Gifts, by K. Ann MacNeil

In the metaphorical housecleaning that comes before my back-to-school-ing . . .

. . . (a.k.a. the autumnal equinox), I’ve been thinking about those things on my to do list in perpetuity, including what I call in my head, with no small amount of cheek: weddings-I-meant-to-have.  While I don’t believe in marriage, and stamp my feet (and a few other things) against more than a few would-be hetero-normalizing sets of narratives, I do believe in public ceremonies and symbols that allow me to bind myself to folks, to family, chosen- and of origin-.


My maternal great-grandmother could tell the sex of a baby and was never wrong, not once.  Not even in the face of tearful mothers (a parade of inevitably dark-haired aunts-who-were-really-cousins, and neighbors, all of whom called my nonna, Zia, as if it were her name, and to them, I guess it was) who drank warm water with what smelled like red wine vinegar and lemon, who wanted just one girl.  They always wanted girls.  Especially by the fourth or fifth.  Sometimes by the second or third.  I had learned, early, that I wasn’t supposed to let on that this was so, or that I knew.  But my great-grandmother couldn’t change the sex.  Only foretell.

So I should have known better than to have doubted her when she pulled me in close enough to smell the mint from our pocket garden and breathed, “Not that one.  Tell him no,” when I kissed her hundred and two year old cheek on my way out the door to meet my first, last and only bio boyfriend, by then already almost-an-ex-.  “I will,” I nodded, without knowing what I was promising.  The hundred and three year old door swung, balanced, then slammed behind me.

In the parking lot of Grand China Restaurant, off route 128 in Salem, New Hampshire, past the state liquor store but before the smoke shop, under sprayed-gold lions, in the cold, when that same boy bent down and asked me, crying, to marry him, I didn’t have to think twice.

My grandmother could read.  Cards and coffee grounds were her favorites.  I remember her moka macchinetta, always in need of polishing, on the hulking stove and in the gleaming, just-dried-with-a-rag-that-used-to-be-an-undershirt sink.  “This one, we like,” she laughed, surprised at herself, and maybe at me.  “But why a wedding?” she asked, holding my hand, palm up, but scanning my face.

I would have wanted to have said yes.  I had a wedding I meant to have, calendared, in my head, the first Sunday in June, at Houghton Chapel, in Wellesley, at nine o’clock in the morning. Earlier, if it could have been.  To have staved off fits of nerves and anticipation.  To have avoided costly dinner and dancing.  Aunts and uncles and cousins would have been invited on both sides.  In the way of working class families everywhere, some would have attended, some not, all with joy and regret, often in equal measure.  Our friends in the a cappella group.  A Plath poem.  Maybe a Cervantes quote.  Cake and champagne on the lawn.

“Don’t her people have… things?  You know, food?”  This would have been from my grandmother, in between drags on her cigarette.  This would have come, inevitably, after a love-makes-a-family-only meal menu already had been scratched out, without me, with a golf pencil on a utility bill envelope, for the night before the ceremony, which she would have believed, secretly, that my girl groom’s family should have arranged.  The pencil would have been brilliantly sharp and the envelope immaculately slit and turned inside out with the cellophane still glittering.  We four generations of women would have sketched out circles for the tables for that night before.  We would have begged a short list of names from my groom and her stoic mum, who maybe, would have been turned on then off by my hugging, laughing-too-loudly family.  My Wellesley friends would have taken me to a dyke bar, would showered me in laughable, lacy underwear and serious books.

On the day of, I would have wanted an off-white, knee length dress.  Bare legs.  Kitten heels.  My groom in an off-white suit waiting for me at the altar where we had celebrated Flower Sunday with our little sisters before we had ever met.  My brother, our sole usher.  Our fathers, with both walking me to her.  White irises, her favorite, in my hands, on our friends’ and mothers’ wrists, on the lapels of my brother, our fathers, my groom.  Tolling carillon bells would have ushered us out.  After champagne and cake, we would have laughed and tripped our way back to a freshly soaped “JUST COMMITTED” borrowed car.  This time, I would have wanted to have said yes.  But she never asked.

