Not Sisters

by

02/09/2020

Neighborhood: Park Slope

Bobbi and Gerri first introduced themselves as sisters when we moved into an apartment one floor below them. But the headline above their picture in the Park Slope Patch nine years later reads, “Park Slope Couple First Same-Sex Couple to Wed in Brooklyn.” The picture caption reads, “After 48 years of coupledom, on Sunday morning Barbara Pilgrim, 83, and Geraldine Whitsett, 76, finally tied the knot.”

I later learned that they had arrived at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall at 5:30 a.m. on July 24, 2011, the first day weddings were held after the Marriage Equality Act went into effect in New York. 

Sisters. How did I fall for that? 

They invited me to a party to celebrate their marriage and make more formal vows in front of a minister and a group of friends. It was held in the basement of a community center for senior citizens. The room was decorated with rainbow flags and the yellow-beige public school tables were topped with hand-made centerpieces and heart-shaped, laminated paper coasters that said, “Bobbi and Gerri.” Each place had a custom-designed Hershey (“Her-She,” the designer yelled) bar (“no nuts!” she added gleefully) in hand-made rainbow-striped wrapping that also said “Bobbi and Gerri.” 

Bobbi, just barely five feet tall, and wearing an oversized white suit jacket with a rainbow-striped bow tie, was socializing with the guests, but Gerri was nowhere to be seen. The room quieted as Gerri made a grand entrance. She was wearing a short, white dress with a miniature hat and a veil across her face, and tapping her toe with each step she took. When she approached Bobbi, who gazed up at her with admiration, they joined hands and sat down in front of the minister for a short service. Macaroni and cheese and chicken cutlets were served on paper plates, and people danced and laughed and talked.

— Gerri and Bobbi at their party —

I wanted to know the fuller story and imagined the hardships they had faced due to racism, discrimination, and hiding their relationship. I suggested to them that their story should be published, but warned that I was just an aspiring writer. They readily agreed and suggested I come over and start my research. When I rang the doorbell, I heard Gerri yelling, “It’s the writer!” 

It turned out their upbringings could not have been more different. 

Gerri described a childhood I felt I had seen in movies: poor, dignified, and full of love. 

She grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, in a large family. Her father had a job in Cone Mills, a textile mill. The family attended church and valued education. Gerri’s mother had taught her husband to read. “My father told us he went to high school for only three days and we thought he lied, but I met the teacher who taught him for those three days. I mean Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday. Three days in his whole life.” She told me about her father’s resourcefulness in making sure his kids had what they wanted, and his putting together a complete bicycle from parts he collected. Her mother’s mother was full Cherokee and had grown up on a reservation in North Carolina, but married a man from Barbados and moved to South Carolina. 

Gerri described the usual shenanigans with sisters and brothers tricking each other into doing chores or helping with homework; making ice cream on hot days; visiting an uncle’s farm to pick tobacco, buying candies to get through the tedium of Sunday school. She did not mention racism once.

When I asked, she said she was aware of segregation but didn’t really experience it personally. What about segregated drinking fountains and bathrooms, I asked. “I went home to pee,” she said assertively. But my questions about racism reminded Gerri to tell me that she did participate in the lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro. It had been advertised around the campus of the all-black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College that Gerri attended. 

Bobbi’s childhood was another story. Born in Harlem Hospital and raised in Bedford Stuyvesant by her Barbadian grandmother, she rarely saw her father. Her mother was a men’s barber, but as Bobbi began describing the details of her life, she interrupted herself and said, “Let’s cut right to it: my mother was gay. She was short. She was butch…and aside from that…maybe you’re not familiar with the term, she had a stable…she had ladies who tricked.” I asked how it worked, if her mother paid them for their services, and Bobbi looked at me. “I see you’re very naïve,” Bobbi responded. “They liked her method of love-making.” It seemed to be both a brothel and a harem for Bobbi’s mother. 

I asked if her mother had a close relationship with any one woman. “Sweetheart,” Bobbi said to me, “Take your veil off, baby. My mother was a lover. And whatever love she was giving them, they appreciated it. So, whichever was the favorite for that night or that day or that space of time, that was who was…” Bobbi wasn’t sure what was important in her mother’s relationships – “physical, mental or quizzical.” I asked if she was close to her mother. “Close to who? My mother? Heck no.” 

When I asked about racism in New York City in the 30s and 40s, she explained, “I was raised on Washington Avenue between Fulton and Atlantic. I went to P.S. 11, which was two blocks away from where I lived. That meant that four white teachers lived four doors down from me. The nurse, the firemen, the truck driver, who were all white, lived on the block. That meant that on Friday nights, Mr. Evans would bring home a whole thing of ice cream for every kid who lived on the block.” She described playing with Johnny, a white boy who lived next door. “We were mixing mud pies, or whatever the heck we were doing, and he looked at me and he said, ‘You a dirty black nigger,’ and I didn’t hesitate. I took the shovel I was using and I hit him in the head and caused him to bleed.” When his mother came out and asked what had happened, Bobbi told her that Johnny had called her a dirty black nigger and the mother’s first reaction was to turn to Johnny and ask him where he heard that language. And then she turned to Bobbi to say, “He didn’t hear it in this house.” She and Johnny remained friends until he moved to California to get married. 

