Love given wholeheartedly, inclusively and unconditionally is inexhaustible.
The first time I acknowledged it out loud, I was a little girl. I remember my nonno joyfully dancing in his vinyl-floored living room to the upbeat Italian music coming from the TV. He was my idol, one of the sweetest and smartest men I knew. He played the accordion and always had a way of inventing or “MacGyvering” his way through anything. He would try to act like he disliked our cats but would ruin the charade by inventing toys for them, smiling to himself while watching them play with his creations. At night, we would peacefully watch Toronto Maple Leafs games together until I fell asleep on his lap. The morning after, I would ask him who won the game, though that didn’t really matter to me. He taught me to fish. With my chest puffed-out, wearing a faded little orange lifejacket, I would proudly show him that I could put the worm on the hook and remove the fish all by myself.
“Come here,” he would say in his Sicilian-Italian dialect and take my hand. I loved the way he pronounced words, especially my name, and that he always smelled like cigarette smoke and Old Spice aftershave. “Put your feet on my feet, I teach you how to dance so you know how to dance with your husband one day.” On one occasion, I calmly, yet defiantly, said, “I don’t want a husband.” We did not dance that day and I can’t recall a time we ever did again. The day he died, those words blared through my memory like an entourage of fire trucks racing to a 5-alarm.
Later in life, I had a friend who shared that scent of cigarettes and Old Spice aftershave. The first time I hugged him evoked a shocking wave of nostalgia through my body. I asked him to hug me longer. I would squeeze him while selfishly wishing he would never quit smoking… but I immediately retracted the thought, recalling the hell on earth that cancer put my nonno through. A disease with the ability to reduce a strong and capable man to the likes of a wounded baby bird in a matter of months. I would not wish that amount of heartache and suffering upon anybody. I squeezed my friend a little tighter hoping he’d quit.
My childhood included a revolving cycle of occasions where I was expected to wear dresses and put my hair in cute bows, but not without a hefty protest towards whoever was dressing me. I would hear, “When you were born, we cried tears of happiness to have a little girl… let us put you in dresses and cute things.” I would eventually surrender, overcome with guilt at the realization that I was disappointing everyone by not appearing how I was expected to. I was most comfortable in my older brother’s hand-me-downs and jealous of my little brother’s new clothes.
I remember, in first grade, waiting for the bus after school and looking over at a girl who was in my older brother’s class. She was beautiful, and I was entirely captivated by her presence without understanding why. “Is this what a crush feels like?” I wondered. In fourth grade, a group of boys were talking outside our portable classroom about the girls they had crushes on. I remember hanging off the metal railing nearby and wishing, “I hope girls can have crushes on girls, too.” In seventh grade, a classmate confessed over MSN messenger that he had feelings for our mutual female friend. “Me 2,” my shaky fingers typed. I quickly retracted and typed “LOL, JK!” instead. He sent internet laughter back and, despite the sinking heaviness in my chest, I told him he should ask her out.
Although we were raised Roman Catholic, I am grateful that my parents weren’t strict about us going to church and had us complete the bare minimum to prepare for each sacrament. The homophobia which spewed from the lips of those I loved the most were nails that kept my closet door shut. I knew what my destiny was without a structured weekly reminder.
As negative as this all may sound, it is important to highlight that I was also surrounded by so much love. Our holidays and family gatherings were full of hugs, attention, and copious amounts of Nonna’s cooking. My parents sacrificed and worked tirelessly to ensure my brothers and I always had more than we needed. Our nonna and nonno cared for all three of us like their own children. Our zia took us out in her 1990s Pontiac Grand Am all summer long, with the metal seatbelts burning hot on our little thighs. We “garage-saled” followed by Happy Meals and park play dates on equipment that was so much fun, but unsafe by today’s standards.
When I got older, my zia occasionally cornered me to say, “You know, if you’re gay you can tell me. I love you no matter what.” “No!” I’d lie through my teeth. In hindsight it is clear the amount of unconditional love I was encased in, more than enough to theoretically outweigh the misguided homophobia I witnessed. Unfortunately, I still picked it up and held it close to my heart like a diseased animal carcass I felt bad for, consumed by my own rotting belief that I was entirely unlovable.
By the time I became a teenager, the reality that I’m queer had fully sunken in, paired with what I now know was a deep depression. I teetered my way through adolescence on a tight rope, clumsily swaying between not wanting to be alive and trying to convince myself I would be perfectly happy owning cats and staying single forever. Whether due to the strenuous task of lying to myself or the crushing defeat of the truth, I was perpetually exhausted. I felt so stupid and broken not being able to just “get up” and function like every other kid in my class, constantly having to ask my parents to pardon my absences from school. Fuelled solely by the motivation to not disappoint anyone more than my queerness would, I pulled last-minute all-nighters in a desperate attempt to scrape up any grades that I could. My peers assumed that I was one of the “burnouts” long before my actual first toke. Sinking into this new identity offered a distraction from my truth, neatly packaged with its own coping mechanism.
Shortly after I turned eighteen, a co-worker and I started spending more time together. She invited me on adventures with her friends, which instilled in me a sense of freedom and belonging that I had never felt before. Over time I would stay later than the rest of our friends. Eventually we made plans to hang out without the others. She would insist on painting my nails and, though I never cared for nail polish, I let her do it just to feel her hold my hands. Her hands lingered longer than necessary, and I didn’t mind.