My mother knew when folks were going to show up unannounced.  “Uninvited,” she would huff under her breath.  Who and when and how long, and maybe even why.  We never had to run down three flights of wooden, dusty, just-painted tenement stairs to beg five layer-frozen-in-case-for company cake from my grandmother and great-grandmother.  On an avocado, willfully electric stovetop, my mother would have sweets, cooling under a washed-to-bald hand towel, almost-ready for powdered sugar, so, it seemed, she could say she “…just felt like baking”.  The more important the guest, the more labor intensive the spread, the more magical.

My mother didn’t say much when she met him.  Not even when I offered a practiced, carefully worded, cleared well in advance, one liner to introduce my then-beau.  “He was born a girl but identifies as a boy.”  Then, “Yep.  He goes by he.”  I found him beautiful and familiar and loved him for wanting what he wanted for himself enough to name it and claim it, both.  I had been there at his first shot.  I remember rationalizing that I could be just-his-friend and go.  That I could muster up some good-girl-femme-sisterhood and hold his hand then pat his arm.  That it wouldn’t need to mean anything.  Or at least it wouldn’t have to mean everything.  “I don’t want you to go, like you’re my girlfriend, I mean,” he had said.  Only I couldn’t forget it later, even when I was.  My mother was hanging up her rotary phone when I pulled up in a pretty, rented car with him that first time.  “I just called for a pizza,” she told me, as if that said it all.  I suppose it did.

Conjuring has been my own lot, so far.  Mostly inconsequential things: songs on the radio; the appearance of lifetime of livery cabs, from nowhere, sometimes in the rain; offers from strangers to lend, to lift, to mend, to introduce, to procure.  I’ve been lucky.

When I was seven (and eight and nine and ten and eleven until I would rather not say), I would push up on first the wooden window frame, then pinch in the dusty metal screen, and swing out, onto the dustier back porch.  In a cotton nightgown (bleached, pressed, white, eyelet, handed down from one of the cousins in the spring and thick, flannel, plaid, picked to last, from my godmother in the fall) and bare feet, I would wish, nearsightedly, on the only star I could see for “…the perfect boy for me…”

I remembered this first when, in searching for a seat up front in a too-full graduate class room where the professor had just won a MacArthur, a sweet-faced butch pulled in her legs without looking up from her notebook.  Poof.  I remembered again, ten and some years later, when this same sweet-faced person, in from the opposite coast and mine only for a few hours, kissed me good-bye on the street and laid my hands flat against her chest.  I remembered my everyday wish a third time when, a year and some ago, she, inexplicably still-mine, (who, luckily, for me, indeed, has no preference for he over she, who prefers that I and most folks use both/and, who, mostly, these days, I call she, except when I don’t) sat across from me in Brooklyn, took my palm and pressed it to her lips and asked if I would want to wear a ring.  I couldn’t answer and instead clicked by her, past the bar, to the safety of the latched bathroom door.  She suggested wood, which I loved but lamented, envisioning bloated, blistered, warped circles.  She sketched out immaculate, precise ones, one after another, in her notebook and asked what I thought of rocks.  She asked her parents and mine to choose them for us.  I asked my daughter, whose own gifts seem to include brewing: storms, love potions, and protection charms and, happily, conjuring: perfect parking spots, mostly.  The rings have these stones, pulverized and suspended and set into not-matching bands, my partner’s on the outside and mine on the skin side. She crushed the rocks herself.

K. Ann MacNeil

is a teacher and writer living and working at the tip-top of an island (Manhattan), near the bank of an estuary (where the Harlem and Hudson Rivers meet), at the edge of a two hundred acre forest.  She (and her teenaged daughter) routinely toy with the idea of writing a collection of urban fairy tales set there.  Her work has been published in This Assignment is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching; The Q Review; and Girls: An Anthology; with a piece forthcoming in Significant Letters: Messages from the Sideline of the Transgender Community.

1 thought on “Gifts, by K. Ann MacNeil”

  1. I don’t know if this is fiction or non-fiction, or a combination of this and that, but you have certainly had a lot of intriguing women in your life.

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