“I just think of all the older gays and lesbians that worked so long and hard for this day, especially the the ones that passed away without getting to see it happen.” Mark Kavouksorian
It was during the winter of my freshman year of college that my mother bought a house on Ridge Road. She and my sister moved from the townhouse on top of a hill that shook whenever the wind blew. We’d decamped there the summer after Dad died. (The synagogue owned the house, and the board had not been subtle about shooing us out the door to get it ready for a new rabbi.)
We hadn’t mixed with the immediate neighbors at Townhouse Complex, but on my first trip to the new house, Mom introduced me to “The Jones Girls.” The front door faced two driveways – ours and theirs. A tiny strip of land separated the two.
Della and Dorothy were probably in their 70s. Della swanned around in peignoirs, graceful and elegant. Her hair was always perfectly arranged atop her head in a swirl of snow. Dorothy’s hair was close-cropped and iron gray. She wore flannel shirts and jeans, and spent a lot of time outside, gardening. Della was an inside-the-house kind of person. I’m not sure what she did in there, but she always looked beautiful doing it.
The first year I came home to Ridge Road for semester break, I spent an afternoon watching them decorate their Christmas tree. It was a fake tabletop model. We talked about nothing very important as they brought out the ornaments and arranged them. They were interesting and good company and made me feel welcome, which wasn’t a frequent occurrence at that point in my life. (I was one of those kids who shouldn’t have started college right out of high school.)
After that, I made it my business to spend time with Della & Dorothy whenever I was home.
Over Spring Break, I asked them how they met and whether they’d lived in Utica their whole lives. It turned out that they’d met there as young women. They finished their schooling in Utica and went off to live in different cities. A lot of different cities, as it turned out.
As they ran through where they lived and what they done there – I think Della was a secretary and Dorothy did banking of some kind, or maybe it was the other way ‘round – a theme emerged.
The narrative went kind of like this:
“We lived in (name of city) and I got a job working as a school secretary and Della was working at the bank and we were there for (insert number of years). And then we had to leave.”
It took me three or four “….And then we had to leaves,” to figure out that I was in the presence of a lesbian couple who’d been together for 50 or more years.
I was an immature 19-year-old kid who’d never been anywhere – unless you counted Connecticut College and Cape Cod. Listening to those two recount their life adventures had been fascinating even before I’d made the Big Connection. After it, I was increasingly angry at the people who’d run them out of so many places. I was awestruck at what it must have taken for them to survive. And I was so happy they’d ended up someplace where I could meet them and hear their story.
Those two kind women were superheroes. They must have gone through all kinds of hell, and to have survived what they did with their love for each other intact was a miracle. That they could be kind to anyone else after all that is a tribute to who they were.
My mother moved away in 1983. Those ladies were old then. I did a search for their obituaries. I found Dorothy’s.
“Dorothy was born on June 2, 1917 and passed away on Friday, April 9, 2010. Dorothy was a resident of Utica, New York.”
So much has been left out, and so much we’ll never know. But I can add two sentences.
“She was predeceased by her life partner, Della Jones. They lived long, and loved well.”