A chance whiff of witch hazel the other day brought back memories of my father and some of his more unusual (to me) personal products and food preferences.
He also used baking soda to brush his teeth instead of the minty pastes his children used.
I couldn’t figure out why he kept doing these things to himself.
Then there was the food.
Black strap molasses was a favorite of his. This product is the thick black goo that remains after most of the sugar is extracted from sugar cane. During Dad’s Depression-era childhood in the oilfields of California’s Central Valley, red meat was scarce. Molasses may have provided him and his brother with a good source of iron in its absence.
Dad still took it by the spoonful during the postwar boom and beyond when plenty of red meat was available. He tried to get the four of his kids to spoon it down, too. But when he came at me with a bottle of it in his hands and a gleam in his eye, I ran in the other direction. (I did, however, love my mom’s molasses taffy.)
Salt-rising bread was the worst.
This dense, tight-grained bread is made from a smelly corn and/or potato starter. References show its origin in either West Africa or in nineteenth century pioneer settlements in the Appalachian Mountains. Fresh yeast may not have been readily available.
Some of my father’s ancestors have their origins in Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina, parts of the Appalachian region. They may have introduced salt-rising bread to subsequent generations. But in our family it ended with my father.
The worst times were work mornings when Dad toasted the bread before sunrise. Though I’d pull my covers over my head, I couldn’t avoid the pungent smell drifting into my bedroom.
Another of my father’s staples from his impoverished childhood was more benign. It was a simple concoction called “milk toast.”
Its list of ingredients was short: torn pieces of white toast covered in warm, thickened milk and tabs of butter. Dad sprinkled sugar and sometimes cinnamon on top of his. Simple and bland, it fortunately came without a foul smell.
When I was little, I didn’t understand why my father ate such unappealing foods. After all, he provided us with a comfortable post-war life on the San Francisco Peninsula where a diversity of fresh foods was available. And we could afford to eat whatever we wanted.
But Dad loved the foods from his childhood. As my grandmother’s cocoa and homemade chicken noodle soup were for me, these were his comfort foods.
Something else, something less tangible, also connected him to his early childhood.
It was at the age of four or five, he said, that he first understood he was gay, though he had no word for it.
In this 1924 photo, he’s six years old. His father, my grandfather, is the roustabout standing behind him whose coveralls are covered in crude.
So, at the time this photo was taken, my father already knew his true nature.
This I understand. Like my father, I knew at the age of five that I was attracted to boys.
I measure my early romantic stirrings from the time I first laid my eyes on those cute twin towheads, Mark and Matthew, in my kindergarten class.
But LGBT youth generally have the tougher time with puberty, even in today’s more progressive times.
At a gathering last week in the James Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center in the San Francisco Public Main Library, long time equal rights activist Ernst Ostertag bore this out. On average, he said, from the time of puberty it takes gay youth ten years to come to terms with their sexual orientation.
This was the case with my father. He had an especially hard time, growing up as he did in a small, culturally conservative oil town. He’d keep his sexual orientation secret until he was a young adult.
For a few brief and happy years, though, he would live as an openly gay man in Los Angeles. There, at the age of 22, he’d meet and fall in love with a young man named Stanley.
This photo of him (above) was taken at that age. From the come-hither look in his eyes, I’d say the photo was probably taken by Stanley.
Unlike Dad’s favorite foods and personal products that he brought forward from childhood into full adulthood, this part of himself he did not. At least not openly.
After a series of arrests for being gay, he went back in the closet. He said he could “no longer stand the horrors of being queer.”
In 1942, he met and married my mother. Together they had four children; I am their secondborn. They remained married for 64 years until my mother’s death.
Dad tried to be straight. It didn’t work. It could never work.
Right before he died, he went back.
He went back to honoring the little boy who knew exactly who he was when he was five.
He told me that God had spoken to him and told him he was a good person.
My father was still splashing witch hazel on his face when he was 90.
He was still downing spoonfuls of black strap molasses when he was 90.
And he was still gay when he 90.
What he loved as a child. Whom he loved as a child.
As it was from the beginning.
Read more in Laura Hall’s My Dad’s Closet: A daughter’s memoir, coming eventually to a bookstore near you. Laura and her husband live in San Francisco.