By Martha Taysom
Martha Taysom is a retired scholar of American intellectual history and the mother of five children, of whom Matt is the fourth.
When Matt was young, we often read Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories together. His head would rest against my arm as he followed these simple but wise stories about the difficulties and joys of relating with a loved one. I thought the stories were only for him, but many years later I found out that they were for me, too.
One Christmas Eve, Matt, now 28, broke the news to me. He was gay, he said through unbreakable sobs, and he could not live any other way. He said he had known since the third grade but had tried to change for many years. He had asked in prayer before his mission that if he filled those two years honorably, God would bring him home straight. He did fill an honorable mission, and came home gay. He had also been a branch president and an active member of a singles branch, all while going to counseling. So far, he had come out to only two family members: his straight brother Chris (then serving in the army in Korea) and me. He asked me not to tell others, so I spent the next several months dealing with this new reality and learning about homosexuality, hearing that my brother’s son was also gay and had tried to commit suicide several times. Was this hereditary? I wondered. Was it somehow my genetic “fault”? But I came to understand there was no fault involved: homosexuality is simply something that happens to 11% of the world’s population.
Matt had already left the Church completely when he came out to me. His brother soon followed—only partly out of solidarity. Most of our family, including my husband, found a way to support Matt from within the Church. “After all,” one of them said, “doesn’t family come first?” If we had turned our backs on him, I’m quite sure Matt would no longer be alive. But he is alive and happy with a partner, fascinated by Church architecture, willing to hear about Church news, but unwilling to come back to his former way of life.
But that Christmas Eve was when my spiritual house began to fall apart. A brick fell out, then a roof tile, then the gutters. I had held fast to the Church my entire life because I honored my ancestors as well as my children, but more and more, I came away from church meetings either hurt or empty or both. The Church wasn’t keeping my spiritual house from crumbling; instead, it became the cause of its deterioration. Like many other LDS parents of gay children, I felt that I had to choose between the Church and my child, and my love for Matt was growing larger than my love for the Church. I looked back with different eyes at all those family prayers and family home evenings where I thought I was building my children’s faith. “What was really going on?” I wondered. What was Matt hearing? What was life like for him all those years, trying to be someone he wasn’t, burdened by his secret feelings?
And then I remembered the Frog and Toad stories we had read together, and felt a jolt of recognition.
Though Lobel was married with two children, he was also gay, leading two lives (one of them very secret) and eventually dying of complications related to AIDS. In those days, it was not easy to “come out,” and Lobel maintained his straight public image. This fact made me look a little deeper into his stories, and one in particular stood out: “Cookies.”
In it, Toad bakes dozens of cookies and takes them to Frog’s house. The cookies turn out to be so delicious that the “good friends” (who do not live together) binge on them until they realize that they will soon become sick. They put the cookies in a box, tie it up with string, and place the box on a high shelf. But Toad points out that it would still be quite simple to get at those cookies again, so Frog declares that they must use will power. “Will Power is trying very hard not to do something you really want to do,” he explains to Toad.
It occurred to me that this story might have autobiographical roots. Lobel must have had at least one good friend, but never lived with him, and he must have known very well what it meant to “try very hard not to do something you really want to do.” It was a struggle Matt knew from the inside as well.
But then Frog and Toad hit upon an answer, ridding themselves of their temptation by offering the cookies to the birds, who pluck them up and fly happily away.
Of Birds and Cookies
I know that some gay people find the will power to avoid an active sexual life, and many of them are churchgoers. My son isn’t one of those people. Some people at church have told me that Matt is a serious sinner who will never inherit eternal life. They say, like an apostle recently did, that he should have hung on with both hands to “the grand old ship Zion.” But my heart knows better. Matt wore himself out for years with will power, and then finally offered the thing he wanted most to the heavens. But the birds never descended to take it away.
I’ve been offering, too. But it’s a more complicated offering. On the one hand, I honor the role my ancestors played on the grand old ship Zion, but on the other hand, the church they turned to for spiritual comfort has broken down for me. Or perhaps broken me. Like Arnold Lobel, I live a double life. One life longs for the thrill I once felt at the sound of the Tabernacle Choir, it wants to attend church and enjoy the company of friends, but the other life is now repelled by almost anything “Mormon.”
It requires will power to not do what you really want to do, and I want to leave my once-loved home. Will the birds descend and relieve me of my desire, or will I be left to my own devices, as Matt was?
Perhaps Lobel has one more bit of wisdom for me. As the birds fly away, Toad expresses his sadness that all the delicious cookies are now gone. “Yes,” says Frog, “but we have lots and lots of will power.”
“You may keep it all, Frog,” says Toad. “I am going home now to bake a cake.”
It’s a joke, of course. Having finally gotten rid of one temptation, Toad heads off to make an even bigger one. But Toad knows an essential truth: will power is useful, but joy is essential. Humans are, after all, that they might have it.