Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Joyce and Linda. "The closest thing that I’ve seen to a female image of transcendence is Bette Midler."
Joyce and Linda have a beautiful new toaster, a squat, dull-metal Delonghi that looks as if it goes from zero to toast in about six seconds. The toaster sits on a slab of Ivory Fantasy granite, a compromise stone that incorporates the black and white and mica flecks that Joyce admires with the “pinky Italian” veins that please Linda. The granite counters sit atop warm cherry cabinets, which in turn stand on cool, swirled squares of pale-gray travertine. More cherry cabinets cover the kitchen walls, except for the square granite backsplash behind the stainless steel Viking range and the occasional swath of gray-green wallpaper adorned with watercolor-style images of what might be flowering dogwood.
“It’s been about eight or nine months since we had the kitchen remodeled,” says Joyce,“so we still don’t know where anything is.” Linda explains that boxes and boxes of kitchen buildup — “ancient cookie sheets, every pot and pan you’ve ever owned” — were donated to Battered Women’s Services. The donation may have included one box too many; the blender is still missing, along with the salad bowl and a couple of pans that belonged to Linda’s late mother. And somewhere along the way, the old toaster faded into history.
“When we first moved in together,” some 30 years ago, recalls Linda, “Joyce’s mother Vic bought us a toaster. It was a cheap toaster — it was stainless steel — but it came wrapped in wedding paper. This was sort of a bank shot wedding gift. She wasn’t taking responsibility for the idea that it was a wedding gift, but it kind of was, you know? So it meant a lot to us that she had done this. We held on to that toaster for a million years; we were keeping it for old times’ sake.” Today, a hand-colored portrait of Vic in full Mardi Gras regalia hangs in the dining room.
The old toaster was iconic, a quiet affirmation in a time when lesbian couples caused more uproar than today. Today, people have commitment ceremonies. Today, there would be presents, presents of the sort that regularly appear in heterosexual wedding registries. Things like toasters and flatware.
Joyce and Linda’s flat ware is from Tiffany’s, with a squared-off, Deco-type handle. Linda tells the story. “My best friend’s Uncle Aurel is 88 years old and quite the flamer. Every couple of years he will call us up and say — he lives in Macon, Geor gia — ‘Well, Ahm goin’ to New Yawk for the opera season. Are y’all comin’ or not?’ So we say, ‘All right, Aurel; we’ll be there.’ We do this sort of grand promenade around the Big Apple with Aurel. He’ll decide where we’re going to lunch each day, and we’ll do that. One day, we were in Tiffany’s, and I said, ‘Oh, let me show you the pattern that we decided to get.’ Our 25th anniversary was coming around, and we had decided to buy some sterling-silver flat ware, since we didn’t seem to get given any. We had not bought a single piece yet. I showed my friends, and then for our 25th, when the presents began to roll in, they were all pieces of this silver.”
Linda made the trip to New York without Joyce, who “doesn’t do crowds.” It’s easy to believe; sound and motion seem much more a part of Linda’s persona than Joyce’s. “Linda took the initiative in the kitchen remodel,” says Joyce. “I tend to live with things longer. But when the stove started falling apart, that was the last straw. We had a double-wall oven, and it wasn’t holding up. It got so you couldn’t cook a meal in it, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s got to go, so we may as well do the rest of it.’
“We both come from working-class families,” adds Linda. “The idea of getting a new thing just because you want it was not part of the training.”
Besides sharing an economic background, Linda and Joyce shared a home town in western Massachusetts. Says Linda,“My first memory of Joyce is that she was working in her grandmother’s store, and I saw her in there. It was the first place I was allowed to go by myself away from the house.” Joyce began working there when she was eight years old. She and Linda were neighbors, separated by eight years and half a block.
