Today would be my brother Dale’s 75th birthday. To honor him, I’m rewriting an article I wrote for a business magazine in Orange Co., CA, in 1992. Although I was a regular columnist for that business magazine, I seldom wrote about business. I guess I was their comic relief. I wrote this piece during the 1992 presidential election campaign (Clinton, Bush, Perot) when the Republicans were going on and on and on about “family values.” I chose to write about Real Family Values.
In the late ’60s, Dale dropped out of his senior year at the University of Missouri, where he was majoring in art and earning A’s. He went home to Ferguson and came out of the closet. It freaked our family, big-time. First, they blamed it on our mother, who had died in 1965. Then they blamed it on higher education. Then they blamed the Sixties. Then it was the fault of Art “because everybody knows all artists were degenerates.”
As I remember it, our evil stepmother—who would be wearing MAGA hats if she were alive today—became louder and more abusive than usual. She lectured. She ranted and raved. When Dale tried to explain that for the first time in his life he felt good about himself, she sent him to a psychiatrist to be cured. She decided “it” was contagious and refused to wash Dale’s clothes with hers and our father’s. She inspected Dale’s mode of dress every morning before he left for work (he designed department store windows in downtown St. Louis).
In January 1969, Dale got fed up. He left home. Forever. He totally disappeared. No one heard a word from him. Not a letter, not a post card, not a phone call. When I moved to Southern California in 1976, my father said, “Now you can find your brother.”
“Do you have any idea how many people live in California?” I replied. “Hire a detective.” When they came to visit me five years later, they searched every face at Disneyland, hoping to see Dale there. “If he wanted to be found,” I told them, “he’d be found.” What I didn’t say was that he obviously didn’t want to be found and that I didn’t blame him. Nevertheless, when I became an AIDS emotional support volunteer at the AIDS Services Foundation in Orange Co., I put out the word in the gay community that I had a missing brother. But no one had ever heard of him.
Not a clue, not a sign, not a hint for 23 years. My son Charles grew up making jokes about his “phantom uncle.” When I spoke on the phone to my 95-year-old grandmother a month before she died, she was still asking if I’d heard from Dale.
On June 8, 1992, I was awakened by the phone ringing at 2 a.m. “This is your long-lost brother.” We talked for two hours, half crying, half-giggling. We said as much as we could think of, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Did I remember how I’d beat him up every time he hid the notebook I wrote my stories in? Did he remember the tissue-paper collage he gave me in ’68? (It’s hanging still today on the wall here in my office.) Did I remember how we used to ride our bikes to the creek? Did he remember how we always finished reading our Christmas books by New Year’s?
Dale was living happily in Guerneville, north of San Francisco, with a man named Tim. They were both HIV-negative. I had two brothers now. I called our aunt in St. Louis with the good news about Dale. I told Charles that his phantom uncle was alive and well. I called Dale and Tim that evening. “Send photos. I’m sending stuff to you.” By the time I spoke to them again a few nights later, they’d heard from aunts, uncles, and cousins. Dale had spoken with our father.
How had he found me? Tim said Dale had been talking about his crazy big sister for years, but they didn’t know I’d left Missouri. They’d finally found the phone number of our father’s older brother, who gave them our father’s phone number. Our stepmother was actually polite when Dale called. She gave him my phone number. “That’s great,” I told him. “But don’t phone me again at two in the morning.”
We became pen pals (this was before email). We sent photos back and forth. My son learned that he and his uncle had something in common: they’d both been Boy Scouts. Well, Dale had been an Eagle Scout, whereas Charles never got past Tenderfoot. Dale drew a goddess on the back of a Safeway bag and sent it to me. (It’s framed and hanging in my living room.) “Is she the goddess of safe ways?” I asked. “She’s the goddess of fruits,” Tim said.
Dale and I had 23 years to catch up on. He suggested that we meet in San Francisco. I flew up there, but he didn’t show up. To this day, I don’t know why. But our phone calls continued for nearly a decade. In 2001, Tim told me that Dale had cancer of the throat. He died that year. When Tim phoned me with the sad news, he said he’d had Dale cremated and had put the ashes in the closet. “Good grief!” I replied. “Tim, you put my brother back in the closet!” A month or two later, he poured the ashes into the Russian River. The magazine had entered my column in the Orange Co. Fair Best Reporters Contest. It won first place. I’d kept the $100 and sent the award plaque to Dale. Tim told me it was still hanging on the wall when Dale died.
This true story shows us what some real family values are: love, reconciliation, and humor. These are family values we need now more than ever before. Happy Birthday, Dale.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the Neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.