Thanksgiving is a time of abundance, togetherness, and gratitude. And this year was no exception for those blessings to show up, fully accounted for and stocked on the shelf. But like my favorite pantry staple, cranberry sauce, it was bittersweet.
On the eve of the big day, I had a chance to do some good inside of a now two-year commitment to mentor and be a difference for LGBT youth. I was invited as a special guest to participate in the Hetrick-Martin Institute's Thanksgiving celebration, which included a big meal (sponsored by State Farm) and an open-mic set in which the students of the Harvey Milk High School expressed themselves in their own way. Hetrick-Martin Institute provides services and support for at-risk Lesbian and Gay young people. It has been in existence for over 28 years and is the oldest and probably still largest agency serving LGBT young people in the nation. Basically, we're talking about some fabulous kids who are - in many cases - fighting to get their lives back on track. I met with Executive Director David K. Mensah who says there is a growing need for this work as youth come out at ever-younger ages (than I did) and - by the time - they reach the doors of The Hetrick-Martin Institute, they may have fled families who disappove of their gender expression and may even be resorting to prostitution to survive on the streets. For some of the youth, a nutritious hot meal at HMI is their only meal of the day. The Harvey Milk High School is a New York City public school component, which services over 100 students a year (with all the core academic requirements against a flamboyant backdrop of lavendar floors and bright yellow walls). Additionally, there is the after-school program, which is open to all LGBTQ students who get the opportunity to be fed, participate in programs that promote their chosen leanings in poetry, art, fashion, runway, vogueing/ballroom, drama, photography - all in a safe and supportive environment that complimentarily connects the students to discussions around violence, race, sexual orientation, and HIV/AIDS. I looked around and saw confident, unique, and self-actualized young folks --- working the hallways and shutting the kids down with their fierceness --- and I experienced them as my heroes. Though many of them looked to me as a "gay mentor or role model", I know it took me many years beyond my teens to get honest with myself and subsequently my loved ones. But now that I'm here, I'm excited that these kids have an outlet that supports them to be their truth and I commit to be some difference to ensure that they stay safe and supported, even when their families turn them away. Click on http://www.hmi.org/ for more information and ways that you can help.
Just before I went to visit the kids and the staff at The Harvey Milk High School, my friend Devon called me from Cleveland. He may be as big a "DREAMGIRLS" fan as I am. He reminded me that the original soundtrack from the Broadway musical had been released. And it featured four more songs on the one-disc in addition to a 2nd disc that features instrumentals of the songs and a remix of Jennifer Holliday's classic "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going". I scooped it up quickly from the Virgin Union Square before heading out to New Rochelle to spend the next couple of days with my friends Nichole and Tony Shellman at their home. "DREAMGIRLS" would score my commute out there (and back). It would bring me joy, but also have me waxing nostalgic for the simpler time (The first time I purchased this product it was an album and I had to turn it over, after Jennifer Holliday sang "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going").
When I don't go home to be with my family, I stay up here and spend time with my 'chosen family', The Shellmans who always put their collective feet in the many pots to make for a taste sensation of soul food. From the fried turkey to the cornbread stuffing with sausage to the corn casserole to my favorite: cranberry jelly from a can, I ate and ate and ate as if it was my last meal. We did have a chance to work it off on Friday when we went bowling at the Harlem Lanes, which is a lovely, new getaway in the neighborhood. With ol' skool and nu skool hip hop blasting from the speakers, I averaged 120 - beating everyone except for Nichole's brother-in-law David Cole, who boasted a 140. None of the scores were all that impressive (as I can rock 200 on a good day), but it was all in fun and fellowship.