Eight years is an enormous distance between children, but gradually, the distance lessened. “There was a period of time when Joyce was a teacher at the high school, when she was 21 and I was 13,” says Linda. “Other teachers would give you a book to make you go away, but Joyce would give me a book and talk to me about what I read in it. Or she would give me a book and then give me another book and say, ‘How does this guy’s sense of this differ from the other guy’s sense?’ ” Joyce taught English, but she gave her eager pupil “philosophy, too. She had me reading Teilhard de Chardin,” a contemporary Catholic philosopher. “I thought Joyce was completely wonderful and completely smart. I pretty much followed her around and cleaned her blackboards and had a big old crush.”
The school was Catholic, as were the young women. The time was the early ’60s. Linda’s “crush” was simply fascination.“I was fantastically interested in Joyce, but I didn’t understand that to be sexual. Number one, at that time, you were not expected to be a sexual being in high school. Number two, I had been raised Catholic and had been given to understand that it would not be good if I had any sexual feelings. I could tell that I wasn’t as interested in boys as the other girls, but there was part of me that thought that just meant that I was a better Catholic — more pure.”
Joyce left the high school after two years and began teaching college in Boston. Linda went to Cornell for her undergraduate studies. Linda paid an occasional visit to her old teacher, “and we would have wonderful conversations. I looked up to her. She was a scholar; I wanted to be a scholar.”
The gap brought on by their difference in age really began to close during the early ’70s. Joyce was in her early 30s, studying for her doctorate in religious and philosophical thought from Boston University. Linda was pursuing a master’s in ethics from Harvard Divinity School.
“We had almost three years like that, and in that time, I began to feel more like Joyce’s peer. I think we really became friends on an equal level.” At the end of those three years, they became lovers. Linda had had a relationship with a woman she met at Cornell, and it was Linda who proved the catalyst for Joyce’s realization that she herself was a lesbian.
Early-’70s Boston was a heady place to be if you were a feminist theologian and philosopher; perhaps even more so if you were a lesbian. “The personal is political,” ran the slogan, and to it, Linda added the phrase “is spiritual.” Boston College professor Mary Daly, author of the revolutionary book The Church and the Second Sex, had become a big enough deal to merit an invitation to speak from the pulpit at Harvard’s Memorial Chapel. Linda — who had entered the Divinity School in the hope that by the time she graduated, the Catholic Church would be ordaining women priests — was one of Daly’s fans.
“Mary Daly decided she was going to describe how women had been treated by Christianity and invite women, for their own spiritual well-being, to leave the church. We figured that four or five of us would actually do it, so we positioned ourselves in different places in the church so that it would look like some body left. She had chosen these great scripture readings. At one point, my friend Emily got up and read from Paul, ‘Women shall keep silent in the churches.’ I mean, it was fun. We read all the anti-women stuff in the Bible. Then Mary gets up there and says,‘Well, this is how women have been treated. I’m the first woman they’ve ever let talk up here, so I’m saying, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” ’ We started down the aisle, and we couldn’t get out — the women couldn’t leave fast enough. Every woman in that place left, and I would say that 20 percent of the men left, too.
“We spent the day together. You wouldn’t just say, ‘Oh, that was cool; let’s go home.’ It was very energizing. That was the beginning of a community that met together to talk about abortion, to talk about birth control. Can you believe it? Birth control was illegal. In some ways, I felt like I could see a little bit of how the early Christians must have felt. There was a whole new thing under the sun in terms of spiritual reality, and you had an opportunity to commit yourself to it and let go of the old stuff that had been weighing you down.” Several Boston colleges and universities were in a consortium with Boston College, where Daly taught, “and women everywhere started taking her courses. It got to be very, very thrilling and exciting.”
At the same time, says Linda, “culturally, there started to be lesbian music. There started to be lesbian comedy. There started to be lesbian music and comedy festivals. I helped produce the first Boston Women’s Music Festival, and I had never been in the same room with so many lesbians in my whole life. We filled Sanders Theater, which is 800 people.”
“There were no role models,” comments Joyce. “We didn’t know much about it until it started coming out everywhere. Once it got started, then there was a lot of reinforcement.”
