LaJuana of the Plains

LaJuana of the Plains – Rick Allen Wilson


I had been wrapping Christmas presents at my in-laws’ house on Cape Cod,
listening to holiday music and feeling generally warm and fuzzy about the season.
Wrapping presents for Teddy’s family, though, made me aware that it was the first
Christmas without my father. Summer and Fall had been spent in that hazy period
of adjusting to life without him, but being with my husband’s family for a perfect
New England Christmas was comforting.


I placed a piece of tape on a present, and I realized I hadn’t spoken to my
aunt, my dad’s only sister, since shortly after his funeral. I was never close with
Aunt Juana. She is a volatile and unpredictable woman. She once shot a revolver
through a neighbor’s house over a dispute about a bird house. “She’s funny,” Dad
used to say. She is in her eighties now and rarely leaves her house. She didn’t come
to the funeral home or my dad’s funeral. She cannot bear the company and
judgment of others.


Because I’m gay and Aunt Juana is lesbian, one might think we would at least
have had that in common. When she came out to me, however, during a phone
conversation when I was twenty, it wasn’t to share a part of her identity so we might
be closer. It was, instead, to interrogate me about
my sexuality. “The symptoms were always there,” she said. The symptoms, I thought.
Nice. “And you’re like a goddamn woman in the kitchen. And so sensitive. Remember how your dad hated
your voice? ‘Make your voice lower,’ he used to say. ‘Make it lower. Lower!’ Lands,
how you used to cry over that!”


My heart pounded, listening to her. I stood, hidden in the bathroom with the
door locked, holding the receiver and enduring her questions. Reluctantly, I finally
confessed that I’m gay. Something in me felt obligated to tell her. We were society’s
shame and our family’s secrets. So I told her. And even though she has an epic
record of delivering unfiltered diatribes, her next few sentences stunned me and left
me in silence.


“I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!” she cried. “All right, then! This is what
you’re gonna do. You need to change. It’s too late for me, but you can still do it.
And you have to — while there’s still time! It’s the only way. And you can do it! I
know you can! ”


Even during that awkward phone call in 1983, a good decade before I would
come to any measure of real self-acceptance, I recognized the absurdity of what she
was suggesting. There would be no changing, try as I may.


What Aunt Juana didn’t know about me when she forced our mutual comings
out was that I had already tried to stop being gay. I had told my best friend while on
a church ski trip when I was in high school. My disclosure traumatized him, and he
prayed with me in a shadowy corner of the ski lodge that God would release me
from the demonic influences which held me. He was seventeen; I was sixteen. Two
years later, after graduating high school, absolutely no one knew of my 8:00 a.m.
Friday morning therapy sessions. I would lie to my dad, weekly, saying I was going
to the gym, but went, instead, to the Oklahoma Christian Counseling Center. There,
in the dim light of a well-meaning counselor’s office, I learned this thing inside me
was never going away. Instead, my life would become a journey in trying to
reconcile that desire with a more healthy and rational understanding of who I am.
But in Oklahoma in the 1980’s, a healthy attitude towards yourself as a gay person
came quickly into conflict with the condemnations of the all-knowing church. I
understand Aunt Juana’s self-loathing because I had already known self-loathing. I
was taught in church that God, for persons like her or me, would forever be
unreachable. We would, instead, be neighbors in hell for eternity, so it made sense
that I should at least try to build some bridge between us in the here and now. But
she insisted that I change, and said it, ironically, as if she passionately believed it
were possible.


It was ironic because Aunt Juana’s life was a testament writ large in the
futility of that. Two marriages to men over fifteen years ultimately led her to a
series of clandestine relationships with women. Both divorces were final by the
time I was a toddler, so I grew up, instead, with “single” Aunt Juana and her
“roommates” – women who shared my aunt’s life and home, usually for a year or
two, and then mysteriously disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. Linda,
Pauline, Tracy were all regular guests at our Sunday dinners, at Christmas and
Easter, at birthdays and Little League games. They even vacationed with us. There
are many family pictures of Aunt Juana with these women and our family. I never
really thought anything about it. Her friends were just regular players in my
upbringing. It took the first man I fell in love with when I was eighteen to bring me
blindingly into the light about Aunt Juana being lesbian.


