by Brett Cassady Willes (Kjeryn’s kid) and Katherine Starks (Joyce’s kid)
Mothers-in-law have a terrible reputation. Meddlesome and demanding, they divide couples and create drama at family events. They’re crazy, just crazy. They prompt Dr. Phil scare tactics: they’re a threat to your marriage. It’s a misogynistic trope; one so overblown it is irrational that anyone would take it seriously. Still, in our queer relationship, meeting each other’s moms felt important and mildly terrifying.
Queer storyteller S. Bear Bergman offers the idea of a “constellation of intimates,” the intricate web of relationships, filled with love and solidarity, that binds us to our people. It’s a broader idea than family, broader too than chosen family. For Bear, it’s a community that offers relief: the relief of feeling deeply known and the assurance that even “people like him” get to have families. For us, meeting each other’s moms was an important part of sketching this constellation, fulfilling that desire to connect the points of light in our lives.
KS: I get along great with Brett’s mom, Kjeryn. From the beginning, it was textbook: she fed me cookies; I helped walk the family dog. Brett’s family home was the kind of place I’d never been in real life, like a Real Simple magazine cover. The fridge didn’t look like a fridge; it was paneled to match the cupboards. The microwave was built into an island and opened like a drawer, except automatically—a drawer propelled by an invisible hand. The shower was controlled by a digital touchpad. It was kind of like The Jetsons, if the future were also tastefully decorated and filled with natural light and art. I would come to learn that this—the house, the cookies, the impeccably behaved silver Labrador—was Kjeryn’s work. She was the designer and curator, the aesthetic mind behind it all.
BCW: I first learned about Kath’s late mother, Joyce, on our first date. I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but it did. And I replied, in the same way every polite middle-class white kid is taught to respond to finding out about someone’s dead person: “I’m sorry.”
I’m still sorry about Joyce.
I’ve joked, in poor taste, about having to meet one less parent. And that’s more or less true: I’ll never meet Joyce. At least not in-the-flesh. But I have come to know Joyce—through stories, writing, pictures, and people. As weird as it sounds, I’ve developed a relationship with my girlfriend’s dead, feminist mother.
KS: It is an impossible thing to ask of a partner—I have this important ghost, could you get to know her? Will you learn to miss this person you’ve never met, grieve her with me? And at the same time will you join me in holding on to the idea that she’s not exactly all the way gone—that her death, while drastically changing our relationship, did not end it? It is an awkward and self-contradictory task, too weird and amorphous to expect of someone. The fact that it’s happened at all speaks to Brett’s openness and empathy, but also to the many ways I’ve been fortunate in this loss. Joyce lived well for several years between her diagnosis and death, and this eased the transition. Moreover, the way Joyce died—of a slow n’ steady, respectable kind of illness—makes a shareable grief easier. Cancer, like any normal thing, comes with the privilege of being readily legible.
BCW: There are traces of Joyce everywhere; it’s just a matter of recognizing them. I encounter traces of Joyce in the mundane—drinking coffee, reading Alice Munro, or eating chocolate cake. She refused to read American literature but appreciated good Can Lit.
There are traces of Joyce in places—driving down a prairie road to St. Mary, Saskatchewan, the place her body is buried, or visiting the tree, at Little Atlin, Yukon, planted in her memory.
I encounter traces of Joyce in her people: I meet her sister, Kath’s auntie Pat, and imagine the similarities, shared mannerisms, facial features. I meet her youngest sister, Kath’s auntie Jackie, and I repeat this ritual.
I discover what I call “Brookisms”—a dialect spoken by these Brooks women and their successors: Pat, Jackie, Rachel, Emily, Alison, Kath, and I imagine Joyce too. I meet Joyce through this vibrant matriarchal tongue.
KS: Brett’s family home made an impression on me because it was something of a departure from where I grew up. Family dog? Fresh cookies from an antique tin? My family home had a shifting cast of pet cats, all wonderful creatures, who—like vigilante airport security—would piss in any unattended suitcase (“They don’t want us to travel,” was my parents’ explanation. “They love us too much to let us go.”). As for cookies, Joyce was really good at treats, going to cafes for nice slices of cake. Home baking was not for her. One rare attempt at baking together—a protracted process resulting in these burnt little “cookie” pellets—was the occasion of our worst ever fight-for-no-reason. I was an asshole throughout, and finally Joyce told me to fuck off. Afterward, when we were both embarrassed and sorry about our behaviour, the apologies were easy: both of us blamed the baking, not each other.
