I remembered the phone number. A number I hadn’t dialed in how many years, I can’t say. And even when I used to dial it, I had to look it up. Grief will do that to you; it will access the deepest and most oddly on-the-mark status reports of your soul, life-to-date. It’s like your heart was standing there all the time dressed in a lab-coat, carrying a clipboard, and staring at you sternly over the top of her bifocals. Waiting for you to notice.
Laura Ann Moore had to pass away, no longer to be encumbered by gravity and prejudice, for me to notice. And when the news came, it was her voice on my land-line answering machine way back when, asking me to call and repeating her number in case I didn’t hear it the first time, it was her voice that got my heart to sit up and take notice. To return the call that never actually was placed.
Of course, I called this time to hear the voice of her life partner, Marlene Schuman. To tell her I love her and am thinking of her. To ask her what she needs. Nothing, I am surrounded by friends and so many things. Laura and I have been living in this house like Arsenic and Old Lace. I have everything I need.
Except Laura. We agreed that Laura was larger than life and that her absence leaves a hole so wide and deep we cannot see to the bottom of it.
I met Laura when I was 17 and a budding lesbian feminist. Laura was old school, of the bull dyke persuasion. She was working class. Grew up in an orphanage. Laura didn’t get anything she didn’t fight for. And fight she did. For the right to grow up and be loved. She was. For the right to love women. She did. For the rights of all marginalized people, poor, homeless, working- class, differently-abled, black, gay, or otherwise disenfranchised. These were her people and when she was on your side, you didn’t have a pit bull on a leash, you had an entire pack of pit bulls running in front of you clearing the way.
Which is not to say she wasn’t challenging. She was. She would tell you to your face what was wrong with what you were saying or doing. She never did the easy thing. She did the hard thing. The thing that cost her: jobs, black eyes, lovers, friends, public acclaim. But she always did the right thing. The thing that mattered. Not the thing that let people off the hook, or the thing that gave you lots of awards and invites to fancy luncheons. Not the thing that made political appointees and elected officials happy to see her. You could feel the groans in the room as folks mentally looked for an exit and braced themselves when Laura arrived, be it at a town hall meeting, a community meeting, a pot-luck dinner, or anywhere else that moral and political laziness had occurred.
She was relentless in her pursuit of justice. An act of discrimination wasn’t a teachable moment for Laura. Them was fightin’ words. Laura didn’t know from nice. Nice wasn’t handed to her at the orphanage on a silver spoon. Nice was way too fussy for Laura, who preferred a steel-bladed shovel to a silver spoon.
As a result, people were often afraid of Laura. Not just the bad guys. Sometimes her beloved lesbian community would seek to exact its own pedagogy of the oppressed out on her. I know it broke her heart but she would never say. She would keep on doing the right thing. The not sexy or fashionable thing. Life wasn’t meant to be safe in that way in Laura’s eyes. If the shoe fit, wear it. I was never afraid of her. Not even for a minute. And that shoe frequently fit my imperfect, impatient, sometimes lazy self.
What did I love about Laura? She wasn’t the first old school dyke in my life—my closeted lesbian mother’s friends were a preamble to that—but she was definitely the first one who wasn’t ashamed of herself. When we met, she was teaching women car repair. Women needed to be more self-sufficient, less dependent upon men, the thinking went. Automobile literacy was a key component to this independence. We worked on my mother’s car, a used Ford Galaxy 500 4-door sedan, which she had just inherited from her mother. We changed tires and oil, did brake jobs, replaced a water pump. My mother’s car from her mother was up to the task.
All car repair lessons came with a heavy dose of lesbian liberation theory and class awareness.To this day, there is nothing under the hood of a vehicle that frightens me even if I have no idea what is going on. Likewise, there is nothing about class, race, and sex, but especially class, that I did not initially learn while also being told how loosen a lug nut or tighten a fan belt. Laura’s pop-up car repair for women course might just as well have been titled: The Nuts and Bolts of Class: Sister Laura Moore Explains It All For You. Pretty much everything else–with the exception of my mother’s fine example– all that book-learning and those fancy degrees and study groups and talk, was just continuing education, professional development. None of it would have had a context without Laura and her car repair class.
Laura Ann Moore is deep inside my white, middle-class college-educated, small business-owning, queer, lesbian bones. This was never clearer to me than when I learned that she had passed. It felt so deep. So personal. So inside of me even though we hadn’t really spoken or socialized much in the last several years. I think there are a lot of us out here who know what I mean. Losing her is like having your bone marrow removed. It functions inside of you without having to think about it. But oh, when it’s gone.
Which isn’t to say we didn’t fight or disagree. We did. Sometimes, often, really, those fights were impassioned on both sides and included yelling. She was philosophically opposed to the concept of “feminist” therapy at one point, and was outspoken in her position against my own friends, my own therapists. She was a dyed-in-the-wool lesbian separatist and I was no longer a believer in in separatism. For a time, she wasn’t too keen on transgender identity and my partner is trans. Frankly, she didn’t really like anyone with what she thought was too much easy access to what she and so many others have called male privilege. We had some doozies, Laura and I.
There are people who are not up to that kind of engagement. Middle-class sensibilities, Laura would have said. No: Middle class privilege. Don’t want to tarnish their silver spoons.I relished it because here was someone who challenged you to think, to defend your position. We both won a few, we both lost a few. There were stretches when we didn’t speak. Two essential things came of this: One, Laura’s positions sometimes DID evolve and she owned that when it happened. Two, my positions evolved as well, but more importantly, I learned a shitload about personal accountability and integrity. If I do the right thing today in the face of an easier, more fun, only slightly right choice, (if there is such a thing) a choice that would gain me friends, invites to parties, awards, but I do that right thing anyway, it is because because Laura Ann Moore pushed me to, whether she knows it or not.
Oh, and a third: These were Laura’s brand of teachable moments. If you were willing to engage, willing to stand for your beliefs but listen as well, Laura would always have your back.
I never really doubted that even in times when I was angry with her. And when some actual attack came at her in the social or public sphere that was wrong-headed, morally lazy, or just plain mean, I stood up for her even if we were in mid-argument, because I knew she would do the same for me. She would do what’s right, regardless of cost.
What I love about Laura? Slow-dancing in P.K.s on the East Side, under-aged and loving her big boisterous joyous self as she belted out the song on the juke box in my ear and steered me around the floor like I was an extension of that big-ass heart. Sitting for hours listening to her microscopically detailed knowledge of the inner workings of St. Louis politics. Coming over to her house in which she took great pride, watching her fuss over her beloved chow Red Emma, and being witness to her enormous joy and love for her partner Marlene. Seeing her at events in her “I am your worst fear and your best fantasy” t-shirt. Hearing her big, big laugh. Knowing with a certainty, that every shred of documentation of St. Louis’s struggle for social justice has been preserved by Laura, a one-woman herstory archive. Knowing that she loved with a big, soft heart that could be and was frequently wounded, but that she nevertheless loved people and animals and life in the deepest and best possible ways.
Good-bye Laura. I will miss you fiercely. Thank you for letting me into your life. I will try to do the right thing by you.
Here is a poem for you by another lesbian, the poet Mary Oliver:
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
― Mary Oliver