By Malcolm Boyd
This is only an excerpt…
There are so many secrets about our lives, especially our families, that makes digging for truth a highly questionable enterprise. This is one reason “living archives” are so important. In the past a dead person’s secrets contained in letters and other documents were routinely destroyed by family member’s intent on maintaining reputations. Recently pioneering archivists like the late Howard Gotlieb at Boston University have asked living persons to start their own archives while they are still alive and here.
I am one of those with an archive at Boston. Over the past 50 years I’ve sent the archive countless letters, notes, memorabilia and documents of every kind. My life isn’t secret; it’s revealed over and over again for any scholar or writer interested in exploring it. Once I complained somewhat bitterly to Dr. Gotlieb over the telephone that I’d given away all my secrets. “They don’t belong to me anymore,” I almost cried. “But,” he said — laughing and in the most positive tone —“you’ve gained an archivist.” I’d also gained a lifelong friend.
A key role of an archive, or archivist, is to explore who our immediate ancestors are and reveal information about them. This doesn’t mean turning the clock back a thousand years, but perhaps fifty or a hundred. My American Heritage Dictionary isn’t particularly helpful in defining “ancestor.” It says: “Any person from whom one is descended, particularly if more remote than a grandfather; a forefather.” This doesn’t work too well when one looks up “forefather” and finds “An ancestor.”
Does this leave me back at square one? Not exactly. As a Gay man, I have two sets of ancestors. The first is “legal” or official: this includes my grandparents. The second has no legality or official status at all; it includes those Gay people who have become role models or heroes for me. Generally I never met them because they were before my time. (Archives assume great importance when they provide needed information about them).
Let’s look for a moment at both sets of ancestors in my own life. We can begin with my grandfathers. I never met either of them. One was an Episcopal priest in Brooklyn around 1890 who fathered five children, including my dad, and died in his thirties. The other was Harry Joseph, a Conservative Jew, who married my grandmother Ruth. My mother Beatrice was their only child. Divorces and early deaths were factors that prevented me from knowing them.
My maternal grandfather, Harry Joseph, has touched my life strongly in his Jewishness. Growing up, I encountered the anti-Semitism of the ‘20s and ‘30s in the U.S. It both shocked and revolted me. Then it exploded in Nazi Germany into the Holocaust. As a young Episcopal priest in the ‘50s, my first parish was in an inner-city neighborhood of Indianapolis.
An Orthodox synagogue was located across the street from St. George’s, the parish which I served. On the Jewish Sabbath I became the one who turned on the light in the synagogue because no one Jewish was supposed to do it. This became a ritual for me. It wasn’t until a decade later that I paid my first visit to Israel. I had no idea what awaited me when, one night, I stood before the ancient Western (“Wailing”) Wall, a holy site of Judaism. I placed my forehead on a cold stone in the wall. I prayed for my grandfather. But the impact came when, suddenly, I realized he was never able to visit Jerusalem and stand in this place himself.
He got to stand before the Western Wall, and say his prayers, only through the medium of his goy grandson who did so. I found this a somewhat overpowering spiritual experience. Across a lot of time and space, Harry Joseph and I had surely bonded. I marveled at what we innocently call the mystery of life. Yet I couldn’t help wondering: what in the world would Harry Joseph make of his goy grandson? Would he want an Episcopal priest on the premises? More to the point, a Gay one?
There’s a story about Harry Joseph forever etched in my memory. It was a secret shared by mother, Beatrice, concerning her father. He and my grandmother Ruth had divorced. A teenager, Beatrice was visiting her father in Pennsylvania. Beatrice had a date with a young guy. Her father, a strict disciplinarian, had demanded they be back home by a certain time. They weren’t. When they got there, Harry Joseph was pacing back and forth, enraged. He believed Beatrice and her date had had sex. (They hadn’t). He ordered the young guy off the premises and said Beatrice could never see him again. Apparently a pre-feminist, Beatrice felt both outrage and betrayal. She decided not to accept this treatment.
That night she packed her trunk, called the young guy to come and pick her up and drive her to an early morning train. She departed for New York where she shortly became a top fashion model, met and married my father. Her sense of right-and-wrong had been violated. She had done nothing “wrong” and refused to accept punishment for what she had not done. This “secret” is not in my archive at Boston University but it is one of the strongest and most indelible stories of my life.
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The Rev. Canon Malcolm Boyd began his career in the production company of Mary Pickford and was the first president of the Television Producers Association of Hollywood. He is now, of course, Poet/writer-In-Residence of the Los Angeles Episcopal Archdiocese and an advisor to White Crane Institute. This spring White Crane Books will release a compendium of Boyd’s writing in The Malcolm Boyd Reader.
"Dave" by Steven Miller Courtesy of the artist. Visit his website to see more of his amazing work at www.smiller555.com