My mom graduated from high school in 1963. She’d had, as I learned when I was a teenager, a teenage affair of some sort with a guy called Dick Temple--he would resurface later, wreaking every kind of havoc--but once out of school, she married a young man called Fred Hardin, who I never met. He had a motorcycle and died on it a few years later, leaving my older sister fatherless. He and my mom divorced before his crash, and Mom hooked up with at least two other guys, one of whom was my father, a man named Richard Spencer, from Indiana, and Rodney “Butch” Whitaker, who left for Korea in the Air Force around the time I was conceived.
There’s a 50% chance each of them provided the sperm that resulted in my birth in 1968, but I’ll never know which it was. I didn’t even know it was a question, and had never heard of Spencer until I was thirty-five and I asked my mom why Butch despised me--was it just because I was gay? No, Mom said, there’s more to it than that, and she told me the romantic little story about having fallen for a young married man, Spencer, at the same time as she was dating Butch. Since Spencer was taken, she settled for Whitaker, who must have been more than a little surprised when he returned from Korea to Ohio and found himself a father, but he dutifully married twenty-three year old Gloria, and the four of us apparently started a home together. I remember none of this, of course. Gloria and Butch then had another son, Mike, so we were five. Ten years later, Mom had divorced the drunken bully Butch and had a daughter with George, her third (of six) husbands, a drug-addicted Bible-beating lunatic with a beard. One Christmas, in George’s trailer, where we were living at the time, we kids wanted to watch Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph or some such classic, but George decided we should read something from the Bible together instead. It turned into a bit of a mess. George threw his Bible across the room and we all went to bed in tears. I suspected we would rid ourselves of George before long, and we did: a difficult, violent breakup. I suspect his drug was cocaine. He died of heart failure when I was seventeen.
Next up was Dick Temple, whose drug was beer (like Butch’s was). He drove a beat-up old pink (formerly red) pickup truck and arrived one afternoon not long after he married my mom with a mangy old stray dog that must have weighed a good hundred pounds, proposing to bring him into the house. My mom not being an animal person (at all), the dog was not welcome, and the gloves came off for good. Eventually Dick would hold a rifle to my head, saying if I didn’t stop trying to spoil what he had going with my mom, he’d shoot me. I believed him. Then he came home good and drunk, threatening us, and mom locked the back door against him. He swiftly put his hand through the glass and reached in to unlock the door as the five of us--Mom, my older sister, my brother, and little sister--ran out the front door and fled to somebody’s house and called the police. Life went on more or less like that until I was 17 and moved out.
I suspect my mom got married so many times because her evangelical parents told her she
mustn’t have sex outside of wedlock. Also, that there must be a man at the head of the table. With some poetic logic, she finally found a nice man to settle down with, but he strikes one as anything but the sexually inclined, a cheerful, friendly, kind, hard-working Christian man. They’ve been married for 25 years--by far my mom’s longest-lasting relationship. Moral: get rid of sex if you want to enjoy love. And do whatever it takes to get a man into that seat of power and keep him there.
Mom never pursued any education past high school, and she was never a reader of books, nor took much interest in things beyond the circle of her small-town life. She worked in factories until she managed, for a few years, to have her own shop, a consignment store called Morning Glories, where the priciest thing for sale went for about $15.
She voted for Barack Obama both times, she told me, and for Bernie Sanders in a primary, but in 2016 she refused to vote for Hilary Clinton. She told me she was “a bad woman.” I did all I could to change her mind. I even tried bribing her by sending a small kitchen appliance, but to no avail. She wouldn’t admit she was voting for Trump, but she said she was going to vote, and it wouldn’t be for the bad woman. She voted to put a man—any man—even him—at the head of the U.S. table.
I was existentially pissed.