       “C’mon!” he said, laughing hysterically. “You can’t see it?”
       “See what?”
       “Your aunt’s a dyke!”
       “Don’t call my aunt a dyke!”
       “Lesbian then!”
       “She is not a lesbian!”
       “You never thought about it? Ever? Not even a little?”
       “Just because she lives with women doesn’t mean . . . . Oh, my god. That’s
exactly what it means.”


I remember staying at her house for a week once, when my parents were out
of town. Linda was her roommate at the time. Linda was kind and took care of my
brother and me during the day while Aunt Juana worked at a factory. Linda took us
swimming, bought us helium balloons, coloring books, and made a wicked grilled
cheese sandwich. One day, my brother and I persuaded her to buy us school boxes,
some number 2 pencils, some Elmer’s glue, a pair of round-nosed scissors – all in
anticipation that the school year was just around the corner. As we arrived back at
Aunt Juana’s house, Linda saw my aunt had already arrived home from work for the
day and said she would be mad if she knew. Though we hadn’t a why, we agreed
not to tell her. As we entered the house, we scurried past her with our contraband
school boxes, trying to hide them from view until we could get to our room. It was
then I learned why Linda had wanted Aunt Juana not to know about them.


My aunt began screaming at her. Nonstop. For what seemed like hours, we
waited in the bedroom as our aunt yelled and Linda cried. “I told you not to
goddamn go buying them anything!” she bellowed. “You don’t have a job, do you?
So you don’t have that money to spend! And now they’re gonna love you more than
me!” In our room, my brother and I stared at the school boxes, the carpet, the
walls, and each other. Eventually, Linda appeared in the doorway, barely able to
talk because she had been crying so hard.

“It’s okay” I said, holding my school box out to her. “We don’t even want ‘em.
We can take em back. Right, Dennis?” Dennis nodded and held his up, also. Linda
said we would not have to take them back, but we should take the boxes to the
kitchen to show Aunt Juana. Dennis and I looked at each other in terror. The only
thing worse than having gotten the school boxes in the first place was to have to
show them now to Aunt Juana.
“It’s okay” Linda said. “I’ll go with you.”
She walked us through the living room into the kitchen. When we arrived,
Linda said, in a voice far too cheery, “They wanted to show you their new school
boxes!” Aunt Juana fawned over the cardboard boxes as if we were showing her
bricks of gold, and all four of us pretended Linda’s face was not streaked with tears
and that Holy Armageddon had not just transpired in that tiny, Oklahoma kitchen.
When I was a child, I had been mildly curious that Aunt Juana had no
children, but I later learned, through my dad, she had gotten pregnant during her
second marriage and chose to abort both the baby and the marriage. Dad said he
had begged her not to end the pregnancy, pleading that he and Mom would raise the

child as one of us. As generous and heartfelt as that was, I don’t believe Aunt Juana
could have given up control of her child. It had nothing to do with my parents’
generosity. How could Aunt Juana live with knowing her child was growing up just
miles away from where she lived? So she made the only choice she had. This was
1962 and there were few success stories of single women with children in
Oklahoma, let alone women with children and “roommates.” She never had
children, but I believe she wanted them desperately. She filled that void with an
extreme love for dogs — a love, some might say, which bordered on the eccentric.
There are large professional portraits of her dogs, through the years, meticulously
lining the walls of her home. When one of Aunt Juana’s dogs dies, it is given an
elaborate funeral at a pet funeral home and is laid to rest in a pet cemetery with an
engraved monument.

I couldn’t focus on the wrapping of presents as my mind kept wandering to
thoughts of Aunt Juana. I stopped in the middle of wrapping a present and decided
to call her. I hadn’t called her in years, and I would surprise her with a simple call of
holiday good wishes — a phoned-in Christmas card. I dialed her number from
memory because, even though I hadn’t dialed it in years, hers was one of the first
numbers I memorized as a child.

“Hello?” she said.
“Aunt Juana!”
“Aunt Juana, it’s Rick!”

