William and Alistair were the first gay couple I ever knew. I have known them as far back as I can remember. They lived in the house next to my grandparents farm. William’s family had used the former colonial inn as a summer house for years, and now William and his partner Alistair lived there year round. On summer vacations as an only child expected to entertain myself, I would often wander next door to William and Alistair’s house. I would play in their beautiful gardens, sometimes being invited in to chat. William was a schoolteacher and Alistair just liked to talk, so there was always something interesting to discuss- a Luna moth I’d seen, the meaning of an epitaph on a headstone in the cemetery across the road, or stories from their own childhoods in Holland and New York. Their two golden retrievers accompanied me for many long happy walks in the woods and fields. As a child I never questioned why they lived together anymore than I questioned Bert and Ernie’s cohabitation on Sesame Street. My grandparents never questioned it either, or at least never made a big deal about it. They came over for cook outs, or to borrow an egg or to discuss the latest neighborhood goings on. They were just William and Alistair, our friends next door.
At some point I understood they were gay, but since nobody in my family seemed to care, niether did I. Occasionally my grandparents would chuckle or raise an eyebrow about something they thought overly flamboyant that Alistair had worn or said. (They were New England dairy farmers, after all) On summer breaks from high school and college I would sometimes go with Alistair to houses he was decorating or gardens he was designing . I thought it was cool and exotic to have such interesting, sophisticated friends.
One day while on a college break at the farm I was drawn to the kitchen by the sound of Alistair’s voice. He has one of those amazing projectile voices you can hear no matter where you are in the big farmhouse the moment he steps over the threshold. He was sitting at the kitchen table, legs crossed, looking as he often did as if he’d just come from a shoot as a model for J. Crew. A piece of my grandmother’s lemon meringue pie on a little plate was balanced gracefully in his fingers. He was saying to my mother:
“The other day William came home from a canoe trip, looked around and said to me, ‘Well, what have you been doing all day, Alistair?’ and I said to him, ‘I’ve been ironing 50 of your damn shirts! THAT’s what I’ve been doing all day.”
“I don’t know, Karen. If I had to do it over again….”
I remember my mom and grandmother making sympathetic noises.
That was the moment I understood that there was nothing exotic or amusing about being gay. I realized Alistair was just another person who, like so many of us, sticks with someone for the long haul despite the hard work, despite the fact relationships don’t always play out like the script to a romantic comedy (no matter how we like to spin things on Facebook)
At this point William and Alistair had been together longer than my own parents. They had built a house together, been through more than one set of dog children (which if you’re anything like me, means something.)
They stayed together despite the fact their relationship wasn’t socially acceptable, had no religious mandate, and didn’t need an expensive divorce if they’d wanted to split up. You would have thought it would’ve been easier to end their relationship- and yet theirs endured. I often look back on that moment of Alistair sitting at the kitchen table now, after 22 years of my own marriage and see myself. ( Well, except I will never, on my best dressed, best looking day, be mistaken for a J Crew model)
When William died he was in a coma for a few days and I wasn’t in NH at the time but I found out that some members of William’s family who had never accepted their relationship were making it difficult for Alistair to be with William at the hospital. I remember thinking that surely that couldn’t be legal? Surely no one would actually do that? How could they not see William and Alistair the way I did? They had been together for 30 years. I’m not a religious person but that kind of cruel, unloving behavior seems far worse than anything two consenting adults could do together.
I know most of the arguments against gay marriage use the Bible as their justification. But the Bible has been used to justify everything from slavery to women not working outside the home. It seems that society changes and then we go back and reinterpret the Bible to reflect our new viewpoints. I wish everyone would just admit that no one really knows for sure what God wants- not the Pope, not Pat Robertson, not Oprah. And if it turns out the Jehovah Witnesses were the only ones who got it right, a lot of us are going to have some major explaining to do. And deep down, don’t we all believe God will forgive us in the end? But, fine. I don’t think the Baptists or Catholic church etc. should have to marry someone who doesn’t play by their rule., But call it marriage, civil union, whatever, I want people like Alistair and William to be legally protected and to have the same rights any other married couple would have. I never want anyone to be told to wait out in the hall while the person they love, whose life they have been a part of for so many years, lives out their final moments.
I hope the Supreme Court will see it my way.