Write Soon and Tell All

Pauline Oliveros moved to San Francisco. She played avant-garde accordion. She came out as a lesbian. She kept in touch with her mom.

Pauline's music wasn't the only thing Edith wasn't quite getting. When Pauline was about 17, Edith discovered some letters between her daughter and a woman named Suzon. That's when she learned that her daughter was a lesbian — in fact, that's when she learned there was such a thingas a lesbian. She fainted dead away. What followed was a confrontation of disastrous proportions.

The feeling that she was hurting her mother and grandmother was part of what drove Pauline from Houston, and Suzon, who had moved to San Francisco, was one of the reasons Pauline chose to go there. "I have met more mature Lesbians here than I knew existed," Suzon wrote to Pauline in January 1952. "Regardless of what the future holds in reference to our personal relationship, I know this is your city."

Edith gradually came around, pulled by her desire to be part of her daughter's life. She supported Pauline's relationships to a degree that now seems enlightened. The first time Pauline returned to Houston, in 1954, she brought her lover with her. Jennie, a girl Pauline had known from the softball teams she played on as a teenager, was given a warm welcome, and afterward Edith's letters always included a greeting or verse for her daughter's companion ("There once was a cute gal named Jennie / but boyfriends, she didn't have any").

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Don't call her "lady" composer: With Pauline's encouragement, Edith Gutierrez found her muse at 77.
George Hixson
Don't call her "lady" composer: With Pauline's encouragement, Edith Gutierrez found her muse at 77.

When Pauline's love life was rough going, Edith sympathized. "You sound very alone," she wrote after Pauline and Jennie split up. "However, this is probably just a period in your life when you are going to be rather withdrawn from things and people. All the better, for it will enable you to give out, later — and to have something to give. Right?? — If not — BOOM! — so you're a screwball!"

Yet intellectually, Edith still grappled with her daughter's sexual preference. It was, after all, the '50s. She didn't like to ask about it, because she firmly believed that a good relationship with her children depended on a robust respect for their privacy.

"She has said, 'I don't ask any questions,' " Pauline says. "I mean, she says that a lot. There are times when we wish that she would. I wish she would draw me out."

Edith's curiosity won out over her reluctance to intrude. When she was finally ready to broach the subject of Pauline's sexuality, she chose to do it in a letter — even though she had just paid her first and only visit to Pauline in San Francisco. In 1956, shortly after her trip, she wrote that she wanted to understand Pauline's "philosophy":

"I desire to take a constructive interest, rather than a prejudiced attitude. I am profoundly interested in the ultimate outcome of your situation in that I wonder about the effect of it on your work as a composer, as well as a woman. I am also deeply interested in knowing of other cases, but notin books or stories. "

Edith suggested that she might simply write out a yes/no questionnaire for Pauline to send back.

"Well, dear — I am apprehensive to know how this will appeal to you, but please — do not deafen me with silence. — All my love, Mama."

Ironically, it took somewhat longer for Pauline to come to terms with Edith's romantic life. As a teenager, Pauline had become very close to the Robin, who rented a room in the Oliveros house. The Robin was a couple of years older than Pauline, and more sophisticated. He introduced her to Billie Holiday and Pearl Bailey, and in general "opened up a lot of worlds" for Pauline, even before he admitted to her that he was really a woman posing as a man. The Robin had fallen in love with Edith, and his distaste for his rival, Pat, rubbed off on Pauline.

"I can hardly stand to be in the house with him," she wrote Jennie during a visit to Houston in 1955. "He walks very heavily and is clumsy, stays in the bathroom for hours, hawks and spits constantly, and when he eats he smacks and chews with his mouth open. Johnny can't stand him and I don't blame him."

Part of Pauline's frustration came from watching her mother take care of other people, often sacrificing piano practice and social life to do so. "Pat and Johnny don't lift a finger to help her," she complained.

Running the household and studio was just the tip of the iceberg for Edith. In 1955, the same year she and Pat married, Dudda broke her hip and required constant care. Dudda's staunch independence and periods of depression made her a difficult patient, and as her health steadily worsened, Edith often wrote to Pauline of the strain. To complicate matters, Dudda despised Pat because he was Mexican.

"I would love to be able to cheer [Mama] more by taking her out with us," Edith wrote to Pauline, "but always feel I am between two fires with her and Pat, as it would not take a Sherlock Holmes to detect her aversion and antagonism to himŠ.Very often I feel that my only solution is to leave BOTH of them and situate myself alone. I can live with it now, but for how long?"

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