“It’s Rick!”
There was a short pause.
“Yes, Aunt Juana! It’s Rick!”
I stifled a giggle, thinking, How many Ricks can she know?
But then she spoke again.
“Well what do you want?” she said threateningly, firing each word into the

A familiar heaviness filled my chest – an echo of so many memories of her
from childhood. “Oh, I don’t want anything,” I replied casually.
“Then why are you calling?” she hissed.
“I’m . . . I’m just calling to . . . wish you . . . a Merry Christmas!” I stammered.
And then she slowly and coldly spoke the words I’m sure she had rehearsed
and ruminated on for months, anticipating I would eventually call.
“Well I don’t want you to ever fucking call here again” she said. “And here’s
why. What you wrote in your father’s obituary would have broke his heart. So I’m
done with you, you piece of shit. Don’t you ever call here again.” She slammed the
receiver and hard I could almost feel it shatter.

How quickly emotions can shift and align, once again, with our wounds of the
past. I was dumbfounded. What had I written? What was in the obituary that would
have made her react like that? Then it occurred to me. I didn’t write my Dad’s
obituary. My niece wrote it. Hillary, my minister brother’s lesbian daughter, had
recently come out to me and was still developing a coming out plan for telling her

father, the family, her young son, and her co-workers. I did a Google search on my

phone and found my Dad’s obituary. Naval service, early years spent working the
family farm, retired machinist, survived by — .


There it was. Right there on the screen of my phone. Two names among
dozens, embedded in the long list of my father’s descendants and survivors. My
name, my husband’s, and our hyphenated married name. I started shaking. During a
thirty second phone call when I phoned to send my aunt love and the peace of the
season, she cut me out of her life, in epic Old Testament style, because words in an
obituary in The Daily Oklahoman announced that my dad had a gay son.


While it is true that my father struggled with his own feelings about my
sexuality for many years, we had experienced a great peace-making during his final
years. I don’t mean to imply that he was all sunshine and roses about it, but,
towards the end, it seemed to me that all conflict regarding it simply lost its steam.
He was so happy for Teddy and me, though his reasons were hardly romantic about
it. His acceptance was practical and rooted in matters economic. He hated,
detested, that I was taxed differently than my brothers. He had been too ill to attend
mine and Teddy’s wedding in Massachusetts, but he wrote a short paragraph, sent
with Hillary’s dad, the minister, about his thoughts for achieving a successful marriage.


I have many indelible memories of the final days and moments of my father’s
life: my arrival at his bedside after he had crashed, gone under, and been
resuscitated; the tubes invading his mouth and nose; his hands strapped to the bars
of his hospital bed so he could not pull out the life support; his scribbling of my
name on a piece of paper, the last stroke of the “k” squiggling down the page; my
sobbing, after they brought him out of the medically-induced coma, after I asked him
if he could hear me, and he lightly squeezed my hand in response, that he was
trapped deep inside his once-formidable body and would never again emerge the
towering giant he was; my shaving him, a day later, with a warm, wet towel and a
cheap plastic razor; then, during his final breaths, as my brothers unburdened
themselves of perceived wrongs still needing to be forgiven, I laid my hand on my
Dad’s shin and simply said, “I love you, Dad. I’m right here. You and I have nothing
we need to say to each other. Do what you need to do. I love you so much.”


Aunt Juana, sadly, knows nothing of the peace an Oklahoma father, born into
rural poverty during the Great Depression, ultimately was able to have with his gay
son. And there, amidst the wrapping of Christmas presents at my in-laws, I fought
back tears of rage against Aunt Juana for the shame she was once again heaping onto
me. I started to call her back, trying to stop my hand from shaking, so I could say a
lifetime of words I had wanted to say. I would call her out, not only on this, but on
all her crimes of a lifetime. She would answer the phone, saying “I told you not to
call here!”