BCW: My mom dreamed of being a mother. In high school she planned on having ten kids. She settled for four. Mothering is one of her most beautiful skills; she relates to children in such a tender way. Mothering, for her, (I think) is far removed from anything political, unless it comes from a politics of love—but I’d have to ask her more about that.
KS: Joyce encouraged us to call her by her first name, never identifying exclusively as a mother. She outlawed people who weren’t her kids calling her “mom” and wondered aloud why women would tolerate this from their husbands. I know she wasn’t interested in being a “mother-in-law,” technically speaking, because she didn’t like the idea of her daughters getting married. This really bothered me as a kid. “What? What do you mean? Why wouldn’t you want that?” It made me defensive. Why wouldn’t I get married? I am perfectly normal. “Well, god, I mean of course I want you to have a partner, to be in love, to be happy. I don’t think you need to get married for those things.” “Well, I’m getting married.” “That’s fine, Kath.” And later, “My kids are so conservative. Where do you get it from?” I wonder now if this moment offers a glimpse into some latent queerness in my childhood self. Perhaps my defensiveness came from a vague sense that something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t really marriage material. I wonder what Joyce thought of this exchange—we never discussed it again, and we never talked about my queerness while she was alive.
BCW: My queer feelings seemed too complicated to properly explain to my family. This combined with my fear of confrontation and talking about personal stuff meant that I didn’t come out to my mom in a kind or sensitive way. I didn’t really ”come out” to her at all. Queer is a word that my mom is very uncomfortable with. Her discomfort with the word pairs well with her strong dislike for teasing, bullying, and anything mean. She was confused and hurt when she discovered that I was willfully being called queer. My mom and I have since debriefed and worked through the word queer together—coming to a common understanding of how it operates in my life. My relationship with my mother is enabled by a particular social context. My young, white, middle class parents identify with dominant liberal values, which include accepting gay people. So, of course my mom and I were able to work it out. What’s interesting here is not my coming out story, per se, but rather the possibilities born out of having people you love meet. A neat part of introducing Kath to my family was having the opportunity to have these conversations with my mom. Without Kath around, there wasn’t anything concrete to centre a discussion of my queerness around. Without Kath, my queer self didn’t appear all that believable. Having these two intimates, my mother and my girlfriend, share space was a way that I could introduce my family to another aspect of myself.
KS: Since coming to terms with the lesbian factor, Brett’s family has extended to me a warm and generous welcome. It is wonderful and overwhelming. There are a lot of them, all moving quickly and teasing each other in ways established long before my arrival. In this, Kjeryn is a refuge. It is easy to problematize “just be nice” as a politics, but as an approach to family holiday gatherings, it certainly makes me feel more at ease. I appreciate, too, Kjeryn’s creation of beautiful and comfortable spaces, the skilled labour behind it and the value of this work. It seeps into my life in small ways. We have this gorgeous bedding, a gift from Kjeryn when we moved in together. I’ve developed, for the first time in my life, a habit of making the bed. I had no idea how delicious a feeling it was to get into a well made bed, with a top sheet and serious heap of pillows.
BCW: I was never intentional about developing a relationship with Joyce. It just happened. Joyce is part of how Kath became the Kath I know—a feminist person, a creative and courageous person, and a person who has a particular relationship with death, mourning, and mothers. I am always curious to know more about Kath and I think that is what drives my relationship with Joyce.
Sometimes Kath begins sentences with “I was raised to believe….” These are moments where I learn more about Joyce and her feminism. I listen and Joyce comes into being: her views on breast-feeding, sex education, domestic labour, and mental health animate her and her feminism for me.
There’s no escaping the traces our mothers have left on our lives, from belly buttons onward. But meeting each other’s moms is about more than a search for origins or a desire to taxonomize. Introducing each other to our moms has forced us to re-encounter the barriers in those relationships—deadness and queerness being just the beginning. It necessitates introducing each other to the worlds our moms conjure up—of feminism, grief, home, and loss. Our moms are intimately implicated in how we understand ourselves. Meeting each other’s moms means meeting each other again, too.
Brett Cassady Willes was raised on the prairies and is now working shitty jobs in Toronto, Ontario. Adrienne Rich helped her become a lesbian. If you have any questions about the lesbian continuum, she can be reached on Twitter @brett_illes.
Katherine Starks also left the prairies to work a shitty job in Toronto. She just landed a sweet cactus-sitting gig for the summer.
“Meeting Each Other’s Moms” is from our MOMS Issue (spring 2015)