John and his immediate family were in the car on the way home from his Aunt Marcia’s house. He had just met me briefly the night before in synagogue, and then again earlier in the evening. “Let’s take a vote!” One by one, John’s family voted on whether I was a potential “keeper” and if he should pursue me. John sat there bemused by his family’s typical mode of humor and frankness.
It was the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Holy Day of Atonement, and my friend Beth had invited me to join her family and John’s to “Break the Fast.” Through Beth, I had actually met John’s parents and younger brother, Mat, a few years earlier. Until recently, John has been living in Washington, D.C., coming up only for holidays. There, at his Aunt Marcia’s, John and I conversed for the first time in front of all of his nearest and dearest. He made me feel at ease, as if we had known each other for years. He also made me laugh…a lot. At one point we moved from the crowded, loud dining room to the kitchen to talk in private. However, this effort became pointless, as different family members kept intruding with business (real or contrived) in the kitchen.
For years, I have heard the story of the “legendary vote.” Never once did it occur to me that the vote had anything to do with my physical (deformed) body. Never once did I believe that it was prompted by anything but the Zucker family’s sometimes fun, yet twisted sense of humor. And my hunch was right. In fact, “the vote” was nothing more than a playful jabbing at my husband-to-be from a family that could tell he seemed already smitten. But I wondered just why they were so instantly accepting of me, two fingers, two toes and all? I have written in past blog posts that the families of several boyfriends before John had instantly rejected even the notion of welcoming me into their family due to my having ectrodactly. How was this family not deterred, even for a moment, by my physical disfigurement?
Upon reflection, sometimes I wonder if John’s brother, Mat, unknowingly did me a huge favor. A few years earlier, Mat had taken the courageous step to let his family know that he was gay. Upon hearing the news, John’s parents were instantly supportive and expressed that they loved their son unconditionally. In that moment, their vision of their family had forever changed. Not for the bad in any way—just a different life outcome than they had expected. Now I actually wondered whether Mat’s coming out to his family, and their experience of embracing the unexpected, had paved the way for me?
Of course there has been a lot of news this week relating to the Supreme Court and the subject of gay marriage. But something on the television news last week, on topic, had already caught my attention. A Senator, who had previously been opposed, came out publically to endorse same-sex marriage. For this Senator’s entire public career, he had been on record holding the exact opposite position. In his words, “[This] isn’t how I always felt. As a Congressman, and more recently as a Senator, I opposed marriage for same-sex couples. Then, something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way.” It’s not the politics or the actual issue of gay rights that interested me about this story, but rather it was the Senator’s change of heart. As soon as I heard the backstory, I got it. Apparently, the Senator’s only son came out to his family which prompted the change in attitude and posture of his well-known father.
This news got me thinking a lot. I write all the time about how important it is for people to avoid pitying or judging one another. It’s the mantra I put in huge font on the cover page of my Don’t Hide It Flaunt It site. But being preachy about it will not win many converts.
In some respects, it feels like people fall into two categories or sides of the fence. On the one, there are those that have hardly, if ever, been directly impacted by any type of difference. They have their opinions, and judging something that hasn’t hit home for them may be no more than an intellectual exercise of what they believe is right or wrong. One the other side, there are those of us who are walking the walk, experiencing difference on a deep and personal level. Perhaps we were born with our difference, maybe gave birth to or married it. It might even be invisible or have appeared unexpectedly. Speaking for the latter “side”, I confess to feeling tickled when I see someone who previously appeared unaffected, finding himself crossing the line to my side, finally having been touched by difference.
But I know also that nothing is that black and white. We all know people who are open and embracing of other people’s differences, even if they have never known such differences themselves. Having now known John’s family for almost two decades, I believe that their acceptance of me would have been complete given their inherent positive reaction and support from the start, even without Mat blazing a trail (though he probably helped).
From what I’ve learned, encountering the differences we’ve talked about is almost a certainty for every one of us. Some will have to deal from birth, others will come to naturally accept the facts of life, and some, will be forced to confront their discomfort. I frankly don’t care how someone gets here, in the camp of acceptance. But for those like me that walk this earth feeling judged simply for being who we are, we rejoice when they arrive.
When I shared this post by e-mail last week before publishing, in the spirit of the Zucker-humor tradition, Mat replied, “By the way, I voted for you because I liked your outfits.” But all kidding aside, he ended his note with something beautiful: “After all, Meg. The more we are accepting of people’s love, the more we can be accepting of more people we love.”