Goodbye Norma Jean King

(I wrote this as a possible chapter in my next book ALWAYS A BRIDE DOLL, NEVER A BRIDE. I am pleased with the story, but couldn’t quite make it work within the context of the book, so I decided to share it on my blog.)

My Aunt Norma was the perfect gay man’s aunt.

Marilyn Monroe coincidentally shared my aunt’s first and middle name before she became famous (minus the e at the end of Jean).

Norma married a young man named Silver King around 1945. She would later share the middle and last name with 1970’s lesbian tennis sensation, Billie Jean King.

My Aunt Norma Jean King passed away at the age of 74 in 2005. She died alone. I was devastated.

Norma Jean King was a Hell raiser. She scandalously ran away from Robinson and eloped with my Uncle Silver when she was only 15 years old. I can only imagine what Aunt Norma wore when she got married. She and Silver settled in San Francisco and lived there all through the rise of the gay culture.

When I was a little boy, Aunt Norma told everyone in the family, except my parents, that I was probably going to grow up to be gay. She knew a homosexual when she saw one. The declaration was out of love and she assured them it wasn’t going to be the end of the world. Living in the Bay area, she knew that gay people were just as normal as straight people.

I loved when Norma came back to Illinois to visit every couple of years when I was little. She was a tough-talking, city woman with big red hair (a beehive). She was the only woman I had ever seen with a tattoo (Silver’s name on her forearm.) She might as well had been an alien in our conservative hometown of Robinson.

Uncle Silver died suddenly in 1985 making my Aunt Norma a widow at 55 years old. She never remarried and remained single for the last 20 years of her life. She left California and moved back to Robinson just as I was figuring out that I was gay, while still married to Jessica. Norma was the only one in my family who really knew me and understood my sexuality. I could share anything with her and she never judged me.

Norma like her beer. Not having any kids waived her responsibility to be sober. One rarely saw her without a beer when I was growing up. I wouldn’t say she was an alcoholic, but she liked to have a good time, at home and on the town. She was very involved with the Moose lodge and would attend functions on a weekly basis. She invited me to go with her a few times when I was home visiting as an adult. It felt very much like my weekends at my favorite gay bar: the music, the pretty lights, the men, the drinks. Then back to reality until next week. Home alone.

Norma calmed down the last decade of her life. She stopped drinking and started going to church (which shocked me). She volunteered at a clothing center and a food bank. She crocheted lap blankets for the nursing homes, and watched movies over and over on her VCR. She had a few friends, but they all had their own families to go home to. My mother was one of very few in the family who really checked in on her …but she had my dad to tend to. I sadly only saw her when I went to Illinois to visit every couple of years.

Norma’s last will and testament was a surprise to the family. She had cut everyone out of her estate with the exception of me and two of my cousins. Norma had inherited a small fortune from a friend in early 1980’s. There was an assumption in the family that she was financially comfortable and sitting on a sweet bank account. We were all wrong: Norma developed a serious gambling problem after she stopped drinking and spent all her money at the Moose on poker machines. The last few years she was alive, she was volunteering at the food bank, while qualifying for the food she handed out. She died broke and on the verge of losing her house and her car.

My Seattle friend Robert and I are both gay, single, and have no children. We are not that much younger than my Aunt Norma was when she became a widow. Robert and I have had several conversations about what the end of our lives as single, gay men are going to be like.

Who is going to take care of us in our old age? What will our legacy be?

We’ve joked over cocktails about moving all our gay friends into one big house and starting an old homosexual retirement home …if we ever could retire in our nation’s failing economy. We would laugh it off and drink some more.

One of the saddest days of my life was going through my parent’s basement after they died in 2006 (a year after Norma passed away). I was preparing to auction off my parents house the next day when I found two enormous boxes of Aunt Norma’s photo albums that my mom must have rescued from Norma’s house. The albums were meticulously organized and were all from her years living in California in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. There were hundreds of pictures of happy times and happy people. Yet, I didn’t know anyone in any of the pictures except for Aunt Norma and Uncle Silver. I took the albums to my Robinson hotel room for a closer look. I didn’t know what to do with the pictures.

I picked out some fantastic pictures of Norma and Silver to bring home with me to Seattle as a keepsake. I put the remaining albums of memories in the dumpster behind the Best Western.

I didn’t know if I was a good nephew or a bad nephew. Norma Jean King’s legacy had stopped with me. No other family. No children.

What was I to do?

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