9 minute read

Paula Sophia Schonauer, LCSW, continues a serial memoir. If you haven’t read the earlier parts of this series, follow the links at the bottom of this page.

“I’m just going to say I’m not gay. 

I really, really like women. That’s all I can really say about that.”

– Aaron Rodgers

Dad did not really get Christmas. A nonbeliever in the first place, he merely endured the holiday season, cursing the cold, and hibernating under the covers if he was not working. He did enjoy the food, and he enjoyed watching the kids open presents on Christmas morning, smiling at our excitement. He watched from a distance, more emotional than physical, drinking hot instant coffee and wearing a thick, flannel shirt, dirty blue jeans, and steel-toe boots. 

Mom usually bought our gifts, using department store catalogs as a guide. My brother and I circled the things we wanted in the catalogs, me writing my name next to my circles so Mom would have no doubt about the things I wanted. My sister was too young to circle photographs in catalogs when we still got them in the mail every year. Plus, she was the girl, and Mom got her all kinds of girly things. However, I suspected she was interested in her brothers’ toys more than in her own. She seemed to resist being girly, which tended to annoy me, and sometimes, I would seethe with envy. 

 On Christmas Eve my brother and I were watching a holiday movie marathon on Channel 43, one of Cleveland’s UHF television stations. We were bored with the movies, but there didn’t seem to be anything else worth watching. The music in the movies stoked our hopefulness for the day to come, the odor of baking cookies wafting from the kitchen into the dining room where we had expanded our living space. Dad had set up a folding table and some folding chairs, the portable black and white TV nestled atop a stool, complete with rabbit-ear antenna festooned with foil.

Dad had removed layers of wallpaper from the dining room walls, sometimes with my help, an unpleasant job as singed particles of wallpaper disintegrated upon contact, floating in the air and stinging my eyes, filling my nose, and making me sneeze. The walls were a dingy dark gray beneath the wallpaper, dim light filtering through the windows and the plastic covering Dad had stapled to the window frames. We could not see the outside, just a pallid white glow, creating a sense of isolation and claustrophobic suffocation. 

When Dad told me to get ready to go, I felt a tinge of excitement like a parolee getting released from prison. My brother started looking for his coat, but Dad tempered his excitement with a glare of disapproval. “Only Paul, this time,” he said with no further explanation. 

At that moment, I felt privileged. Dad had picked me to do something with him on Christmas Eve. Maybe some last-minute shopping, riding around town to look at Christmas lights? Probably a trip to the hardware store, which usually bored me, but I was happy to be getting out of the house. 

Dad drove a 1969 Chevrolet Impala with four doors. It was a huge boat of a car with an extra-long trunk, blue with a fading black vinyl top. We sat in the car waiting for the heater to warm up, Dad huddled at the steering wheel, looking impish with his long nose and chin jutting between the top of his gray flannel coat and the bottom of his black knit skull cap. He hadn’t worn gloves, and he was rubbing his hands vigorously. 

“I hate winter,” he said. 

I was cold but nowhere near as uncomfortable as Dad appeared. When the heater started blowing warm air, Dad backed out of the driveway. There was not much snow on the ground, just a light dusting that clung to the grass but had not accumulated on the street. The sky was beginning to get dark, with a sliver of sunlight poking through billowing clouds, illuminating bare branches at the tops of trees. 

Dad drove down Portage Trail toward State Road, the traffic busy but beginning to wane. He drove over a steel bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River gorge, the river at least a hundred feet below. The surface of the bridge was a series of steel cross beams no wider than bricks instead of concrete, the gorge visible between the gaps. It was notoriously hazardous during the winter since the bridge became a sheet of ice a lot sooner than bridges surfaced with concrete and asphalt.

Dad took the right fork when State Road split between Main and Howard streets in Akron. The Howard Street side had some of Akron’s mansions, big, stately properties, some of them in various stages of disrepair, yards overgrown with untrimmed trees and bushes. Even so, the homes still had a veneer of opulence.     

