hated us, especially the jocks who threw stones and spit when we walked by. But we were comfortable with each other. Certainly comfortable enough for them to know Rivka's mom was warm, open to kids hanging out in her new home... and gay.

I never directly discussed my mother's sexual orientation with my friends but never hid it either. No one reacted as if shocked when they found out. Not that any of us were gay. No, we were all safely in heterosexual relationships -- or else quiet about our desires. Anyone not straight waited until way after high school to come out. The topic of my lesbian mom rarely surfaced. It was something that was accepted, but never discussed.

* * *

When Cheri was out, Leonard was in. And there wasn't much time in between. Leonard made Cheri look good. Half-shut lids, a constantly averted gaze and words which eased slowly, tentatively from his mouth all made me want to shake him and yell "Anybody home?" I had acted pissy toward Cheri, but I barely tolerated Leonard. It didn't matter, though, because soon enough he was gone. Jim turned up in his place. Then Diana.

Okay, so my mother wasn't a lesbian. She was bisexual. Always, still, trying to embrace as much as she could.

But none of this was my concern. I was now 16, smack-dab in the dizzying middle of my own teenaged whirlwind, too busy to pay attention to my mother's love dramas. Men, women, what did I care? I had my own issues, like: I don't want to do it, but Jonathan and I were so close to doing it, so should I get fitted for a diaphragm anyway?

Like the topic of my mom's sexuality, I never discussed these confusing things with anyone. Who knew they were even anything to talk about?

* * *

When I surfaced from my teen years and reached, gasping, the oxygen of my early 20s, it was the mid-1980s and the annual gay marches were just beginning to take hold in the Northeast. At the rainbow-balloon-filled march, about one thousand people in my small college town in western Massachusetts chanted and danced. I nodded my head in understanding when I heard the theme was pride. The sting of junior high school jabs like "lezzie" had taken its toll on all of us, leaving black and blue marks on some in its wake. Pride was the correct -- the direct -- contradiction.

I went to the march to support all the lesbians and gay men of the world. Though I identified as straight, "We're here. We're queer. Get used to it!" happily skipped out of my mouth with the rest of them. "Another gay teacher," sported one woman's sign. "We are your doctors," said a second. But when I saw the one that said, "Proud mother of a lesbian daughter," then I knew what I had to do.

The lesbian closest to me was the lesbian I called Mom. She was a bold woman, out in our suburban town, in her work, in her life. I suddenly wanted to support her just like I'd support any other person dedicated to a struggle for liberation. But I had never actually spoken with her about this topic. What should I say? How should I say it?

When it came time for my next visit home I knew I needed to say the words. They were right and true, even if they felt awkward .We were sitting in the yard and talking as my mother pulled huge clumps of tall grass from what should have been a flower bed. We talked about this and that, but the most important words, the ones I wanted to say badly, still didn't come.

Certainly I was proud of my mom. She was a tambourine dancer in a circle of women. Anything that made her who she was made me proud of her, so that had to include her sexuality too, right?

"Mom. I'm proud you are a lesbian," I finally blurted out without breathing. It was the only way. "And proud to be your daughter."

"Thanks, Rivka." She smiled, glanced up from her weeding and said: "Pass me that bucket of mulch, will ya?"

Big whoop. She didn't seem to care much, she was so comfortable with herself and her choices. That's when I wondered, had I said it for her, or had I said it for me? Either way, almost every Pride march since then I've been sporting my own sign: "Yet Another Daughter Proud of Her Lesbian Mom!"

© Rivka Solomon

Rivka Solomon's upcoming book, THAT TAKES OVARIES! BOLD FEMALES AND THEIR BRAZEN ACTS (Crown/Random House), is due out in May 2002. This essay first appeared in Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Growing up with Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Parents (St. Martins Press 2000).

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