by Louie Crew
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 (9/2/2004). 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 decades.
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" decades ago.
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 man insisted.
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 there for.
"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 was necessary.
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 appropriate."
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. She presented us with the certificate embossed with the official seal.
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. Eula Jackson."
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.