There was also fear. Linda remembers “standing at the door and collecting tickets and having the woman who had been the supervisor of my field work walk in. I said, ‘Oh! Dr. White!’ and she said, ‘Hello, Linda,’ and I said, ‘Hello, Dr. White,’ and she kept going. I turned to my friend and said,‘Oh, my God, that’s my field-work supervisor!’ My friend said, ‘Linda — she’s here, too,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, this is good.’ Not that Dr. White ever spoke to me again. She was afraid I was going to out her. I didn’t know anything about her — she could have had kids. She could have lost her job; she could have lost her kids. There are still places where you can lose a tenured faculty position because it’s considered moral turpitude.”
And, says Linda, you can always lose your family, regardless of the law.“If you’re going to come out, it’s either going to work or it’s not, and you don’t know until you do it. The best answer I ever heard to a coming out was given by Joyce’s sister Beverly. When Joyce came out to her in 1973, she said, and I quote, ‘Oh, thank God! I thought you were alone!’ But other people say, ‘Get out of my house and don’t ever come here again.’”
Whatever the law and whatever the family reaction, Linda and Joyce pressed on together. They date their anniversary from a conversation held on New Year’s Eve, 1972 — “Trust two philosophy majors to have their anniversary be a conversation,” jokes Linda — in which “It became clear to us that we were both in this for the long haul. I didn’t think until then that Joyce was as serious about it as I was. The fact is that I had been kind of ass-over-teakettle in love with her for ten years, so it took me a while to figure out that this was serious for her as well.”
A year and a half later, around the time that they moved in together,“We went out in the woods by our selves and said some stuff to each other about how we felt about each other, what we promised in terms of working at it and staying with it. We gave each other really cheap silver necklaces, because it was what we could afford. I don’t even know if we told our friends; that was too marriage-like. In those days, nobody was doing anything like that.” But they did get that toaster.
Dinner tonight is spaghetti with shrimp and basil. Linda has been watching the cooking show Molto Mario on television.“What he says is, ‘No Italian goes to the store and says, “I’m going to make veal Parmesan today.” What they do is go to the store to see what’s good.’ I had an idea that I wanted to do some kind of seafood and some kind of herb. Sometimes there are really nice scallops at Albertson’s, but then it turned out that the shrimp looked good and the basil looked good, so that’s what we did.”
After setting out Chardonnay and Brie and crackers, Linda sets the water on to boil; the flame from the Viking range makes a royal blue crown around the base of the pot. She minces basil and garlic, then drizzles a pool of olive oil into a heavy weight frypan and starts them cooking with some pepper and a little bit of nutmeg. In go the shrimp; the oil pops, sputters, and roils. After a minute or so, she kills the heat. “I started it on high, then turned it off because I thought it was getting too cooked.” When the spaghetti nears completion, she starts the flame again; almost immediately the sputtering resumes. After another minute, she waves her hand over the pan, wafting the rising steam toward her face. “I judge the basil by the smell.”
Linda judges pasta by the feel of it between her teeth. When it is finished, she drains the pot. She is careful to first add a couple ladlefuls of pasta water to the shrimp — the starch will thicken the sauce. The pasta goes into the pan with the shrimp, and the lot is tossed about with additional uncooked basil.“More Molto Mario stuff.” The whole thing takes maybe ten minutes. “The shrimp were already deveined,” she notes.
Joyce, meanwhile, has been making a salad and dressing it with “garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, parsley, salt, pepper, water, and just a touch of maple syrup.” She has also sliced up a seedy baguette she picked up at Vons. Joyce cooks more often — she usually arrives home earlier than Linda does — but Linda enjoys it more, especially since the remodel. Also, says Linda, Joyce bakes. “I’m a pretty good cook, but I can’t bake to save my life. We had an ice cream business a million years ago, and Joyce’s mother got sick in the middle of it. I must have made the cookies and the biscuits for the shortcake every day for a week while she was gone, and I never made one thing that was edible.”
