oral history

How to Share Space

By Sam McWilliams as told to Carlin Paige Holden
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How to Share Space

My dad was from Birmingham, Alabama and grew up in a family with ten kids. His father worked for US Steel and moved out to Hayward, California. My father was the runt of the litter. His sister told me they always knew he was a sissy. That’s just what they called it then, “a sissy.” He was always gay, but there wasn’t room to be that. So he did what he thought he had to do: he grew up, found a lady he thought he could marry, and had a couple of kids.

After my parents divorced, I’d visit him at his hair salon and he’d give me $20 or he would do my hair. I only saw him every once in a while. I had a loyalty to my mother in the divorce, even though, in retrospect, she didn’t deserve it. She was an undiagnosed manic-depressive and used alcohol and pills to self-medicate.

My earliest memories of Dad are of him tending the garden out in front of the house, watering the ivy for what seemed like hours and hours, seeming very happy and content in his own world. He planted tulips that came up every year on my birthday. There was a Chinese pistache tree, an apple tree, a magnolia tree, figs, almonds, apricots, artichokes. It was beautiful. Dad and I shared a quiet spirituality and a love of beauty and nature and art, even if he didn’t talk a lot. I do feel like I got from him this appreciation of nonverbal expression, a way to share space that I really value now in my relationships.

As I got older, I felt like he would have liked it if he’d had a princess daughter. I think he would have loved to have a little girl so he could do her hair and makeup and buy her dresses. I was a tomboy. I would later come out as a butch lesbian, on the more masculine side of the spectrum. I tried my best: I let him do my hair. I went to prom in outfits he bought me. I look at the pictures now, and I see that I was suffering. But I didn’t have any examples of how to express myself. I lived in Orinda, California, a town where everyone wanted to look the same—you should wear these shoes and these pants and whatever. There were weird kids who managed to escape that, but it was important to me what people thought of me.

The truth is, I was also checked out for a lot of it because I was in this home affected by alcoholism. But you weren’t supposed to talk about that. My father was not somebody that was going to rock the boat. He was also a deeply closeted man. Even after he came out, he and his lover, Jerry, didn’t really come out. It was don’t ask, don’t tell. They lived with each other in the same apartment and ran a business with each other. They were the types of gay men who looked exactly alike and had the high-waisted pants and were very “nelly,” to use a term of the time. It’s not an accepted term now. It means girly, swishy. I have strong memories of my dad holding his Salem cigarette in his right hand with his wrist cocked very far back and his two fingers held out. And then holding his Diet Pepsi in his left hand, with his pinky extended—what I would now call incredibly gay gestures. [laughs]

There’s a great photo of us when I’m an adolescent. He’d started running at one point; he was getting fat and really didn’t like that. I would do races with him. I’m looking like a little adolescent jock, a teenage boy, sitting with my legs open and my hands at my crotch. He’s sitting straight with his legs closed and his hand delicately posed on the top of one knee. It’s hilarious, this super gay picture.

 

Jim McWilliams with his daughter, Sam McWilliams.

Jim McWilliams with his daughter, Sam McWilliams.

 

I realized I might be gay when I was in the seventh grade. I was at the Orinda movie theatre with my friend, and I thought, I want to kiss my friend. Why do I want to kiss my friend?! Then the next thought was, Maybe I’m a lesbian. And then the next thoughts were all the terrible things I’d heard people say about lesbians: They’re ugly, nobody wants to be with them, they’re outcasts, they’re gross and blah blah blah. I just thought, I can’t be that. And I just slammed a door down on it so hard… so I didn’t come out until I was, like 19, 20, 21.

My family’s reaction was like, Duh! Of course you’re a lesbian, but I don’t remember ever talking with my dad about it. He did take me to this underground gay men’s bar in Walnut Creek. He had to get permission to bring a woman. None of them wanted a woman there. He was like, “This is my daughter and she’s gay and it’s OK!” I remember seeing the young handsome shirtless bartenders, and older men hanging out and looking at them. Dad would point and whisper, “See that guy? That’s the Congressman, who has a wife!” Or “That’s the sheriff” or “That’s the police chief. All these top officials who were closeted and had wives and children and were secretly gay men! And this was just past the Caldecott Tunnel, right next to Berkeley and San Francisco, this weird little sheltered world.

