House of Turner
I have heard that you can’t or don’t choose your family, I think that isn't true. My grandmother lives just outside of downtown Durham, NC,in the same house-just a ten minute drive from the baseball stadium and Duke University- for most of her life. Her house sits in the middle of Cub Creek Road, a street separated from the Durham city projects by acres of wood. Yellow as a Betty Crocker lemon pound cake the house is cluttered with old chairs painted in spring colors. Flowers beds and pots sprout gerbera daisies. Rusted wind chimes hang in disrepair from the front porch, and feral cats of every color slip under the house after snatching their lunch from angel birdbath statues. The side garden ground is made of crushed glass that does not cut your bare feet. The home, characterized in a dialect of the region, is “just darling.” But currently, this old house plays as neutral territory in an increasing separation of the family that was born from it.
Cousin Rebecca, the youngest child of Uncle Bud and Aunt Tina (living in the more rural part of Raleigh) is the center of this separation. Rebecca was baptized Robert Helms. In the summer of 2015 Aunt Tina sat with me smoking in the dark of night outside of Ollie’s house. I could barely see her; There is only one lamppost for Cub Creek and it rises squarely out of Ollie’s backyard bathing everything in candy orange light. The acrid smoke pulling from her cigarette kept away mosquitoes. Tina confided in me the trouble going on with her son.*
I have heard that you can’t or don’t choose your family, I think that is bullshit. Rebecca is learning what I have come to realize is true. Within family there are those who love you and those who love only parts of you. I have searched for people who blur the lines between friend and family. I told Rebecca that we as gay people get to choose our family, we get to pick who we are around. Family is not just between those with whom you share blood. The nature of the family we have is a result of our own creation. I feel as if I am piecing together a family.. Under our matriarch, Ollie, we have been blessed with someone who could not have cared less- even delighted in who we really are- but now she is dying.
When our Uncle Noey passed away, I accompanied Rebecca to the funeral. He was buried in the cemetery next to the church that neighbors Ollie’s house. Rebecca wore a church hat. The one with the wide brim, velvet rose petals attached to beaded pins. The pastor of our family, Uncle Ed, felt the call to say a few words. He preached about the return to morals, the lack of focus on family had consequences rearing its ugly head at in own family. Rebecca’s heels sank into the mud, crackling under the pine needles that dropped from the surrounding trees. My grandmother said to me, among the granite gravestones, that we have many types of men in our family: Klan members, wife beaters, homosexuals, an Oscar winner, a senator, and pastors. She also mentioned the high rate of divorce in the family. Later, Rebecca and I walked back to the yellow house for the reception held in Ollie’s kitchen. It would be filled to the walls with relatives gossiping, spilling out into the glass garden, sitting among the mosquitoes, and cats that spend more time visiting our matriarch than we do.*Many of Rebecca’s family members continue to use male pronouns when addressing Rebecca; she says she does not care.