This is a picture of me and my mom, taken in the summer of 1948. I wasn’t even a year old. Mildred Vandam Bornstein died about 12 years ago. I was lucky enough to have a mother-son relationship with her as I was growing up, and a mother-daughter relationship with her for seven years as an adult.
A few years back, I wrote a piece that was published in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, under the title "Her Son/Daughter." I’d called the piece "Hoowahyoo," but editors tend to dick around with your work, especially titles of short pieces. No matter.
Every September 9th, I open up this document on my hard drive and I read it and I smile and cry a little. If you know my work, you’ve probably read it before. But in honor of my mom’s birthday, I’m presenting it for the first time here on my blog. This is the uncut version, with the extra bit about my phone sex hostess days that my mother never did know about.
by Kate Bornstein
first published in The New York Times Magazine in January, 1998, under the title “Her Son/Daughter”
“Who are you,” asks the third blue-haired lady, peering up at me through the thick lenses of her rhinestone cat glasses. Only it comes out in one word, like “Hoowahyoo?” I’m wearing black, we all are. It’s my mother’s funeral service after all, and the little old ladies are taking inventory of the mourners. Me, I have to take inventory of my own identities whenever someone asks me who I am, and the answer that tumbles out of my mouth is rarely predictable. But this is my mother’s funeral, and I am devastated, and to honor the memory of my mom, I’m telling each of them the who of me I know they can deal with.
“I’m Kate Bornstein,” I answer her in this quiet-quiet voice of mine, “Mildred’s daughter.”
“Daughter?!” She shoots back incredulously the same question each of her predecessors had asked, because everyone knew my mother had two sons. That was her claim to fame and prestige amongst this crowd. No do-nothing daughters in my mother’s family, no sir. Two sons. That was her worth as a woman.
“Mildred never mentioned she had a daughter.” The eyes behind those glasses are dissecting my face, looking for family resemblances. When I was a boy, I looked exactly like my father. Everyone used to say so. Then, when I went through my gender change, those same people would say, “Y’know, you look just like your mother.” Except I’m tall.
Nearly six feet of me in mourning for the passing of my mother, and I’m confronting this brigade of matrons whose job it seems to be to protect my mother from unwanted visitors on this morning of her memorial service down the Jersey shore.
“You’re her daughter? So who’s your father? It’s not Paul, am I right?”
Now there would be a piece of gossip these women could gnaw on over their next mahjongg game. “Mildred had another child,” they’d say after calling two bams, “a daughter no less! And Paul, God rest his soul, he never knew.”
My mother had told only a tight circle of friends about my gender change. She knew that spreading the word meant she’d be torn to shreds by the long pink fingernails so favored by the arbiters of propriety of the small town she lived in. She was raised in a nearly-orthodox household, my mother was. As a young girl, she would wake up every morning just in time to hear the men and boys wake up and utter the phrase, “Thank God I was not born a woman.” She lived her life placing her self-worth on the presence of the men in her life. Her father, a successful merchant, died a year before I was born. Her husband, a successful doctor, died a year before I told her that one of her two sons was about to become a dyke. She preferred the word “lesbian.” “My son, the lesbian,” she would tell her close friends with a deep sigh and a smile on her lips.
My mother was there the night the rabbi asked me who I was. I was a senior in college, a real hippie: beard, beads, and suede knee-high moccasins with fringe hanging down past my calves.
I was home for some holiday or other, and my parents thought it would be nice if I came to synagogue with them. They wanted to show off their son who was going to Brown. I’d always enjoyed Friday night services. There’s something lullingly familiar about the chanting, something comforting in the old melodies and the Hebrew which I never ever understood but had down phonetically.
But when the rabbi gave his sermon, I was incensed. To this day, I don’t remember what I was so outraged by, any sense of my anger having been eclipsed by the events that followed. But there I was, jumping to my feet in the middle of the rabbi’s sermon, arguing some point of social justice.
My father was grinning. He’d never been bar mitzvah’ed, having kicked his rabbi in the shins the first day of Hebrew school. My mother had her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. She was never very fond of our rabbi, not since the time he refused to make a house call to console my father the night my grandfather died. So there we were, the rabbi and the hippie, arguing rabbinical law and social responsibility. We both knew it was going nowhere. He dismissed me with a nod. I dismissed him with a chuckle, and the service continued. On the way out of the synagogue, we had to file by the rabbi who was shaking everyone’s hand.
“Albert,” he said to me, peering up through what would later be known as John Lennon glasses, “Hoowahyoo? You’ve got the beard, so now you’re Jesus Christ?”
I’ve done my time as an evangelist. Twelve years in the Church of Scientology, and later, when I’d escaped Hubbard’s minions, four or five years as a reluctant spokesperson for the world’s fledgling transgender movement. But somewhere in between Scientology and postmodern political activism, I found time to do phone sex work. My mother never knew about that part. It was one of the who’s I’d become I knew she couldn’t deal with. So I never told her of the day I was standing in line in the corner store in West Philly, chatting with the woman behind the counter. From behind me, a deep male voice says, “Excuse me, who are you?” And I turn to see this middle-aged yuppie peering up at me through tortoise-rimmed glasses.
“Stormy?” he asks me. Stormy was the name I’d chosen for the smoky-voiced phone sex grrrl who did erotic dancing on the side and had a tattoo on her thigh. “Stay on the line with me a little longer, sugar,” I’d purr into the phone, “and I’ll tell you what it is.”
So this young urban professional is standing behind me looking like he’d died and was meeting the Virgin Mary. I’m trying to figure out what fantasy of his we’d played out.. But I’m scared. Way scared. If word got out that Stormy is a tranny, I’d lose my job for sure. I fix this guy with the same icy stare I’d learned from my mother, and he eventually slinks away to inspect the Pringles.
My mother died before she could hear the blue-haired ladies ask “Hoowahyoo” of the tall-tall woman with mascara running down her cheeks. She never heard the producer from the Riki Lake Show ask me, “Who are you?” when I told her I wasn’t a man or a woman. My mother never heard the Philadelphia society matron ask me the same question when I attempted to attend her private women-only AA group.
My mother only once asked me, “Who are you?” It was about a week before she died. “Hoowahyoo, Albert?” she asked anxiously, mixing up names and pronouns in the huge dose of morphine, “Who are you?”
I told her the truth: I was her baby, I always would be. I told her I was her little boy, and the daughter she never had. I told her I loved her.
“Ha!” she’d exclaimed, satisfied with my proffered selection of who’s, “That’s good. I didn’t want to lose any of you, ever.”