Bobbi’s grandmother died when she was 13. Various “lady friends” raised her after that. She thinks it was not long after that she knew she was gay. “I got a lot of signals and signs from adults.” She’d swung her arms when she walked in a way that her grandmother had considered unladylike. She ran away from home once and slept under a truck and fought with other kids. She beat up one boy in the neighborhood who later said, “She ain’t no girl.” She remembers being asked why she didn’t have a boyfriend. “I don’t like boys,” she remembers answering. “You ever kissed a boy?” someone asked. “No. I like girls,” she answered. “Well that was it,” Bobby continued. “So, they never bothered me again. I never bothered going there again neither.” The way she described it, it did not sound very traumatic. 

I asked Gerri when she knew she was gay. She really couldn’t say, but she remembers that she used to get up early so she could walk behind one of her colleagues.  “I used to go to work early, early, early just to see her walk down that block. She had some green shoes! The men that I dated–which was only two men—something about them that wasn’t kosher or wasn’t pleasing to me.” She did have a relationship with the father of her daughter, but there too, “Something just wasn’t right for me…”  

Was there a first? Gerri beamed and pointed to Bobbi, “The one and only!” And to this Bobbi responded, “I didn’t like you in that manner you know. I never even had any thoughts about you being my partner at all because I thought you was square. I said, ‘Oh nah! Straight girl. I don’t have time to teach no one!’ I didn’t want to be the one to introduce her into this gay life. OK?” But Gerri wasn’t fazed by this and said, with a flirtatious smile, “Until she bought me that sterling silver bracelet, and I knew then.” Bobbi conceded “that might have been the first time you kissed me, and I said that wasn’t no ‘thank you’ kiss. Mm-hm. I’m not even going there. I never bothered with straight girls. I never tried to influence them and what-not.” Gerri just kept smiling as Bobbi continued, “I remember saying to you, ‘Look, Darling, this is not a playhouse. It’s not a merry-go-round. If you have any problems, we won’t go there,’ and she said, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’”

They moved into an apartment on Christmas Eve using shopping carts. Gerri said, “I told my mother I’m living with my best friend. My mother—she laughed—she said, ‘Oh, I know your best friend all right.’ She knew.” She came up from North Carolina to visit all the time. And that was it. They were together ever since, supposedly without any tension with their families. If there was any judging or discomfort in Gerri’s church-going family, it wasn’t in the story they told me.

Gerri’s daughter Ursula was about three when Bobbi and Gerri met and started referring to each other as sisters. When I asked at what point Ursula knew the true nature of the relationship, Bobbi and Gerri answered in unison, “Early.” They remember Gerri chastising her for something and telling her what she should have done and Ursula responding, “I guess I would, but I have a woman for a father.” But when asked if it was hard for Ursula, Bobbi and Gerri agreed that it was not. “Her friends were always in the house,” Gerri said. 

When pressed, they could only think of one friend who seemed to withdraw from them when she had realized the true nature of their relationship. “And she is a beautiful person. A beautiful person,” Bobbi explained. “You know if you meet her, you’re with her for five minutes, you say, ‘Oh, she’s such a lovely lady.’ But I guess that was something she couldn’t accept because every time we call, we’d leave messages, and she never responded.” They told the story without a hint of bitterness and even talked about which buses they could take to go out and visit her on Staten Island. 

Gerri earned a Masters in Education and worked in schools as a teacher, guidance counselor and dean. Bobbi worked at non-profit organizations, doing various jobs related to community organizing and outreach and education. Bobbi also writes poetry, sometimes for friends and colleagues. She recently wrote one for me that ended with, “Now that you have read this ditty, I’ll retire to unpublished city!”

When Gerri had to be away to care for her daughter (now 52) who was ill, Bobbi was lonely and Gerri told me that the only thing that cheered her up were the twins. The twins? “Oh yeah, we didn’t tell you about the twins?” She handed me a pad of yellow-lined paper. On the top was written, “Ghost Twins.” And then:

“It all started when we went on our honeymoon. We both forgot our contraception and of course in the heat of passion who thought pregnancy…Thus the twins were born. Gurline and Bobbette. They were a cute little bundle and have been the best things in our lives.”

Gerri had written five pages of stories about the imaginary mischievous twins to cheer Bobbi up when she was away. Whenever something went wrong, it was the twins’ faults. 

I had been expecting to hear about triumphing over great adversity and instead they were telling me a story of romance, humor, and grace. I don’t doubt that the adversity was there, but as they tell it, it was a minor subplot of their love story. 

Postscript: Bobbi died on October 26, 2018 at the age of 89.

***

Aviva Goldstein is a public health professional, living in Brooklyn and writing regularly, though mostly very clever emails to friends.

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