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Living in Sin
It felt a bit awkward to me when Ernest and I made our way to the Bureau
of Vital Statistics at East Orange City Hall yesterday. We needed to be
there when it opened at 8:30a to be sure that we would complete our
business well before the funeral of a stalwart pillar of our parish in
downtown Newark at 10a. That meant delaying my constitutional. That
meant..... but the main awkwardness was much more internal. I had
awakened thinking about Eula Jackson, my African American surrogate mother
almost seven decades ago in Alabama.
Eula Jackson lived in a common law relationship for as long as I could
remember, with a man who worked for the railroad. After I grew up and
left home, he retired, and my parents became concerned that he might die
and leave Eula without his pension unless she legally married him,
especially since he had been legally married as a young man, His ex-wife
was still around and had hungry eyes. The courts might let her claim
that pension, my parents feared, though Eula had cared for him for
So Mother and Dad persuaded Eula and her spouse that they should get
married. Dad would give her away, and mother would be her maid of honor.
They bought the material and a friend made her a beautiful wedding dress.
The Jackson's Baptist church was booked.....
Plans moved apace until an unkind neighbor told Eula that by getting
married she was publicly admitting that she had been living in sin all
those decades. Eula broke down in tears and told her spouse and my
parents that the wedding was off.
Ernest and I were essentially in the same spot, I realized early yesterday
morning. In going to register our domestic partnership with the State of
New Jersey we seemed to be saying that the state could give us
legitimacy, yet we feel that God did that for us when we made our vows 30
years and seven months ago. We do not feel that it is we who have been
living in sin.
Six days earlier an anonymous person posted on Kendall Harmon's BLOG "Crew
from Alabama has been married for 30 yrs to a black man," and another
person, in a tone characteristic of much on that BLOG, replied, "Crew
isn't married to a man or anyone else for that matter-as there is no such
thing as gay marriage. Cohabiting with another man is not the same, no
matter what you or Griz or anyone else says. One cannot call something a
marriage, when no marriage is possible in such a situation." If you have
a stomach for gratuitous anonymous scurrility, you can sample much more in
this chain at http://titusonenine.classicalanglican.net/index.php?p=2197
I have skin so tough that it is unhealthy, spiritual muscles that bulge
unseemly, like those of weight lifters on steroids. Yet I well
understood why Eula Jackson broke down in tears. Maybe becoming a "real"
"Mrs." was not worth all the insults. We already know Who loves us, and we already know a fair amount about for better or worse, for
richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
When I finished my ablutions, I was surprised to see Ernest dressed up for
the occasion. "Maybe it's just for the funeral," I said to myself.
Our friends had worked on us as insistently as Mother and Dad had worked
on Eula Jackson decades earlier, to recognize the real advantages to
taking this step, but I thought Ernest was even more reluctant than I.
Though each routinely signs letters and notes to the other as 'Husband,'
Ernest had never referred to our relationship as a "marriage." Often he
has looked at me with long-suffering eyes when I do so. Rarely has
Ernest disagreed with me publicly on this point, but he has often done so
with great relish privately in the presence of close friends :
"Heterosexuals have so debased the term 'marriage,'" he would say, "that
they can keep it. I want the 'real thing.'"
Yet by 7 o'clock he was all bathed, shaved, smelling good, and dressed up,
and humming "I'm getting married in the morning, Ding dong the bells are
going to chime......."
For him it clearly was not just a wise economic decision, any more than
Eula's acquiescence when my parents "got her to the church on time"
I remembered afresh Eula Jackson's reaction on my first visit home after
Ernest and I had taken our vows. Eula Jackson and I were always very
close. She could not read and write until I taught her to write her name
when I was in the first grade. When I got my first driver's license and
could fetch her and drive her home alone, she immediately sat in the front
seat as her rightful place, not in the back as Dad and every other white
Now, at age 37 I was driving her home one more time. I took out Ernest's
picture. "This is my new husband," I told her.
There was a long pause.
"Lawsy mercy," she said, "I done brought you up right!"
When we walked to the clerk's window at 8:35a there were two middle-aged
African American men ahead of us. A second clerk asked what we were
"To register our domestic partnership," Ernest said, beaming.
The two men at the second window beamed great big smiles back at us, took
their certificate from the clerk, and nodded approvingly as they left.
"Did you see?" Ernest whispered gleefully; "they were here for the same
thing. I read it on their certificate."
"Step inside," our clerk said, pointing to a small room with a table.
An elderly supervisor arrived with a young woman and introduced her to us
as a new employee. "Be patient with her," she said, "as this will be her
first registration of this kind. Not so for me though. I got to work in
Maplewood on the first day the law allowed them, and we registered over
500 on that one day in that one office," she boasted.
The new clerk began by congratulating us. "Thank you," Ernest said, "but
we have been together over 30 years." "Oh," she said. "I was not even
born back then. That's wonderful," she said.
She gave us documents to read, detailing the fact that we had to
demonstrate shared economic commitment by living in the same dwelling for
at least 6 months and by only one of several other criteria, such as
owning/leasing property together, each naming the other as primary
beneficiary in wills, owning a car together..... Those are the three
that I remember since we presented evidence of all three, when only one
We knew already that this registration would entitle us to inherit from
each other without paying inheritance tax. I did not know that otherwise
New Jersey starts taxing all inheritance at 10% from the first dollar.
I knew already that this registration would assure visitation rights of
"family" in the event one was in the hospital. But that had not been
difficult to achieve even without registration, when Ernest was
hospitalized three times last year. What I did not know is that
registration assures each the right to make critical 'family' medical
decisions in the event that the other becomes incapacitated. ....
Like Eula Jackson, I had focused on the ceremonious but was blessed to
have friends who were giving us sound practical advice.
The registrar returned when we had finished reading the official
materials. "Do I have to say 'Do you solemnly swear that ....?" she
started to ask her supervisor.
"You can be more relaxed," the supervisor answered. "Just read the
required statements and they can answer, 'I do' or just 'Yes' or 'No' as
Each attested that he is not now in a domestic partnership or a marriage
with anyone else. Each agreed to be responsible for the other
economically. We confirmed that were indeed of the same sex.
(Heterosexual couples must be at least 62 to register their partnership
under this statute.)
The clerk had not used a digital camera before and was excited to use ours
to take our picture for us. See
http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/gallery/dpartner01.JPG She presented
us with the certificate embossed with the official seal (see
Ernest and I have rarely been demonstrative publicly, and I was somewhat
taken aback when he took my hand and held it in the hallway, down the
steep front steps, and for the full block walk back to our car. I
remembered how we stopped traffic holding hands on Peachtree Street in
Atlanta when we were courting back in 1973, but this time I did not notice
who was watching, nor care.
"The Lord be with you," Ernest said, not yet putting the key in the
ignition. "And also with you," I responded. Each thanked God for the
other, for the years together, for the bad times as well as the good. We
named our parents and thanked God for each of them, especially for Mrs.
A delicious and full silence shielded us hours later. We were leaving the
restaurant where we had celebrated the day. Ernest took I-280 down the
long ridge that overlooks Essex County with the Manhattan skyline glowing
in the twilight. He broke out with a surprised laugh: "I suppose I'll
have to start saying that we really are married now," he said.