Sunday, June 20, 2010

Stranger in a familiar land

Merv Gibbany's Johnson County (Wyoming) High School graduation photo.

I’ve been trying lately to organize a variety of photographs and documents related to a family that has simply vanished --- My aunt, Mae (Miller) Gibbany, Uncle Elmer Gibbany, and their son, Merv. What little was left behind, especially of Merv --- none of it of financial value --- is in my care, scattered here and there since 1998, when my aunt died, while I thought now and then about what to do with it. Now I’m trying to pull it together. It will go into notebooks for now --- and that’s the best I can do. It’s not likely anyone will want those notebooks when I’m done, but it seems like the thing to do.

Elmer and Mae (Miller) Gibbany at the time of their marriage in 1947.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about Merv lately, puzzling things out. In some ways we were mirror images of each other --- both only children, close to each other in age, sons of sisters, both gay, something we recognized in each other when we were kids and always acknowledged, both Vietnam veterans --- but actually quite different. At times we were very close and at others, distant --- no hostility involved, but rather geography, temperment and culture.

Merv was a Wyoming boy. If you’ve ever seen the film “Brokeback Mountain,” well, that’s the way it was out there when we were growing up, turning into young men. And still was as late as 1998 when Matthew Shepherd was tied to a fence outside Laramie and left to die. Having said that, we both loved Wyoming --- and I still do. But he lived there and I only visited. Eventually, after Vietnam and a stint wrangling dudes, he got out and lived the last and best years of his life in Denver. Finding it harder and harder to go home again, eventually he didn’t.

Merv Gibbany at about age three

He was not estranged from his parents, but there were tensions. My aunt felt very strongly that marriage and children would both cure Merv and provide her with the daughter-in-law and grandchildren she wanted. Aunt Mae knew exactly who that daughter-in-law should be and remained close to her until she died, considering her children by the man she did marry her surrogate grandchildren. Awkward.

As a student at Lower Johnson Creek School, Johnson County, Wyoming.

He would not come to Iowa, where at that time (now long past) the Miller mafia was still going strong, whispering among themselves when “poor Mae’s” name came up about that wicked son. There were similar tensions within the Wyoming end of the family and a few in Colorado, although he always was willing to come to family gatherings there.

But it was a good rich life in Denver filled with work he enjoyed, friends, travel, adventures, lovers and the sort of freedom only a city offered gay men and lesbians then, but with family always at arm’s length. I was reading his old Christmas form letters sent to all the kinfolk the other day. I’d forgotten how he ended them --- “Yes, I’m still single; no, I’m not dating anyone; yes, I’m happy.” Laugh or cry?

Then he developed AIDS and as he grew sicker the whispers intensified. This was not something, keep in mind, that was talked about back then --- in the early 1990s when AIDS was a death sentence. Merv being Merv, he loaded a gun, went out into a field and ended it on his own terms, dying at St. Anthony’s Hospital a few hours later. I wish I’d been nearer, able to do more, but it all happened so fast. How’s that for rationalization?

It all was his fault, of course --- that he was gay, that he didn’t marry and produce children, that he got sick, that he died, that he broke his mother’s heart, and that in the process of dying he used up all his resources so that nothing was left for her. There isn’t even a grave. His ashes were scattered in the Rockies. That was his fault, too. Always blame.

My Aunt Mae and Uncle Elmer are buried on the highest point in Willow Grove Cemetery in Buffalo, Wyoming, with a clear view of the Big Horns. My uncle picked the spot out, he said, because everyone always had looked down on him in life and he wanted to go through eternity looking down on them.

He was mistaken about that. A few did, including his father-in-law, my grandfather, who although a remarkable man could be remarkably mean. Although Elmer began his working life as a ranch hand and ended it a janitor, nearly everyone who really knew him loved him. He was a giant of a man, very gentle, very kind, a dreamer who could not stand to be long without a view of the mountains. There were elements of all that in Merv, too.

Most of the whisperers are dead now and the whispers have for the most part stopped. Oh now and then his name comes up and someone asks how he died. “Well he was, you know (wave of a limp wrist here; Merv was a big strong guy who worked outdoors and didn't have limp wrists) and he died of, well, you know what.” But not often.

AIDS is no longer a death sentence. Merv will have been dead 18 years come the 6th of July. He was a fine man who lived and died bravely. His mother will have been dead 12 years later this month. She did her best. There aren’t that many of us who still remember that, but I want you to know those things about them both.

Merv and Mae Gibbany about 1985.

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