But I figured he wouldn’t last long. I thought he’d probably hate the job--reading all those briefs at night, giving all those heartfelt uplifting speeches, mourning the dead, settling tricky foreign affairs, trying to make everybody like him, behaving as presidents were obliged to do. And I thought he was likely addicted to hookers, and he’d quit the job for that reason alone--I was unable to foresee those weekly trips to Mar-a-Lago for “golf.” Then all the crazy shit that happened happened and I was increasingly certain that my mother, who after all was a sane person despite a steady drip of Fox News and so on, would come to her senses and draw the reasonable conclusion that she’d made a mistake, and she’d support whichever Democrat would face him in 2020, but no. She voted for the motherfucker twice.
I was shocked. Her father got a Purple Heart when he was wounded in Europe during the War. He nearly died fighting Nazis. And the NY Times published a story in 2018 about some Trumpified self-proclaimed Nazis living just about thirty miles as the crow flies from the house my mom bought from her dad, the house she was living in when her dad was away fighting Nazis in Europe. She didn’t seem to mind, or care, about the batshit crazy people a few towns over, and she held steady, apparently, in her support for Trump. When was she so radicalized? And how? And why? I’ll never know, I’m sure. I asked her in October 2020 to let me know if she decided against voting for Trump again, but she never did, her silence speaking plenty loud for me to draw my grim conclusion, so I wrote something on Facebook about feeling betrayed and lost, angry and stupefied that my own flesh and blood, my own mother, supported someone as despicable as the mob-inciting fraud whose every project had gone down in flames of bankruptcy and unpaid bills and enmity and failure. She told my siblings that she was afraid of me, and wouldn’t speak to me. (Among her worst fears, I believe, is being put into a situation that makes her cry. I cry almost every day; perhaps she does too.) Not that she ever called me anyway. But our relationship faltered, and it’s faltering still. She’s 76 years old, eats mostly junk food, doesn’t exercise, and has medical issues aplenty, and I’d prefer to be close to her now since she’s my only mom, and we did manage to have some good times together over the years--she knew how to have fun back in the day, I’ll give her credit for that. But she won’t speak to me nor I to her, so that’s that. Our squabble is just one of the unknowable number of tragic consequences of all those millions of Americans voting in a man who didn’t even want to win, seems to me. But now that he’s had a taste of real power--and now that he knows you don’t have to read those briefs or give those sappy speeches or mourn those who died from gunshots or the coronavirus or whatever the hell, and if he can get away with inciting a deadly raid on the Capitol filled with Democrats like so many sitting ducks--along the lines of shooting a man on Fifth Avenue in daylight and getting away with it--well, who knows, he may run again down the line, and Gloria, in Ohio, may just wind up voting for that lunatic a third time. Imagine.
Once upon a time, as recently as, say, the first of November 2016, large-scale life seemed more or less predictable, foreseeable--it’s not hard to imagine a President Cruz or a third President Bush--but five years ago I never in a million years or more could have foreseen Covid-19, and if I’d made up the story of President Trump, my agent would have sent the manuscript back to me with a note: Dear Rick, Are you kidding me? Too far-fetched. Try again. And I would have had to go back and start the story over for fear of being criticized for making up something so ridiculously implausible.
But I suppose my entire life has been characterized by the strange and unpredictable. Whose Christian mother has six husbands? A long series of exquisitely unlikely happenings led me from Ohio to New York City, and another facilitated my happiness and modest prosperity. Strange but true—could be my autobiography’s title. (Could be almost anyone’s, if they’ve lived a life worth writing about.) But nothing has been stranger than my mom’s turn to the far right as revealed in her support of the man who is idolized against all logic by almost half the citizens among us, even now. Their frenzied worship and passionate embrace—and hers, my mother’s—is far from finished. And they—she—may yet get to play her Trump card to finish the game.
God help us if they do. Ach, but God is with them.
Rick Whitaker is author of Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling,The First Time I Met Frank O'Hara: Reading Gay American Writers, and An Honest Ghost, a novel consisting entirely of sentences taken from (more than 500) other books. He recently introduced author Edmund White, who was receiving the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Visionary (lifetime achievement) Award at New York University using only sentences from Edmund White’s own books. He is Concerts and Theater Director at Columbia University’s Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America. He served for ten years on the Board of Directors of Family Focus Adoption Services. Rick is the editor of www.exquisitepandemic.com