That may be an exaggeration; the part about “a million years ago” certainly is. The Amazon Sweet Shop opened in the shopping center at 63rd and El Cajon Boulevard in 1978. Linda and Joyce had arrived in San Diego three years earlier.
Around the same time that she and Linda had their anniversary conversation, Joyce headed off to teach at the University of Notre Dame. “Our first year together, we were apart,” quips Linda. But once she was ensconced in the Mid western Catholic stronghold, she had became bored and a little frustrated. Linda recalls that “Joyce wrote me and said,‘It’s so boring here, the special at the deli is baloney on white.’”
The university tried to liven things up with a steady stream of visiting speakers, concerts, and the like, but Joyce was still less than happy, “because it was this whole Catholic atmosphere.” She had already broken with the Catholic Church on theological grounds, arguing in her doctoral dissertation that the notion that mankind is in need of saving “as a foundation for any valuable belief undermines human nature. If you need saving, you’ve gone bad, and I don’t believe that for one second. I believe that if anything, we’re born neutral and that people are defined by their actions.”
“They were open-minded people at Notre Dame, which was nice — you didn’t have to teach dogma. They were really very good intellectuals, but they weren’t so open-minded that they would go along with the stuff that I was going into, not just in the classroom but outside it. We’d get students together and get women together about the feminist things of the time. They weren’t all too thrilled about that.” Two years later, she and Linda set out for San Diego after having packed every thing they could carry in a Plymouth Volaré.
They came because Linda “hated to be cold. When I was eight years old, I was watching something on television, and it was winter and there were people on the television who were outside. I said to my father, ‘Where is that?’ He said, ‘California.’ I said, ‘Someday, I’m going to live there.’ That was kind of my plan throughout.” Los Angeles proved unappealing, and “I didn’t know how far north it stayed warm, so we just went south. We really came here for the weather. People in Boston thought that was just nuts.”
“Especially 25 years ago,” says Joyce.“It was like a time warp.”
On their drive, the two had stopped in Texas, “to see this fellow who used to make ice cream in Boston. We were thinking about doing an ice cream shop.” But once they got here, “People were more interested in natural foods. And we had read the book Sugar Blues, which really turned us around. We decided to make ice cream with honey and not put any chemicals or dyes in it. Everything in the Amazon Sweet Shop was sweetened with honey or maple syrup. We had lots of customers, and we did a good wholesale business. In those days, there were a lot more natural restaurants around. We used to make green tea ice cream for the Prophet. Kung Food used to have us in their little deli. People’s in Ocean Beach...”
“...Windmill Farms, which became Henry’s,” continues Linda. “Frasier Farms, which is what Green Tree grocers is.”
“But there was very little profit margin,” resumes Joyce.“We used high-quality ingredients, and people weren’t used to paying a high price for ice cream — not like today. It was a struggle.”
Still, says Linda, “we did a lot of political work out of the ice cream store, not the least of which was just being out lesbians in the middle of a suburban shopping center. There was no Hillcrest, or we would have been there. We thought that being near the college would be good.” But, she says, college students were generally too impoverished for gourmet ice cream and too politically staid to deal with lesbians.
The rest of the community was somewhat more receptive. For example, says Linda, “There was an initiative on the California ballot that would have kept teachers from bringing up the word ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ or saying that they thought this was a reasonable lifestyle or anything in a California school. We thought this was idiotic, since the number one issue in teenage suicide is sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation or fear that their parents are going to find out about their sexual orientation. If you have any seriousness about dealing with teenage suicide, which is the number one cause of death in teenagers, you have to deal with this issue, and you can’t deal with it if you can’t talk about it.”
The two women collected money and sold buttons, “But more than any thing, we just talked to people. People would come in and say, ‘I’ll have a cone of vanilla,’ then ask,‘What does this initiative mean? What’s your take on this?’ We were the gay and lesbian people that people knew. We were there, and not only were we there, but they knew we were people of good will. Not only did we not molest their children; we would go running out of the shop to keep their children from stepping out into traffic. We had a lot of opportunity to do political work that way.”
