"Shhhttt." The familiar hiss. The inverted-can hymn. Shaving foam. My father had a faceful of fluffiness. Like icing made from cream and sugar, it formed stiff, white peaks that wouldn't melt. He stretched his chin high, pulling upward in uniform strokes, the razor making small sounds as it scraped his skin.
A typical, Sunday-morning scene in my house as my family got ready for church: my mother would sit my two sisters and me on the kitchen chair, one after the other, and painstakingly use a comb under the curling iron as she curled our hair, in an effort to not burn our foreheads or earlobes (she never did), and then put our dresses out for us, dresses she made herself (just like the fancy, plaid, polyester pantalons she'd make, with the elastic only at the back), and then tie our dress shoes. That morning, I'd insisted on having my hair done first, so that I could seek my father's wisdom before we left the house.
I stared at him quietly, barely blinking, barely breathing, except for inhaling the scent of his shaving foam. It smelled like trees and mint, like my dad when he hugged me or walked by. The water was running in the sink as he stood over it, and the steam was rising up, fogging the mirror. That upstairs bathroom in my parents' home needed repair, but the hot water sure worked! I was convinced it might burn my skin clean off if I got too close, so I simply stood in the doorway.
Dad was in those white underpants that all dads wore, kind of baggy and weird, and his church clothes were hanging on the hook on the back of the bathroom door. That silver hook, high above my eye level, jutted out like a big knife. I hated it. I could never reach it, anyway.
"A lesbian is a woman who loves other women," he said, rinsing his razor in the half-filled sink, then going back for more. He wasn't looking at me, just answering my question. This pragmatic approach was typical of both my parents. Very educated. Very optimistic. Very honest. And very open-hearted. United Methodist missionaries.
I said nothing, trying to memorize his words in my 6-year-old brain. I thought to myself, "A woman who loves other women." I was astounded! As this was before Billie Jean King's outing, and I was still prepubescent, I had no concept of "girl-on-girl" or "girl-love" whatsoever -- except when it came to my two buddies from my first-grade class, Dawn and Sherrie, from across the back lane.
The three of us had been spending a great deal of time in the tent that had been pitched in my backyard all summer; my parents' intention was to keep us out of trouble with this offering of said canvas pseudo-fort. Long sunsets in the Northern Manitoba summer and the innocence of laissez-faire parental supervision in the '70s helped our cause: we were fooling around. Messin' around. "Exploring." A lot.
And, predictably, without discretion or secrecy, we would hold court every recess, educating the other children on "The Ways Wayward Dolly Shoes May Be Inserted into One's Friend's Hoo-Hoo," or the oft-requested "How to Mimic Sherrie's Parents Having Their 'Special Nap.'" Our classmates would abandon their recess plays, their homage to George Lucas' new Star Wars film, and sit chin-on-hands, glued to our embellishments and theatrical descriptions. We should have charged speakers' fees. We loved these captive audiences, and it only encouraged our "tomfoolery" further -- which is what we thought it was.
Now, this was the '70s, happier and more whimsical times, at least in my little bubble of the world. We simply had no frame of reference for inferring that anyone or anything might cast a judgmental, negative, or sinister shadow on our innocent curiosities, our private games -- that is, until one of the smartypants fourth-grade girls got wind of our Information Assemblies and crashed the party on the playground, announcing to everyone that we were -- gasp! -- lesbians.
Hilarity and cackling commenced, and our loving fans, our loyal audience, abandoned us. In one word, this girl knocked us off our pedestal, crushed us, and knocked the wind out of us, out of our hearts. Perhaps, without even knowing it, she judged us and changed our perspective -- and the perspective of our little classmates.
I felt so embarrassed. I felt like washing my hands. I felt ashamed. I didn't know why this girl would do that, would make us feel so bad. I didn't understand at all. So, like any self-respecting middle kid, I decided to muster up the guts to ask my dad -- not that it was particularly frightening to ask him a question, but it was the question itself that had me handwringing and stammering. But I had to know what this word meant, this word with so much power, this word that silenced us all in the schoolyard. And my professor father would know. He knew everything! He told us he was a "professional know-it-all," and I took that very seriously.
"Why? Do you think you're a lesbian?" My father stopped shaving and looked at me.
But at that moment, my mother's voice carried through the house: "Beth? Beth! Are you dressed?" Grateful for the timely interruption, I broke out into a little, self-conscious smile.
"Umm, thanks, Dad."
It was like a gift from God -- before we even got to church! I was so relieved. I turned on my toes and ran down the stairs, two at a time, pulling on the thin, iron railing, my sweaty hands squeaking all the way down. "Cooommmiiinnnggg, Mooommm!"
Don't get me wrong: my father was absolutely neutral about the whole thing. Although I don't think I ever did answer him, his honest and matter-of-fact response to me made it one of the most affecting and integral conversations I've ever had with him. So impressionable was I, so prone to even the slightest indication of negativity, that having my dad imprint this concept into my growing mind, into my little heart, made it as if any shame or self-doubt I would ever have regarding whom I chose to love washed down that sink with the scalding-hot whisker water that morning, never to threaten to burn me again.