I did find myself a little blue amidst all of this connection as I began to miss my own family. Since I moved here to the New York area, I've had to get over the blues for home many times because so many things have changed around how my family gathers for Thanksgiving. (Christmas pretty much still holds as a time we all gather in Savannah at my Dad's place). This year, Dad was with his wife's family in Macon. Then, they went on a cruise. My Atlanta-based sister and her husband went to celebrate the holiday with our Dad's side of the family in Augusta while my Savannah-based brother was home with mom's side, including his son/my nephew, who came home from his freshman year at Morehouse College. (Ironically, I'd find out that while I was making the most of my time, bowling in Harlem, my actual blood family was gathered in Savannah, bowling as well... about 20 strong). Though I'm always grateful to have access to wonderful people I love, like the Shellmans (and enjoy the times we share), I think a tragedy around another of my chosen families made my heart flutter a bit in sadness. My dear friend Robin Stone (with whom I share a birthday) had a Thanksgiving she won't soon forget. Her husband (and also dear friend of mine) Gerald Boyd passed away on that day. Now, life as she and their young child Zachary knew it, will be different. Since I am an active member of the National Association of Black Journalists, Robin, who presided over the New York Association of Black Journalists in 1995, took me in as soon as I landed eleven years ago. She made sure I got involved, but also made sure I knew that there were people of color in the industry on whom I could rely for support and encouragement, especially given I was so far from home. Over the years, I have had the chance to share lovely times with Robin and Gerald - including a handful of generous invitations to join them on Martha's Vineyard where they would summer in a lovely home. Also, here in Manhattan, they were known for hosting lovely 'open houses' and 'book parties' for their author friends. I always considered it a total honor to be in that number. And this was all done on top of his esteemed career as the highest-ranking African American at "The New York Times". As heady as all of that was, he was nothing short of kind, connected, and warm when I would walk into their hospitality space. He would greet me with the biggest hug and send me home with the same, intimate embrace. It is that same care and compassion that he adopted for his career and for his family. In fact, he and I had a chance to talk about all of those things this New Year's Day, when I took my new boyfriend Anthony to their home for an 'open house'. I asked and he told me all about the challenges of writing his memoir, pointing out that deconstructing his childhood years has been the biggest cross to bear. He asked and I told him all about the new things in my life, including Anthony. And with a smile, he weighed in authentically. And though we didn't see each other often (maybe 3 or 4 times a year), I have a mental treasure chest of memories I will hold near and dear. Still, I miss him already.
When I came home late Friday night (from bowling), I got an e-mail from someone I hadn't seen or spoken to in - easily - a decade. She didn't tell me who she was in the e-mail, but she called me "Pick Rick", which is a nickname that only certain people called me when I was a child. Additionally, she attached this phone picture of herself to her correspondence and gave me some more hints. I soon uncovered that it was GWEN BETHEA (though I didn't initially recognize her from the picture). She is a member of our fellow AIR FORCE FAMILY, THE BETHEAS that -- for more than 25 years -- divinely traveled alongside wherever our respective dads led us internationally throughout a big chunk of their time in the AIR FORCE. The BETHEAs were ultimately a family of 5 as we were: two married parents and three kids each (two boys and a girl per trio). One child from each family was born in America (janice/randy). One child from each family was born in Germany (herman/gwen). One child from each family was born in Japan (me/jimmy). When we moved back to the States in the mid-'70s, both families were in Georgia at the same time (rileys/valdosta... betheas/atlanta). Then, when we moved to California, my family was in San Bernadino and the Betheas were in Sacramento. Then, we moved back to Georgia (savannah) and they moved back to Georgia (atlanta/decatur). We were always no less than five hours away from each other on any given continent. For a good twenty years (thereabout), we did all Thanksgivings together (in the respective locales). The respective mothers of the RILEY/BETHEA combo were best friends and always joyfully coordinated the meals and the logistics. And the dads handled transportation and beer. And through the ages (into adolescence), all the kids were quite close too. I recall that the BETHEAs took me in July 1983, so I could see DIANA ROSS' CENTRAL PARK CONCERT (on SHOWTIME). My family had HBO in Savannah and securing SHOWTIME wasn't a consideration. So, knowing the BETHEAs had SHOWTIME (and I had no summer plans), I cajoled my parents to let me stay in Atlanta with the BETHEAs for the month of July towards being able to see the concert. And I got more than I bargained for i.e. I got two concerts as the first day was a history-making rain-out, after a half-hour... AND I snagged a couple of Diana Ross albums i.e. Gwen's "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" and from the BETHEA parents' impressive collection of "albums" (with which i spent lots of time inspecting and reading liner notes), the 1972 "Surrender", Ross' Ashford and Simpson-produced follow-up to her hit solo debut). Oh, those were really great times for me. But over time, things changed dramatically. My mom passed away in 1994, though by then, the yearly visits during Thanksgiving had subsided as the kids were now college-age and we were actually the visitors at our mother's home. The Bethea parents divorced, though we did still have chances to see them (just not on holidays). And as all the kids have become adults, we don't really stay in touch. And with that, we don't do THANKSGIVINGs together anymore. And as Gwen pointed out in her e-mail, her mother's health is waning a bit. Still, receiving this e-mail from Gwen takes me right back to a figurative snapshot in my mind that shows two families - ten people total - in happier times: laughing, eating, playing, and just enjoying a bond that lasted a long time. Though nothing is forever, I am sure that the bond between THE BETHEAS and THE RILEYS will last for an eternity in our memories. The caption of the snapshot in my mind reads: WITH GRATITUDE, THANK YOU FOR THE BEST YEARS OF MY LIFE. (and what better time than THANKSGIVING to express that sentiment). THANKS GWEN... for jogging this memory. And at this time, let me say THANKS to all who --- even with this spray of sadness I'm feeling --- have showered me with eternal blessings and positive moments that continue to enthusiastically call joy forth in my mind, heart, and soul.