Twenty years after finding pictures that held the answer to her father’s mysterious past, Sade Taft embarked on a journey to reconnect with his family.
I. “THE ONLY PERSON WHO UNDERSTANDS IS YOU.”
Maura: When you think of Daddy, what comes to mind?
Margrethe: I always liked his name, Raymond. He was so handsome and suave and debonair. And smart. I often think of what I felt when I was a kid—that no one had a father like ours in Yonkers.
Maura: During that last two-week period of his life we supported each other: you, me, mom, my husband Dan. But we didn’t have open conversations. It was still silent. We never talked about his choices.
Margrethe: The word “choice” is key. I feel that our childhood was co-opted by our parents’ choices and by this disease and that was a burden that we did not need, but we handled it.
Maura: But didn’t it shape us?
Margrethe: Yeah. We handled it. If you think about most families, that’s a dynamic, but it’s probably not that tragic. Your parents always co-opt you in one way or another, but it wouldn’t fit into such a wider narrative of American history.
Maura: I don’t know that there were many people in Yonkers at the time, in lower Westchester at the time, that could say that their lives and stories were like ours. His homosexuality aside, that became a stronger force as the AIDS crisis came to pass. Today the world is so different than it was 30 years ago. So much has changed. It’s the thing that unites us.
We went from secrecy in 1972, when he left the house, to Pride in 2015. I still don’t think people understand. The only person who understands is you.
II. “THE ONLY WAY HE MANAGED WAS TO COCOON HIMSELF.”
Margrethe: I think I was waiting for you to know. You were a happy kid and I wanted to protect you. I didn’t want to bring up something that you might not know about. And then once we knew about HIV and AIDS, it affected [my] community—as a gay woman, it affected every aspect of my life. I had many gay friends that were involved throughout the ’80s; I didn’t feel that I could be, because it was too close. It was too much of a “family affair,” as I call it.
I am also stunned by the progress. I’m glad I’ve lived to see it. I didn’t think I would. I didn’t have very high expectations for the world to rise to this occasion. How do you think you would have responded had he lived?
Maura: I’m not so sure, because I don’t know how he responded to most things in life. I have glimmers of his laughter, some words, but I don’t know how he—as a man, a person—would respond.
All I can think of is that the way he lived his life in the ’50s and ’60s, to his death in 1989, was a very different experience than [yours] as a gay woman. He came from a complicated family and it just got more complex; the only way he managed was to cocoon himself. But he took down a lot of people with that cocooning.
I’m grateful for the world changing, for you and for everyone, but I don’t know if he would have been very different—and that’s what scares me most. I wish he didn’t live in a world where he had to be something he wasn’t, to be disingenuous—to have to be married and compelled to have children and be “normal.”
Margrethe: Had he lived now, we would not be here.
Maura: That’s right.
Margrethe: That’s that complicated aspect. I don’t think it happens much anymore. This is a part of American history and a social circumstance that created men who married…and he did love our mother, and he loved us, in his own way.
I didn’t know him any better than you did, really, because he was so distant. Maybe it was to protect himself. When I try to imagine him now, being cognizant of all the progress that’s been made, I just hope that he wouldn’t be bitter, that he wouldn’t have too many regrets, that he would be able to enjoy me, my life as a gay woman, and that he would want to know and love my wife.
III. “I WOULDN’T ASK HIM THOSE HARD QUESTIONS.”
Maura: If we had a moment to sit with him, what would you ask him?
Margrethe: I wouldn’t ask him those hard questions: why did you leave, why did you never call. I would want to know who he was at my age [now] or perhaps at the age I was when he died— 27. What he was interested in, in art? Why I am who I am as a creative person, as a designer? I would want to let him speak freely and not accuse and judge. What would you ask?
Maura: I had the opportunity to talk with him when he was dying. The last day I saw him conscious, the last thing he said to me was, “I don’t know why I made it so hard for you.” That was his way of apologizing. That liberates me to this day.
I would like to talk with him about my children. They’re very much like him.
Margrethe: He was [also] incredibly selfish and often angry and volatile. I’ve tried to process that in the greater scheme of things as the years went by; I’ve tried to sort that out. Because it’s just me—I don’t have children—so I totally understand where you’re coming from. That legacy is important, but the buck stops here with me and so I have to continue to process that on my own.
Maura: He was sharp.
Margrethe: Yeah, and if I think of myself—because I do take after him, in looks, in my orientation—and that pained me as a child greatly. But as an adult I try to process his distance as a love of solitude, which I have too. His selfishness, as a way to create a more culturally informed person as a second-generation American. I look at the more positive aspects.
I can’t get my head around the anger. I don’t have that, and I wish that he hadn’t. But I try to kind of polish those factors in myself so that they would not become a negative part of me. I worked hard at that, with him in mind. To add empathy.
Maura: There were very few people that offered him empathy—probably because he didn’t share a lot of himself with people.
IV. “YOU COULD SEE THROUGH HIM.”
Maura: There are times when I look at pictures of you and I look at pictures of him and I look at pictures of my son, Andrew. There is such a likeness and I think part of living and part of healing is taking the best and moving it forward. You, out of both of us, had more challenges. You’re older than I am by a few years, you witnessed and experienced things that no one should have witnessed and experienced—probably not so much him being gay, but being the angry complicated person he was, and being unhappy.
