by R. C. Curtis
About seven years ago I finally came out to my mother. I’d been living in L.A. and I’d been with my then boyfriend Richard for over a year. Richard was great; four years older than I, an academic, but with a wonderful, mordant sense of humor, a real mensch and a truly compassionate human being. He was the one who got me to go vegan. I’d never told my mother or any of my family about him or about me being queer and even though my mother never asked any awkward questions like, “when are you going to meet a nice girl?” I decided it was time to be open about it. So, in the fall of 2003 when I flew out to Chicago to visit my mother on the occasion of her sixtieth birthday, I decided to tell her.
So, my mother – well she’s a Jewish mother. Truly. She really fits the stereotype. You know, smothers you with love. And guilt. And food. Growing up, she’d practically force feed me, always concerned I wasn’t eating enough. “Have some more, have some more.” That was her mantra. And more and more. Roast chicken. Baked chicken. Chicken soup with matzah balls. Chicken soup with noodles. Noodle kugel. Gefilte fish. Knishes. Blintzes. Brisket. Bagels and lox. Corned Beef. Matzah brie. Stuffed Cabbage. Chopped liver. Kasha varnishkes. Strudel. So I grew up nice and fat. Fat and four-eyed. A nice, fat, four-eyed, gay Jewish boy. Oy vey!
Well, I get into Chicago on a chilly, windy day in mid-November and take a taxi to Skokie. About forty-five minutes later I’m at Mom’s place on Lowell Ave. And of course, the first thing my mother does when I enter the house is bring out the food. She sets out pickles. And rye bread slathered with cream cheese. And soup. And half a roasted chicken. “Eat, eat.” She says. And I look at that chicken and I look at my mother staring at me, waiting for me to dig in and I realize I need to tell her something else.
“ Mom,” I say, “we need to talk. I can’t eat this chicken.”
“What, did you eat already?” she replies, “When you knew I’d be making you something? You ate already? Okay, okay, just nosh on the pickles for a while. You’ll be hungry again soon.”
“No, that’s not it, Mom. I don’t eat chicken anymore. I don’t eat any meat anymore.”
My mother gets this look of horror on her face.”Oy! Don’t tell me you are one of those vegetarians.”
“Well,” I said, “Actually, I’m . . . a vegan.”
So, then I have to assure her I haven’t joined a cult and I try to explain just what a vegan is and she, of course, worries that I’m not getting any protein, worries that I’ll waste away, worries that I’m going to kill myself on such a radical diet, tells me that I’m going to kill her because I’m making her so worried about me, tells me this is the most foolish thing I’ve ever done and then demands to know who put me up to this.
“Well, I was getting to that. You see, uh, I’ve got something else to tell you.” And my mom has this agonized look on her face. I don’t want to prolong her agony so I just come out and say it, “ The guy’s name is Richard and he’s my boyfriend. I’m gay, Mom.”
Now, it’s hard to read my mother’s face but she certainly doesn’t look horrified. And then she says, “Larry . . . we all had that figured out years ago, darling. Tell me, this Richard fellow, is he a nice boy?”
“Is he a Jewish boy?”
“Yes, actually he is.”
“And do you two play safe? I mean, do you both wear . . .”
“Yes,” I blurt out before she can continue,” yes, we both play safe.”
“Well, alright, then,” says my mother. “But if he’s such a nice Jewish boy, I don’t know why he would want to go and turn you vay-gan!”
So I have to go over it and over it. I give her the ethical argument. I give her the health argument. I give her the environmental argument. She just keeps rolling her eyes and shaking her head. “If your father were only alive, he’d talk some sense into you,” she says. We’re sitting there in her overheated kitchen and I’m trying not to lose my cool, just wanting to escape. Then in walks my uncle Sidney. Uncle Sid, the kosher butcher.
“So what’s new with you, Larry?” he asks, slapping me on the back.
“You don’t want to know, Sidney,” Mom says, “You just don’t want to know. You’re going to plotz. Your nephew here has gone vay-gan . . . oh, and he finally came out of the closet.”
Well, Sid he thinks I’ve gone to Las Vegas and starts giving me tips about blackjack. “Always split aces and eights,” he says. “Always.”
My mother interrupts his spiel. “No, Sid, not Vegas, vay-gun.”
“Actually, it’s pronounced “vee-gun,” I say.
“You stay out of this,” Mom snaps.
“Vay-gan? Vee-gun? What in the world are you talking about?” Uncle Sid asks.