It wasn’t until I started working at Whole Foods Market in Berkeley on Ashby that I met a ton of gay people. The world opened up, and things got better and better. But then one night I was counting the money at the end of the shift when I got a call from my dad’s lover. We were very estranged at that point. He said, “I think it’s time for you to know what’s really going on with your father.” I said, “OK…” And I learned that my dad was HIV positive and had AIDS. I didn’t know that he was going to die soon—but it turned out that he was going to die very soon.

When I talked to my mom and my brother, they both said to me, “Don’t take care of that man. He didn’t take care of you.” My mom never got over the fact that he came out and left her. I just said, “I’m gonna do it. He’s my father.” And I’m so glad I did, because we got to heal and talk about things. We got to love each other and settle peacefully before he passed.

A number of San Francisco AIDS non-profits really helped me out. There was one woman who said, “Your family is going to say horrible things. The best or the worst comes out in people when somebody’s dying, and in this case, somebody’s dying of a disease that has a crazy stigma attached to it. So call me anytime.” I would call her and say, “Everybody is telling me I’m terrible.” And she’d say, “No, you’re doing a great job!” I did my best figuring out how to get his medications, how to get them paid for, how to get Kaiser Walnut Creek Medical Center to comply and give him the right treatment, how to get Meals on Wheels.

I was also going to school and working full time, so I did my best to juggle all those things. I was this young, militant, feminist, lesbian, being reared in the lesbian community in Northern California, learning about herbs and healthy eating and making everything yourself. And all my dad wanted to do was smoke cigarettes and drink chocolate milkshakes or Ensures. I was like, “You gotta have wheat grass, you gotta eat healthy!” He was starting to suffer from dementia then.

At one point I realized, I think my dad just wants to die. I think he wants to smoke and drink his chocolate milkshakes, because he wants to go. My guess is that he had a lot of shame. He and Jerry didn’t tell anybody about his illness for years. Dad was sick for five to seven years—a long time.

Then we found out that they were both sick, and Jerry left. He couldn’t deal with it. Other gay men were like, “Of course. He didn’t want to face what he thought might happen to him. He couldn’t stand to look at it.” Because my dad went from like 160 pounds to I think 87 pounds. Or maybe it was even less. I remember it was half of what I weighed at the time. So Jerry left, but Dad just wanted him to come back. You never know anything about other people’s relationships.

I remember the hospital saying that Jerry was the fastest case they ever saw go. He didn’t show any signs of being sick, and then he went into the hospital and died within two weeks. Jerry died first and I knew my dad was just waiting for that. Dad died two weeks later.

I didn’t talk to his family—my aunts and uncles and cousins—for twenty years. I just went off and thought they wouldn’t like me because I was gay. Now I know that wasn’t the case. But, you know, they were a Southern Methodist family. One of the aunts said to me, “Well, that’s between him and God.” And there was always that language where I was like, “Oh, no. This is not the loving compassionate God.” But that was an interpretation as well.

But then, recently, my cousin Mitch [on my Dad’s side] found me. And then I reconnected with my Aunt Norma and Uncle Johnny. We all got to come together in the AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco on the 20 year anniversary of my Dad’s death. With the help of my friend Carlin Paige Holden, who’s on the board of the AIDS Memorial Grove, we inscribed their names into the Circle of Friends. Carlin funded the writing of my dad’s name, Jim McWilliams, and my aunt and uncle provided the funding for his partner’s name, Jerry Carroll. I’m so glad we did that.

 

Circle of Friends

 

I deeply felt that my father’s spirit had guided me to be with my extended family, had held my hand the whole way, and had delivered me home with the unforgettable knowledge that I am truly loved.

About the Author

Sam McWilliams is a tattoo artist and surfer from San Francisco who now resides in Vancouver BC, where she paddles outrigger canoe. She and her wife, Paige Gratland, have just completed their first short documentary film, BOOTWMN, which will premiere October 2015 at the Southwest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This interview was provided courtesy of StoryCorps, a national nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives: www.storycorps.org. This interview was edited for length and content.

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