Paula Sophia
Paula Sophia (provided)

Further, down Howard Street, the homes were more ordinary-looking but still large, mostly three-story wood-frame homes, one of which belonged to my great grandmother. She no longer lived there but let her grandchildren rent it from her. At this time, My Uncle Mike lived in the house. Dad parked in the street in front of the house, since the driveway had been full of cars, none of which I recognized. It seemed there was a party in the house, some of the guests hanging out on the front porch smoking cigarettes. 

When we walked up the front porch, the men smoking cigarettes seemed weird to me, well dressed, neatly coiffed, and effeminate. They spoke with a lilt to their voices, sounding like women but with a deeper tone like men. I had only seen one man like them before that night, a guy named Tommy who cut and styled my grandmother’s hair. He was very friendly, gentle, and more pretty than handsome. I had always been intrigued by him, but I was afraid to tell anybody I liked him because the family made fun of him behind his back, calling him queer and “light in the loafers” and “gay,” a word I had known to mean happy but applied to Tommy, it had a whole different connotation. 

The house inside was full of men, many of them a lot like the guys on the front porch. They were drinking cocktails, some of them wearing Christmas garlands like scarves around their necks, others wearing satin shirts, single earrings in their right ears. Uncle Mike had a big Christmas tree near the fireplace, one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. I saw a tall woman in the kitchen wearing the kind of dress I had seen Hollywood stars wearing in movies Mom watched on Sunday afternoons. She had big hair and lots of makeup, appearing as a woman but sounding like a man. Well, sort of… Her voice sounded familiar, soft and lilting, but with a gravelly tone. 

Uncle Mike came through the back door, “Tommy, dear, give me another drink.” 

The tall woman grabbed a bottle of liquor, poured it into a glass with some 7-Up and ice. She handed the glass to Uncle Mike. 

Dad nudged my shoulder with his elbow, looked down at me, and winked. He was so out of place at this party, unshaven and dressed in denim and flannel. I was the only kid. 

“I can’t believe you came to my Christmas Party,” Uncle Mike exclaimed. “My very own brother. What’s gotten into you?”

Dad glanced around a smirk on his face, a superior attitude. “I just thought I’d show Paul how you live.” 

“What do you mean by that?” 


“No, you’re insulting me.”

Dad and Uncle Mike drifted toward the back door, went outside. I could not hear what they were saying, but I did hear them yell. The tall woman looked down at me, smiling, a gesture of sympathy. 

“Do you want a 7-up?”

She handed me a green soda bottle, still chilled, and refreshingly cold. I did not get to drink 7-up very often, so this was a treat. I stood there drinking my soda, mesmerized by her glamour. 

“How’s your grandma?” 

At that moment, I realized the tall woman was Tommy, the man who did my grandmother’s hair. I felt my cheeks getting warm, and I almost started to cry, not from fear but from relief. So, there was another person in the world like me. 

Dad entered the house through the back door, face red, looking like he was going to break things. “I’m going to tell your grandmother what you’re doing with this place.”

Uncle Mike followed him. “Go ahead. She already knows.”

Dad grabbed the shoulder of my coat and dragged me through the house, out the front door. The men on the porch were still there, Dad barreling through them without a word. 

“Merry Christmas to you, asshole.”

Dad took me to the car, told me to get in, and ran to the street side. He yelled at the front porch guys, “You bunch of queers!”

When he got into the car, he started it up, the heater already warm. We had not been inside the house long enough for the car to get cold again. He started laughing. 

“What a bunch of creeps,” he said. “Did you see Tommy?”

I nodded, trying not to cry. I could not understand why Dad had taken me to this party. 

“Now, you know how disgusting people can be.”

I dared not speak. I liked Tommy that way, she was nice to me, and the men at the party seemed nice. 

“Do you know what those guys do? They have sex with each other. Men should be with women. Men should be men.” 

Dad u-turned the car on Howard Street and headed back home.

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Last Updated November 12, 2021, 7:47 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor