I was sixteen when my mother received a phone call informing her that Marge, the woman who had named me, had been dead for three months, buried without fanfare in a cemetery the caller would not name.
The news of the death arrived with the ostentatious dread of an old prophecy, something that had been expected and prepared for despite our fervent hopes. Marge, my grandmother’s best friend, was old enough that her death was inevitable, a life that had grown smaller and smaller as she tallied each and every passing death of almost everyone she had ever known. She tallied the deaths of friends, casual acquaintances whose absences made each room she encountered in her day-to-day seem both emptier and smaller, her unmarried siblings, the people she loved.
The reward for outliving everyone was hardly one at all: a room in a nursing home only made bearable by the things she had brought with her, ordinary comforts made meaningful by the mythic pangs of memory. Marge was utilitarian by nature, a natural aesthetic leaning encouraged and honed by her years as an Army Corps nurse in Korea and Vietnam. I imagine a lined drawer or keepsake box filled with well-ordered rows of insignia ribbons, badges festooned with the thick metal wings of hawks or angels, each of them kept guarded not only against thieves but to some extent from herself. When touched, each of them unpeeled a memory, raw and unsoothed, a bandage thick with a bloodied unchanged dressing. One would evoke the gunmetal smell of a surgical tent and bright open wounds, another the marrow-breaking cold of a Korean winter, which no training program could have ever prepared her for.
Here were her keepsakes, her family of ghosts. When she died, these items were taken out and disposed of one by one, emptied and scrounged and sanitized for the next person to pass through, as if she had never been there at all.
It was my grandmother Madeline who knew Marge was gay but never quite unlocked a way to tell her that she knew it, the pieces of her knowing as unfathomable as a polymath’s codex. I didn’t find out myself until years after she had died.
When I think of Marge now, her hands are as interchangeable as my grandmother’s: veined, soft, sallow. I took a photo of her on a manual camera the morning of my b’nei mitzvah, all jowls and half-lidded eyes frustrated by the stories they somehow could not tell. She was the woman who served as a proxy and conduit after my grandmother died when I was a baby. Marge’s mere presence in my life linked me to my grandmother through bearing witness as her best friend, stories of the banal and the extraordinary.
They had met while working in a hospital in Miami in the 1960’s, my grandmother a head radiographer and Marge a head nurse, and together they bonded over how to solve and mend the inner-workings of the body, and perhaps in a way themselves. In refitting a femur pulverized like bottle fragments against brick, maybe Madeline told Marge about how her first husband had left her with three young children and no forwarding address, or how her second husband had fractured parts of his spine after hitting his head on the bottom of a swimming pool and her daughter, her youngest, had pulled him to safety. Or perhaps Marge told Madeline of her tours in Korea and how after the war, one soldier’s mother had asked her if Marge had been the one to hold him as he died; how Marge had told this mother yes, even though it was a lie, because she knew that somewhere, another nurse had held this soldier in the exact same way as his eyes glossed over and his hand fell away from his final wound, as the Korean winter settled into his deadened lungs. She knew this in her marrow to be true: that this soldier had died with someone holding him, and that lies are sometimes told with kindness.
In these stories, both Marge and Madeline chose to find family within each other, and from there I understood, as I heard these stories from Marge after my grandmother had died, and then from my mother after Marge had gone, that such a thing could be done. It is why in that photo from my b’nei mitzvah, time happens in reverse: the yellow frock Marge wears begins to thaw from her body and the constraints of time, rearranging the seams and stitches into the uniforms of her past, as her wrinkles recede and smooth themselves on a same but younger face, and I look to understand why Marge’s last secret was kept by her and her alone.
When I was born, it was Marge my mother spoke to on the phone after telling my grandmother the news, announcing my way into the world. Already, my mother was worried, she told Marge. It was about my name.
What’s wrong with the name? Marge said, impatient. The name my parents had given me sounded fine. But my mother was worried it was too cute, she told Marge. She was worried that I would never be taken seriously. There were so many things already stacked against me in this world, my mother knew, even if she wasn’t aware of all of them quite yet. There were so many ways in which the world could hurt a person. Though unspoken, both knew that Marge was a person who knew that better than anyone.
What if they become a lawyer, a judge? No one is going to take them seriously as a judge, not with that name, my mother said.
Marge paused, her breath filled with portent.
J.E. Reich, she said. They’ll call the kid J.E. Reich. The Honorable J.E. Reich.
And with that, Marge hung up, as if imparting a name to someone was as simple as threading a stitch through an open lesion, sore with light; as if the act of giving a name could never do something as drastic as determine a future.
My mother only told me this story after Marge died, the same year I came out to her, the same year I adopted J.E. Reich as my pen name. After Marge’s death – after I came into my own, a thing she never did, inept, stumbling and earnest to be anew – here I was, born twice.
My mother told me Marge was gay during an afternoon at her house we spent rifling through photographs. Until then, I had always thought my family was one bereft of photographs, the kind passed down in leather-bound albums and shoe boxes older than grandparents. There were reasons for this, but the main one was that I am the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, and the very few things that had survived that genocide were people, not things. I imagine that my father’s parents knew the burden of artifacts more than most people – that in their experience these things were so easily destroyed – and that worse than the unnerving burden of preserving them was the weight of their inevitable demise.
But this wasn’t the case for my mother’s family, a fact I so easily forgot, and so there we were, sorting through piles of photographs I had never seen, organizing them and placing them into newer, sturdier boxes in anticipation of my mother’s move from her house in Pittsburgh for a new job in Miami.
Unearthing the photographs was its own kind of ritual. My mother pointed at the faces of each person in each photograph and paired them with the names of long-dead relatives, conjuring anecdotes only recited at infrequent family reunions.
That one’s your great uncle Frank, said my mother, identifying a middle-aged man in a dark, high-collared suit whose only imprecision was that the wearer slouched like an insecure teen boy in a prom photo. The little I knew of Frank could be summed up in a brief list of secondhand intimacies: that a spinal defect made him drag one foot when he walked, that the kisses he gave my mother as a child were wet and were meant to overcompensate for what little they had in common, that the only person he ever told secrets to was my grandfather – his brother – and that those secrets were never repeated.
He was probably gay, you know, she said offhandedly, passing me the photograph. Frank had been a self-described lifelong bachelor, a man who pointedly came to functions without a date on his arm, a man who, when asked about his prospects, would answer with coarse rejoinders, proclaiming that all a wife would do would steal his money.
I stared at the photo of a man I would never meet, a man I barely knew, and a relief fluttered somewhere behind my clavicle. What I felt was something beyond recognition, beyond the tight coil of genetics. What I felt was proof that I wasn’t the first one in my family, that this isolation had been felt by someone who came before me. I wasn’t alone.
Aunt Marge was gay, too, my mother added after the brief discussion of Frank had passed, after I asked where the photographs of Marge were. (There weren’t any.)
Mom knew. We all knew, my mother told me. It wasn’t that she had the proclivities of a tomboy well into adulthood, or that she was tall, that her jaw was narrow and masculine, or that her dates with men were few and far between, that maybe those dates never happened at all. It was the silence around the subject that made the unspoken all the more true. The things we knew about Marge only added up to a shadow of a story, and now here I was, determined to recover the rest.
Later, my mother would tell me that she had never said that about Frank, that it had been a concoction of my own romanticism. And maybe that’s true. When you’re queer, a part of you is disinherited from family folklore. Instead, it’s replaced with a dreaded contemplation: if your ancestors were to meet you, would they hate you for who you are, despite the blood that binds you? Maybe, in Frank, I was looking for another kind of certainty.
After that, I tried my best to piece together the fragments of the woman who gave me my name, which I did with the clumsiness of an amateur archaeologist. I dove into an endless loop of fruitless internet searches for her military records, all of which were, in the end, out of reach – I wasn’t her next of kin, after all, not in the traditional sense, so whatever records there were could legally not be released to me. I had always been told that Marge was one of a handful of Army nurses in the Korean War who served as the basis for the character of Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan on the television show M*A*S*H, and so I streamed hours upon hours of episodes on Hulu, hoping to catch a glimpse of Marge in the way the actress who played her tilted her head, hardened her mouth, called other people to attention. The irony that Hot Lips Houlihan was a character that was desperately heterosexual throughout the series’ run is one that isn’t lost on me.
One hours-long session at my computer yielded a photograph of a handful of women during the Korean War known as the Lucky Thirteen, members of the 1st Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit who were part of the first to be dispatched onto the front lines in 1950, made famous for surviving an attack while en route from Inchon to Pusan by hiding in a roadside ditch. One woman in the photo smiled with an open mouth but refused to show her teeth: the same way Marge used to smile. I called my mother, my voice trembling with discovery, and sent her a screenshot for confirmation. I had found her, I had confirmed her heroics, her uniqueness, and this revelation would lead to others, I was sure of it. I would find the missing pieces to a life once lived, my queer mirror.
Later, I would find another photograph of the Lucky Thirteen, ones that listed their names in accordance with their faces, from left to right. Marge’s name was not among them. The closest I had come to her story was not her story at all, but someone else’s. Here I was, failing my queer foremother, the woman who had given me my name. Here I was, with nothing to give her in return.
It seemed like an unspoken given in my family that my grandmother’s best friend was in love with her, a thing we all knew about and agreed about, a thing of lilting futility.
When I first started to wonder about the story of Marge and the secrets of my queer family history, this is where I thought I’d begin. These were the words that came to me when I looked at a picture of a woman I thought was Marge. I wished I could give her a love story, the way a scallop offers up its own opalescent, trembling flesh after a knife cleaves open its shell.
Now I realize that this thought was a selfish sort of mythmaking, or something even worse: it was erasing her story a second time for the sake of my own comfort. I wanted an ending, or even a beginning, that would counteract the empty spaces where her stories should have been. I wanted something neat and lyrical and episodic, something that would have done justice for a woman who died alone, the woman who gave me my name. Instead, all I can give her is my grief and apologies she will never hear: that I never heard the love stories she might have once had, and that no one is left to remember them.
Here is what I didn’t tell you I found: the place where she is buried. All of my internet searches and research yielded that final resting place. Her body lies in a verdant green square in a cemetery for veterans in South Carolina. The words on her gravestone are sparse: her name, her rank, the year she was born and the year she died, and the words “Korea” and “Vietnam.”
One day, I will travel to this place, where I will finally say goodbye to the woman who named me. One day I will place a stone on her marker, a Jewish custom of remembrance, though Marge was brought up Catholic. I will trace her name etched in stone with my thumb and apologize for a world that left her silent, and promise that because of her, I will fight. And after that, I will sit, and listen, and wait.