Despite their East County location, the lesbian-feminist-theologian philosopher-ice-cream-makers began to attract a following.“On Friday nights,” says Joyce, “people would come in to talk to each other. That would be one of our busiest nights.” Mary Daly visited and gave an impromptu Friday-night lecture. Lesbian poets would stop by and give readings. Politics was in the air, and even San Diego was “loosening up.” (Or at least some of it was. “Our store was four doors down from the yarn store,” recalls Linda. “At no time would that woman ever look at us or respond to our saying, ‘Good morning.’ I developed the habit of running into her in other stores in the shopping center and greeting her warmly, as if we were best friends, so that she would be mortified.”)
And because they ran a natural-foods sweet shop, their “being there” political work extended into some surprising niches. Linda says, “One of our best customers was a Mormon woman and her children. She had these little girl twins, and when they were about five, one of them came up to me and said, ‘Who’s the boss here?’ Joyce had come up in the front, and I said, ‘We’re both the boss. Joyce is the boss and I’m the boss.’ She said, ‘No — who’s the manager?’ I said,‘We’re both the manager. Joyce is the manager and I’m the manager.’ She thought and thought and thought — clearly we were not under standing the question. Finally, what she said was, ‘Who’s the boy boss?’ She had really learned the hierarchy where a woman could not be at the top.”
Later, the girl came back and told them, “ ‘When I grow up, I want to be roommates, just like you.’ She had been told the name of what we were was ‘roommates,’ which I think is a perfectly good explanation for a six year-old.”
One of Joyce’s favorite stories involves a young boy. “We had these names painted on the walls all around the store. They were names of women we knew or women in history that we respected. This little boy was reading and reading, and he said,‘How come you don’t have any boys’ names up there?’ I mean, there’s privilege right there. He assumed a male name should be up there. All these things are named after men, and you don’t find little girls saying, ‘Where are the girls’ names on that?’ It’s not expected.”
The two sold the business in 1984; since then, Linda has gone on to become a chiropractor. Joyce now serves as executive director of the Greater San Diego Business Association — the gay and lesbian chamber of commerce. Now they gather with friends around cultural happenings; they dine out; they attend social events. Then, the sweet shop was home; a living room where they played host to a community. Now, home is home. Friends and family come over occasionally, but they are more likely to spend a free evening alone in each other’s company. Some times they watch sports — Linda has attended Wimbledon and two Olympics — or taped episodes of The West Wing, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, or Joyce’s secret passion, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. As “sincere pacifists,” they generally avoid the various species of violence that animate the movies.
Dinner is served in the dining room — dark-wood floors, white walls, four-inch plantation shutters over one window. The other window looks out on the view — down the notch formed by two shadowy hills and into the twinkling valley beyond — Mission Valley. Linda and Joyce live high on a hill in eastern La Mesa; from their days of renting in Lemon Grove and the College Area to their first house purchase in Spring Valley to here, they have never strayed from East County. “We’re both country girls,” admits Linda.“In our hometown, there were woods and rolling hills. Now, we could buy downtown if we wanted to, but I don’t want to live in the city. I don’t like how it smells. I like to come home and smell the dirt and the night blooming jasmine. I can go sit out in my hot tub at night, and I could be anywhere.”
The one element of the dining room that seems out of place is the dining set itself, all oak and unadorned straight lines with rounded corners.
“We just haven’t replaced it yet,” Joyce assures me.
“It’s from the cheap, old furniture,” adds Linda.
“A new dining set will happen; it’s just happening a little at a time.”
“We should probably just give it away; then I would be forced to go and choose my set.”
“See, now, there’s an example of where you get to pick. I got to pick our bedroom set, so she gets to pick the dining room.”
“I just hope I never do.”
“So do I, Honey.”
“I really will, as soon as we get a new couch.”