“He’s become a radical vegetarian, Sidney. He won’t eat meat – not even kosher meat—he won’t take dairy, eggs, nothing. Nothing, Sid. He’s driving a stake through my heart, I swear!”
My Uncle Sid scowls. “So what all of a sudden is wrong with meat? Do you want to put people like me out of business? All my adult life I’ve worked with meat. Meat put my daughters through college. Meat is the backbone of my life. Where do you get such foolish notions? So, what, am I now a bad man for putting food on people’s tables? Is that what you’re saying? I’m a monster?”
Then my Aunt Esther comes in, curious about the commotion.
“He’s gone vegan, Esther,” says my mother, at least this time pronouncing it correctly.
“Oh, I’ve heard about that,” says Esther. “Now, let me ask you – are you a hundred per cent?”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“You know, completely vegan. Because I hear there are different levels or what not. My friend Beth, she has a daughter about your age who’s a vegan but she eats fish.”
“If she eats fish, then she’s not vegan,” I reply.
“Well, I don’t know but I think you’re wrong. I think Beth’s daughter is pescavarian or what not.
“There’s no such thing.”
“Well,” says Aunt Esther, “I’m sure you know best but I think you’re wrong. Anyway, what else is new?”
“He’s out of the closet,” says Mom.
“Well, good for you!” exclaims Esther, giving me a little hug.
Just at that moment, my cousin Maxine wanders in.
“I came to wish the birthday girl a happy one but now I see Larry’s getting all the attention. What’s going on?”
“He finally came out,” says Esther.
“And he’s vegan,” adds my mother.
“Wow, that is news.” Says Maxine, “You know I’ve sometimes thought about trying that . . . I mean going vegetarian that is, not coming out,” she quickly adds with an embarrassed laugh. “I think that’s wonderful, Larry. But I don’t think I’d have the will power to be vegan. Maybe vegetarian, but I could never give up cheese. Never.”
“So, what do you eat?” Esther asks. And I run through a litany of vegan comestibles: Apples. Avocados. Bananas. Broccoli. Veggie Burgers. Bean burritos. Vegetable curry. Vegan cupcakes. Carrots. Green salads. Kale. Lentils. Mangoes. Oranges. Pad Thai. Pancakes. Pasta. Pears. Plums. Potatoes. Seitan. Tempeh. Tofu . . .
Mom stops me. “Satan? Like the devil?”
“No, Mom – it’s seitan – vital wheat gluten.”
“Oh, I’ve been hearing some bad things about gluten, Larry,” says Esther. “You should stay away from that stuff!”
“You see? You see?” says Mom.
“So what do you eat on Thanksgiving?” asks Maxine.
“Well, Richard and I like to have tofurkey.”
“No, really, it’s quite good,” I tell her.
“Oh my, god,” replies Maxine, “I thought you were joking.”
Then she adds, “Have you ever had a turduckin?”
“No. What’s that?”
“It’s a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey. You should try it some — oh geez, I forgot, Larry. You’re not allowed to have that, are you?”
So I tell her that it’s not a matter of being allowed to have something. I simply choose not to eat dead animal flesh.
“Oh, here we go!” shouts Sid.
“There’s no cause for being so gross, Larry,” scolds my mother.
I realize we’re getting nowhere, that I’m never going to win these people over. I’ve had enough and I finally lose my cool and my inner drama queen emerges. “I should never have come out here! I see I’m just ruining everything, ruining your birthday, Mom, everything. Excuse me for bringing such tsuris into this house! Excuse me for living. Maybe I should just take my horrible vegan self back to the airport and go back to California where I’m appreciated !”
Then my mother starts to cry. Aunt Esther and Maxine comfort her and Uncle Sid just stands there, shaking his head. I have to do a little back-peddling, a little smoothing of the waves.
“Look,” I say, “don’t worry about me. It’s my own thing, I’m not asking any of you to change or make special accommodations for me. I really didn’t think this would turn into such a deal.”
My mother, her mascara running down her cheeks, takes my hands in hers and she tells me it is a big deal because I’m her only son and she wants what’s best for me. And I tell her and my aunt Esther, my uncle Sid and my cousin Maxine that being vegan is what’s best for me, that I’ve never felt better, that I feel good about this lifestyle I’ve chosen, truly chosen. I tell them that I feel it’s the best choice I’ve ever made.
Then Maxine says, “I’m starving. What’s to eat?”