And I would start with “Who the hell are you to tell me I broke my dad’s
heart? You broke my Dad’s heart with what you just said to me, you self-hating, self-
loathing ass! You should have been my hero – the one person who could have
understood me as kid. You could have assured me everything would eventually be
okay. Instead, you beat the shit out of me when I was three years old, when my little
brother rolled off the sofa as you were changing his diaper. A three-year-old was
supposed to keep that from happening? You beat my legs, my butt, my back, and
slapped my face. So inept were you at caring for an infant that you expected a three-
year-old to help you? And what about the time you rear-ended the car ahead of us
as you chugged back a beer while driving my younger brother and me, neither of us
wearing seatbelts, then had me climb down an embankment below the highway to
pour out the remainder of your two six packs among the grasses, crushing each
emptied beer cans so the evidence of your inebriation would be gone before the
cops got there? Let’s not forget when you punched my father in the face and
brought blood from him while he was playing pool in a local bar with my brother.
And finally I want to know the truth of this: what happened in the middle of the
night when my father was in the navy and Mom was staying with you and your
husband? What the hell caused her to walk seven miles across moonlit prairies to
get away from you and your husband? Because I really want to know!”


Unable to dial the number correctly, I cursed and hissed at her as I stood
among the wrapping paper, thinking of a picture I have of her: a large gold gilt
framed portrait of her as a girl, which my stepmother gave me after Dad died. I
wanted to drive home to New York, climb the attic to where it is stored, and
sledgehammer the sucker to bits. Then I’d box it up, along with every other
freaking snapshot of her, and ship my whole past with her back to her. It would not
be enough just to destroy it. I wanted her to see it broken, all memories of her
annihilated, once and for all, into shards and shreds too small to ever be repaired.


But then, as my breath began to calm, I remembered my father and his
boundless patience with her — his unstoppable, unconditional love for his only
sister. She used to phone him, sometimes ten times a day, railing about a President
or some other madness in the news, and, at some point in her maniacal monologue,
Dad would simply lay the phone down, go make himself a glass of iced tea, and
return to her, Aunt Juana still screaming on the other end of the phone. He’d casually
sip his tea, wink at me, cover the mouthpiece of the phone and whisper, “She’s


Two days later, as I sat at the table with Teddy and his family on Christmas
morning, I thought of my luck, my good fortune in meeting Teddy, having fallen in
love, married, and added his last name to my name. And I thought of how strange it
is that Aunt Juana still bears the name of her first husband, linked still to a life she
had over fifty years ago.


When we returned back to New York after that Christmas, I did not destroy
Aunt Juana’s picture as I had imagined doing. She does not hang, however,
anywhere in the house. The pain she has inflicted runs far too deep to place her
where I would see her daily, yet I cannot bear to let go of that gilt framed photo of
her either. Aunt Juana is from an earlier time, another era before laws and acts of
legislation would help bring formerly banished sons and daughters to family tables
at Christmases. Aunt Juana is nearing the end of her life, but is, for the moment,
holding steady in two spheres. She exists, literally, in a house in Oklahoma City,
which stands out immediately, as you turn onto her street, because of the black,
wrought-iron bars covering her windows and doors. Part of her resides, too, in a
corner of my attic. I sometimes catch a peripheral glance at her when I go searching
for extra wine glasses, or store a rug I can’t yet bring myself to throw away. The
attic is full of similar not-yet-discards. When I find myself noticing her photo, I can
never look at her for very long, but I’m always a little caught off guard by her
stunning beauty as a teenager, captured in that ornate frame and thick glass from
another era – her luscious, onyx-black hair, deep chocolate eyes, pink cheeks, and
skin so white and perfect one cannot possibly imagine this beauty, this LaJuana of
the plains, will ultimately die alone in her house with the iron bars. When she does,
she will be buried next to Tracy, her last roommate, who is interred far from my
mother and father. When she passes, I hope there will be more than the seven
people present who were at Tracy’s funeral, though I doubt I will be there. Though
nothing in Aunt Juana’s life brought dignity to the years she spent with each
roommate, each woman she loved, perhaps it will be there in death for others to
look at, as her name and Tracy’s names are already both etched on the tombstone.
Only Aunt Juana’s date of death remains to be filled in.


She has told my younger brother I am to be left nothing in her will.
Unbeknownst to her, though, I have already inherited something of an earlier self of
hers, stored safely in my attic, and, in spite of how horrible she has ever been to me,
for now, at least, I have no intention of letting it go.