JFB in NYT: “All My Old Haunts”

The third in my series of summer 2011 op/ed columns for the New York Times appeared on August 18.  This time, I was subbing for either Gail Collins or Paul Krugman.  Or both.  It’s a valedictory piece about ghosts, transness, my open-minded “conservative” parents, and forgiveness.  A kind of amazing thing is that in the 100+ comments on the Times site, only one thought that my being trans was particularly remarkable.  I had long hoped for this: a piece in which transness is part of the exposition, but NOT the whole story.  Nice.

All My Old Haunts

Jennifer Finney Boylan

Belgrade Lakes, Me.

For someone who does not believe in ghosts, I’ve encountered more than my fair share of them over the years in my parents’ house in the Philadelphia suburbs. The first day I set foot in the place, I saw, or imagined I saw, an unseemly blue mist drift through the dark basement.

coffinhouseJust a few months ago, one of my mother’s neighbors, who had come over to check on her, saw it, too; the mist came down the hall, paused to consider him, and then curled into the room where my mother lay dreaming.

He told me about it after she died last month. “It didn’t seem malicious exactly.  More like it was just checking up on her.”

My mother, an evangelical Lutheran and a private, dignified lady, thought that talk of specters was ridiculous. “There’s no such thing as ghosts,” she told me. “There’s the Holy Ghost, of course, but that’s different. We call that the Holy Spirit.”

As a transgender teenager in the 1970s — a boy in body, a girl in spirit — I remember lying in my bedroom, up on the third floor, thinking that I heard footsteps creaking in the attic. I would whisper, “You’re not real. I don’t believe in you.” To which I always imagined the ghosts replying: “That’s all right. We don’t believe in you, either.”

What I’ve learned over the years is that you can be haunted by lots of things; actual ghosts can be the least of them.

I’m haunted, for instance, by memories of my smart and loving parents in that beautiful old house, by the dining room, with its long Winterthur table, where my father held forth from the southern end, an L&M King filter elegantly positioned between his second and third fingers.

My father, Dick Boylan, was a charming combination of medieval history professor and trust banker. While he helped mastermind the merger between Philadelphia’s Provident Bank and Pittsburgh National to create PNC, his true passion was for the Middle Ages, with a secondary interest in debate, or as he liked to call it, “forensics.”

My parents were Republicans of a variety that we will not see again. They adored Gerald Ford (“The Healer,” as my mother, Hildegarde, mistily called him). On plenty of social issues, she was a liberal, not that she’d have used that word. But she only voted for a Democrat once — in 1936, when she supported F.D.R. and jilted Alf Landon.

In those days, before we surrounded ourselves only with those who already agreed with us, my parents delighted in assembling people of divergent opinions over our dining-room table to argue about the Equal Rights Amendment or the Gary Hart campaign. At a certain point, my father would ding his fork against the side of his glass and command everyone present to begin arguing “the reverse of their earlier position.”

He would get me to play our piano with my left and right hands in different keys. “It’s good for you,” he would say, gently.  “It makes you open-minded.”

This kind of thinking seems almost quaint in the current political landscape, where it’s commonplace to call people with whom you disagree “traitors” or “un-American.”

In the wake of the recent debate over the debt ceiling, I imagined my father’s solution. If the goal were to cut $4 billion from the deficit, he’d have suggested that the Republicans be put in charge of coming up with $2 billion of tax increases and the Democrats with finding $2 billion of cuts in services and entitlements. “Only when you try to argue your opponents’ point of view,” he’d have said, “does your own begin to make sense.”

There was plenty of that in my mother’s view of the world, too. When I finally came out to her as transgender, just after I turned 40, my conservative, religious mother put her arms around me, and said, without hesitation, “Love will prevail.”

My father died in that house on Easter Sunday 1986; my mother passed away this summer on the day after the Fourth of July. I went through the old place at dawn after the funeral, turning out lights and preparing to take my leave.

I paused for a moment in the dining-room doorway, filled at that hour with long shadows. There at the head of the table was my father, his L&M King in hand; my mother at the other end looking at us all adoringly; and in between them my sister and me, teenagers still, all the tragedies and wonders of our lives unrevealed. I thought of a line from Thornton Wilder: “Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

For a moment they flickered like ghosts, that family, the voices echoing in the empty house. And then they were gone.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, a professor of English at Colby College and the author of “I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted,” is a guest columnist.

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  • The Boylan Family, summer 2010

    DSC_0063 "You hang around our family, you learn all kinds of stuff."
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  • Jenny with Barbara Walters, December, 2008

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  • Jenny atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin

    2036947979_34bfbec240 August, 2002.
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    Edward had been my teacher at Johns Hopkins in the winter of 1986. He visited Colby in fall, 2007. As we took our leave of each other, he kissed me on both cheeks and said, "We have done well. You and I."

  • Jenny and her teacher, the great John Barth

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    Jack was my professor at JHU when I did my thesis, back in the day. After many years, I can now confidently say I finally understand his definition of plot. Which is, of course, "the perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a new and complexified equilibrium."