The couch was more Linda’s decision, and Linda grants that she gets to choose a lot. But Joyce did score a victory with her cinnamon leather chair and ottoman in the living room off the kitchen. “I didn’t want it in there,” says Linda, “but we got it. I thought it didn’t go with the rest of the room, so we painted the walls to make it go more.” Now the chair sits on a teal carpet; the surrounding walls are butter yellow.
Dinner is over; Joyce begins doing the dishes. Linda says there is no butch femme division of duties. “Joyce mows the lawn because I’m allergic. I just made the valence for the curtains, and I made the curtains as well.”
“Once in a while I iron something for Linda, but it’s because I’ve lost a bet.” After 30 years, the domestic order is well established. There is harmony, though the pair have at times welcomed outside assistance, attending what Linda calls “four different blobs of therapy” at various stages. When they bought their first house together, for instance, they found themselves re-fighting old fights. The therapist pointed out that home ownership was for them a new level of intimacy, and the pressure involved in reaching that level was causing the relationship to “shift along the fault lines.” They got through it partly by learning to counter their natural tendencies — Linda’s to yell, Joyce’s to withdraw.
And after 30 years, there is increasing harmony with those who object to their way of life — the edges are wearing down.“I had a conversation on the phone today with my cousin Rita,” relates Linda. “These are cousins that I have absolutely nothing in common with. How ever, when my mother was old and ill, they helped a lot in taking care of her. So I’m grateful to these people, and I’m going to relate to them until they die; that’s just how it is. But they are, like, the rightest-wing Catholics you will ever find and full on right-wing Republicans — and that’s not what we are at all.”
“But you know, they are accepting of us. Partially because over the years they got over it, but also because Rita has a niece who is a lesbian, and that woman is a saint. She takes battered children into her home and loves them into sanity. The Pope would think this was a good person. So they’re kind of getting over it.”
“Today, I was on the phone with Rita and she said, ‘Oh, have you heard about those terrible gay men that dress up as nuns and show their breasts?’ She was talking about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — they’re these gay men up in San Francisco who do nun drag.”
“I didn’t know they showed their breasts,” marvels Joyce. “I don’t know, that’s what she said. I didn’t happen to see it. It’s probably Rita’s fantasy. But anyway, she says,‘They’re giving gays a bad name.’ I thought, ‘I have lived a long time, that it takes the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to give the gays a bad name to a right-wing Republican Catholic.’ And at the end of the conversation, Bill, who is her husband and who is actually my cousin and who has taken a little longer to come around to this, said to me,‘Um, give my love to Joyce.’ I said, ‘Thank you, Bill; I will.’”
“They’ve always been very nice to me,” reflects Joyce.
“Well, they would be nice to you. I think it’s because they think it’s a sin to be rude.”
“A lot of people who are Christians don’t think that.”
“I know, but they do. These folks walk the walk; they don’t just talk the talk. I mean, they stop at four o’clock every day and say the Rosary. They are full on Catholics.”
Linda and Joyce stayed with the Church long after they stopped being “full-on Catholics,” out of the mentality, explains Joyce, “that the hierarchy was one way and the people were another way, and the tenets of the Church, generally speaking, were good principles to live by.” But by her early 30s, Joyce decided she could no longer remain in “an oppressive, hierarchical institution that keeps women down and judges gays and lesbians.”
Linda had already left. “I can’t be part of a Church that thinks I’m depraved,” she says.“I consider my relationship with Joyce to be the holiest thing in my life, and I won’t participate in a religion that thinks the holiest thing in my life is a sin. It’s not that I didn’t grieve; I grieved and grieved. The Church crippled me in a number of ways, but I loved the Church, and the Church gave me a lot of things.” The Church provided a model of unchanging consistency. There were books and art in the Church. Further, “When they try to point you toward a reality that’s deeper and bigger than what you can see in front of your face, they open your mind up to a whole realm that if you’re just running around playing hopscotch, you won’t have an opportunity to see.”
Today, says Linda, “I believe in a power greater than myself, but I don’t go and hang around with other people about that. I notice the solstices; winter solstice is when we exchange gifts with our lesbian friends instead of Christmas. But the truth is, when I go to pagan stuff, it reminds me too much of high Mass, and then I get weirded out. I go out in my hot tub at night, usually by myself, and do what I do about spirituality in that context.”
