oral history

The Photos

By Sade Taft as told to Whitney Joiner
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The Photos
Wendell Taft, date unknown.

My dad, Wendell, taught high school science—biology, chemistry—and my mom was a homemaker. I grew up around Washington, D.C. My mother’s side of the family emigrated from Vietnam and settled in northern Virginia. My father’s side lives in Beaumont, Texas.

Mom always said Dad was very secretive about his past. He lied to her about his age and said he was 15 years younger than he was; he was in his 50s when she had us. She was 3o. I guess he wasn’t the most honest man.

I was two years old when he died in April 1988; my brother was 8 months old. My mom just told me he got sick—that was all. Apparently he found out that he was HIV positive when he got sick with pneumonia and went in the hospital. He wasn’t sick for much longer than a month or so before he died.

She didn’t want to tell us too much about it, and for good reason. I felt different not having a dad growing up, but I felt different about a lot of things: I was mixed-race (I’m half Chinese, half black—my mom’s Chinese but her family lived in Vietnam) and grew up in an African-American community.

When I was nine, in 1994, she told me that he’d died of AIDS. It was spring break, and my brother was across the street at his best friend’s house. I don’t remember if I asked—she just confessed that he’d contracted HIV and got pneumonia, and that’s when he passed away. Mom told me not to tell anyone, and I still don’t think my mother’s family knows how my dad died. It’s the elephant in the room. I didn’t know why AIDS happened to people. I just kind of…left it there.

 


 

A couple of years later, when I was 10 or 11, my brother and I found a box of pictures in our basement—just a box in a corner, under a bunch of other boxes—that we’d never seen before.

Inside were photographs of my dad hanging out with his brothers and with his Corvette. I remember how much he loved his Corvette, and his Jeep.

And then there were other pictures of him, with a man, that weren’t supposed to be for kids’ eyes. They were of a naked man who was not my father, doing sexual things, touching himself. Just one guy. It was really weird—creepy, scary, freaked-out weird. I’d never seen anything like that before. Dad was in a few of them, too—naked, in the same room, same background. They weren’t too different from today’s dick pics. I was just so grossed out. But I didn’t really know what it meant. I showed my mom, like, “Oh my God, ewww, Mom what is this?” She wasn’t surprised about it at all. She was like, “It was probably his lover.”

I didn’t really understand, and she didn’t explain further. Every once in a while I’d think, “That’s weird, why would he have naked pictures of a man?” I wasn’t like Oh, he’s gay. It was just like Why does he have these naked pictures? It wasn’t until high school that my brother was like “He was gay. That’s why he got AIDS and had those naked pictures.” I was oblivious. Like, “What, really, you think that?” As far as I knew, it was just two guys who really liked their penises. Then it was like, Oh…yeah.

I never said, “Hey mom, remember those photos? Dad was gay, right?” I don’t know where the pictures are now—I wonder if Mom took them and hid them or threw them away—but after we found them, I used to look at them just to look at the other guy’s face. Was he why my dad was sick? Is he still alive? What does he know about my dad? I wonder if my dad married my mom because he wanted to get his family off his back and felt like he needed to fulfill a role. I’ve never thought that he married her for love; I’ve always thought he married her to have a family. Mom had never been in a relationship before; she’d just gotten to the States. She was an easy target. I think it was probably pretty obvious that he was gay, but my mom is more oblivious to these things than I am.

When I found out my dad was gay, I didn’t know anybody who was gay. I didn’t know much about homosexuality or general queerness. Now I consider myself queer; I have a girlfriend. I don’t intend on going back to men. It’s really funny, because my mom was fine with it when I came out four years ago. She was like, “Are you sure?” And I said, “I’m pretty sure.” In my head I wondered if she was going to connect it to Dad, but it was unspoken.

She’s so angry when I bring him up, so I don’t want to talk about him. At one point I just realized, She does not like this man, we shouldn’t talk about him. I avoid conversations about him because I know how upset she gets about him, not because I don’t want to know. I was angry for my mother’s sake, like, Aw, she got dealt a shitty card. But I don’t have the energy to be angry about it for myself; it’s already happened. And if he had been more honest, I might not be here.

Until recently I didn’t really feel close to him; I just felt like he was this thing that happened before I could remember. It happened; it was awful; I can ask questions about it, but I might not get answers.

 


 

But recently I’ve been digging more: maybe it’s about turning 30. For the first time in over 20 years, I went down to Texas to visit my dad’s family. When I told my mom I was going, she didn’t say anything negative about it. I saw my dad’s two older brothers, Billy and Virgil, and my two aunts-in-law, six cousins, and other people who were like, “I remember Wendell!”

One of my cousins, who’s 49, told me everything she remembered about my dad: that he was her favorite uncle, that she loved him. He helped her with science projects; he was funny. Apparently he would come to Beaumont and as soon as you got used to seeing him around, he’d leave again. He’s spend a couple of years in Beaumont, then a couple of years somewhere else. He’d call when he needed money.

She thought he was gay—it sounds like it was pretty widely known that he was gay—and she was very surprised when he married my mother. My cousin knew he was different, but everyone loved him anyway.

And they knew he had AIDS. That surprised me—I didn’t know they knew. She was more surprised, and frightened, when she found out that my mom was pregnant with me. She doesn’t remember how she heard, but she already knew he was HIV positive. She knew he was trying to figure out a way to have children, because he loved kids and really wanted kids.

He didn’t start getting really sick, coughing and pneumonia, until early 88. So that means that he must’ve been positive for a while.

She also knew about those photos! She told me that she and my grandfather saw them—they were in a box at the funeral home. That must’ve been so awkward for her. My grandfather took them and she never saw them again. She thinks they were shipped to us.

I’m so glad I went and I want to keep in better touch with them. Even after all this time and reconnecting with his family, my dad is just so mysterious. He’s still an enigma.

 

 

About the Author

Sade Taft is a massage therapist in Washington, D.C.

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