Margrethe: I was fairly in awe of him as a man. He always treated me—when he had anything to do with me—in a very mature way. He bought me lovely gifts. When I was 11 he bought me the Lord of the Rings, the entire cycle, and that’s a little bit more advanced, I think, than that age group. He bought me jewelry I still wear today. He bought me an owl which sits on my desk at work, a Steuben glass owl. Not to be overly material, but that’s all I have, some of those objects. He also exposed us to music—going to Lincoln Center, going to the opera. For many years I did not listen to that type of music and as an adult, after he died, I returned. So those are good memories.
Maura: He knew you were a wise soul. He knew you had a depth and I think that probably—I don’t want to say frightened him, but kept him at a distance, because he couldn’t be genuine. You could see through him.
Margrethe: You were the most joyous child. That was a gift to our family.
V. “WHATEVER WAS ‘WRONG’ WITH HIM WAS ‘WRONG’ WITH ME.”
Maura: You told me you knew he was going to get sick, but when did you become aware that he was gay?
Margrethe: It’s one of my earliest memories. They say you begin to form memories at three, so I would say that I was probably about three and a half or four and I felt that something was “wrong” with me. And there was something “wrong” with him too. And whatever was “wrong” with him was “wrong” with me. I remember when I learned to read, I investigated—and I knew.
Maura: There was a word for it.
Margrethe: I remember being careful about looking things up in the dictionary, not leaving the book open to that page. I was terrified as a child of being found out. I didn’t know what the neighborhood’s reaction would be. I lived in a lot of fear, but I feel as if I always knew. And I didn’t speak to anyone about it.
Maura: Mommy told me when I was in eighth grade. I was 13, 1980. It sort of came out of nowhere. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t do anything for me. He was still my father; he was still not calling me, and he was still not in my life. So him being gay wasn’t the issue. I think he did us a great gift by leaving, both because he stopped contaminating our lives—
Margrethe: He did us a favor.
Maura: —and he preserved our mother’s health, because we would have been orphaned at some point in time.
Margrethe: Mom also told me when I was 13, and I had spent 10 years keeping it from her. That was a huge burden for me as a child. I said, “You know?” And she said, “What are you talking about? You know?”
I felt crushed that I might have communicated with her sooner, but I felt it was my responsibility—and it was a heavy one—to keep this secret in the family. Definitely to protect you, and also I felt that I was protecting our mother. But she had known all along.
VI. “WE’RE SOLDIERS. WE’RE SURVIVORS.”
Maura: It’s almost something that you can talk about now with pride. We’re soldiers. We’re survivors.
We’ve agreed to always be positive with your story, with Daddy’s story, when we talked with my children. They are the new generation. They don’t have the trauma and sorrow that we had.
Margrethe: If you were to tell them a fond memory, a story about Daddy, what would you discuss?
Maura: Two good memories come up. One is being at a swim meet and he welcomed me out of the pool, was clearly proud of me, and wrapped me in a towel, dried my hair and hugged me.
The other one is first grade, shortly after he left. He would come and pick me up from school on his bicycle. Our parents were groovy people. No other parent had a European bicycle with a bike seat on the back. I remember driving off and waving to my friends like, Yep, this is me. And that’s my dad. Do you have any memories like that?
Margrethe: All of these things that you’re talking about—I was afraid would point towards an eccentricity that would lead someone to realize he was gay and then the jig would be up with me, too. That fear of being found out is one of the larger concepts of my childhood.
VII. “I JUST FOLLOWED MY INSTINCT AND CALLED THE HOSPITAL.”
Maura: There was always the presence of…he is going to get sick.
Margrethe: You knew from ’87 that he had HIV.
Maura: He had been on a clinical trial that extended his life [from] a year to a year and a half. One day I just followed my instinct and called the hospital. I was a registered nurse at the time, and something connected. When I saw him in the hospital, he told me he was being transferred to a hospice the next day. I asked if I could visit him there and he said of course. That hospice was probably two miles away in the Bronx and was expressly developed and designed to meet the crisis.
I visited him there and got to see him in his robe again. He let me clip his fingernails. We sat, we talked in the garden. These were fleeting minutes of a visit because he didn’t have a lot of energy. He asked me one time, sitting across the table from me: “Do you know why I’m here?” And I said, “Of course I do, Daddy. I’m a nurse.” That’s where the conversation ended. We didn’t need to go further.
I don’t know if he knew he was going to die in the next two days. I don’t know what he wanted for himself in those last weeks or days. That’s a mystery to me. But whatever that was, that compelled me to call the hospital and to follow him through those last 17 days, was another great gift that life has given me.
Margrethe: I made that phone call at the end and spoke with him. I don’t think that he knew that he was going to die that week because he told me, “I’m a little tired, maybe we can talk about this later.” But I knew when I hung up that that would be it, and he died that afternoon.
Maura: He was peaceful and kind in his last few days.
Margrethe: Our father’s name is Raymond Lauber. He was born on April 24th, 1932.
Maura: He died on October 18th, 1989.
Margrethe: He was raised in Newark, New Jersey. He was a valedictorian at Barringer High School. He served in the U.S. Navy as a third class hospital corpsman. He went to Newark State College and Bellevue School of Nursing and he was a chief anesthetist at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. He was a New Yorker.
Maura: And he was our father.