As for Joyce, she says, “I have a spiritual life; it’s not communal. When I taught theology, I taught the difference between capital R religion and small-r religion. Capital-R religion is organized religion, while small-r religion is sort of everyday religion, what you hold to be meaningful, valuable, truthful, and beautiful in your life. I evaluate my life that way.”
The Christian notion that Jesus saves is offensive to Joyce because she doesn’t think people need saving, while Linda doesn’t believe that “women are saved by taking a male human — Jesus may have been other things, but we certainly agree that he was a male human. I don’t think that’s an image that’s going to save women. I think that might be an image that would be very good for men, but I think women need some kind of a female image of goodness and holiness. I think Jesus was a swell guy, and I think there are other swell guys. Having lived in patriarchy my whole life, I need to look at female images who are transcendent.”
Such as? “I have to tell you, I think the closest thing that I’ve seen to a female image of transcendence is Bette Midler — the Divine Miss M. The divine part is not a joke. I mean, I think at the very least, she’s a shaman. Sometimes, when I’m at her concerts, I find myself doing this” — reaching out with one hand, as if to touch someone.“I’ve seen evangelical Christians do that, and I used to think, ‘What the hell are they doing?’ Then I saw myself doing it. I mean, I was reaching out to touch something in her that was...”
The sheet music for Midler’s hit song “Wind Beneath My Wings” rests on a wrought-iron music stand beneath Vic’s portrait in the dining room. An oil painting of a young Bette, wearing a low-cut dress and looking transported, hangs above the television. In the hallway, there is a poster advertising an early-’70s Midler concert in Boston. “The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, Atlantic Recording Artist.” “That was her first album, so she was singing things like ‘Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.’ Barry Manilow was the piano player. I was really nervous the first time I was going to take Joyce to a Bette Midler concert, because if she didn’t get it or she didn’t like it, there was no way... But she loved it.”
But the painting, the music, and the poster don’t reveal what it is that makes her a shaman.“You have to experience her. In a live performance, she sings and she tells jokes. She’s actually quite bawdy, but there’s a way in which she talks about sex that’s not dirty. She’s very sex positive in a way that does not demean women or her or men. She shows forth. Do you know the theological concept of transcendence versus immanence? Transcendent is the realm off there somewhere, and immanent is what Jesus Christ was in Christianity. I see a kind of immanence. When I look at her doing that art, I can see the divine that is immanent in her in that moment. There’s a way in which, when you see Mother Teresa hold a child, you see, I think...”
“It’s when somebody is who they are,” suggests Joyce.
“As hard as they can be,” agrees Linda.
“That’s what it is about Bette. She’s about being the best goddamn Bette Midler that ever came down the pike. She does herself with her whole heart. That’s what I believe in; that’s what I try to do. Bette’s a lot better at it than I am, but I aspire.”
Somebody’s being who she is sounds akin to integrity, and 30 years after those heady days at Harvard, it’s easy to see why such a thing would be admired. As Linda says, “Sometimes, you have a nice house and you drive a nice car and you only work four days a week, and you start wondering whether you’ve lost your politics. I had an interesting experience about a year ago. My friend Emily and I wrote a number of papers and articles in that time, and Emily is now director of women’s studies at the University of Redlands. She will sometimes assign her class something that we wrote a million years ago and then have me come up and be the guest speaker.
“What I find that I really love is that I still believe all that stuff. I feel I still live by that. I think the basic thing is a kind of integrity with myself and integrity with the world that requires I try to do something. What’s that line from the Old Testament about ‘What does the Lord thy God require of thee?’ Something like, love justice and walk humbly with your God. I think loving justice means you have to make an internal commitment to make the world a more just place. That used to be in the form of picketing against the war and doing stuff to give women access to birth control. Now, it might mean giving money to candidates and calling the voter rolls before an election.”