I had never understood the expression “butterflies in your stomach” until the night she kissed me. We were alone in her bedroom at her parents’ house. She had asked me to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer with her. I had never seen it and was unaware of how apparently stereotypical this was of us at the time. We watched it into the early morning hours. She reached her hand towards my face and whispered, “Come here,” as she pulled me in close.
My life was forever changed from that moment on. What once seemed entirely impossible was now a reality. We dated in secrecy, only a handful of our most-trusted friends knowing the truth. Others speculated, but we swore to be nothing more than best friends in an oath to protect each other from being outed. Her family was also Catholic. Occasionally we escaped to Toronto for the day, if only to dare to hold hands in public in a big city where no one knew our names.
Before her, I never believed I could be loved by another. Unfortunately, I allowed the value of my self-worth to take root in external validation. Our relationship lasted for one year and a half before the rocky foundation upon which I held my values crumbled below us. I carelessly dragged her heart through a thorny rose bush of uncertainty until I finally punctured it for the last time…
We have had a few encounters since, each time eventually spoiled by my preoccupation with whoever was my newest source of validation at the time. She has an altruistic heart, one which should only be entrusted to deserving hands. I think of her often and send her well wishes.
At the end of our relationship, people began to question why we weren’t “hanging out” anymore. I waited a short time after our break-up to slowly come out to those closest to me.
One evening I asked my younger brother if he wanted to go for a drive to Tim Horton’s, and he kindly offered to make me a tea at home. I insisted we go to Tim Horton’s, and he agreed.
“So I’m your sister and you love me no matter what, right?” I blurted as we drove off.
“Oh my god, of course, why?! What did you do?” He responded with a matching sense of urgency. “No, nothing… I’m gay.” I laughed nervously.
As he slowly stopped at a red light, he said, “Well, while we’re at it, I should probably tell you…” he turned to look me in the eyes with a deadpan expression and said, “I’m a robot.” I punched his arm and felt all the tension leave my body, my heart still racing.
“Obviously you’re gay!” He laughed. “Tell me something I didn’t already know. I thought you killed someone!”
A few weeks later I was driving home from a party with a friend at 3:00 am when we collided with a deer carcass on the highway. We pulled over and tried to figure out what to do. Steam rising from under the hood and liquid pooling onto the ground below warned us that we shouldn’t continue driving. My friend was only eighteen at the time and had been drinking, and though I’m certain I wasn’t intoxicated I’d had a tallboy four hours prior. The law was zero tolerance for blood alcohol while driving under the age of twenty-one, and I was nineteen. Out of fear, shame, and caution, we decided not to call the police. I called CAA, thankful for the gift of membership from my mother.
“We’ll have to send a police officer to file a report,” CAA said. “What’s your location?”
I hung up and woefully called my mom, who arrived shortly after with my father. We ditched my car and drove my friend home. We planned to return to the car and strategized another way to get it home. My mother is undoubtedly the product of her father (my nonno), equipped with the same wisdom, creativity, and charisma. We decided to stop at a Tim Horton’s to caffeinate and use the washroom. As I washed my hands, my mom asked about the friend we’d driven home. I confirmed my mom’s suspicions about my friend.
“What about you, do you like girls?”
“Yes,” I responded.
“Boys?” she continued.
“Just girls,” I confirmed over the sound of the hand dryer. I turned around to read how she was digesting this information. She hugged me and we laughed and cried into each other’s necks in the Tim Horton’s bathroom.
She asked if it was her fault.
“NO! Don’t ever think that,” I shouted. I’m not sure what misinformation she absorbed to think this was due to any external factors.
“Do you want me to tell anyone else for you?” she asked.
“Sure, actually.” I was relieved at the thought of not having to do this repeatedly with family.
“But maybe not Nonna,” she said. “Not yet, anyways.” I agreed, fearing what Nonna’s reaction would be.
Not long after this experience I ran into my zia at Nonna’s house. At the end of the visit, we exchanged goodbyes, and as I was walking away she yelled, “Hey!” with a serious look on her face.
“When are you going to come out to me for yourself?” My mom had obviously already told her but she wanted to hear it from me. I laughed an awkward “I’m gay” and we embraced. “You know you could have told me sooner,” she said.
“I love you no matter what,” she reminded me.
“I love you, too.”
We did eventually tell my nonna, who had already guessed.
“Well, they must fight a lot,” Nonna said.
“Why would you say that?” asked my mom.
“Well, on Jerry Springer, all the women do is fight!”
To this day I am thankful for her love and acceptance despite the seventy-six years she had spent up until this point being conditioned to do the opposite. Anytime two people of the same gender kissed on TV, she would say, “In my town, we throw rocks at those people!” After learning that I’m queer, I’ve never heard her speak negatively towards 2SLGBTQ+ communities again. She has always loved and accepted my partners, especially if they like her cooking.
The acceptance of my family is just one of many things I am eternally grateful for. I know I am extremely privileged to never have to worry about where I will sleep at night or when my next meal would be despite who I love. I am grateful to have stumbled into a yoga studio in my early twenties, whisking me onto the path of inner-child-healing and the radical self-love I so desperately needed. It is a path that never ends: full of ups, downs, twists, and turns, but offers lessons and triumph every moment I choose to stay on it. I have a partner who supports, loves, and accepts me for who I am, even on days I wander off “the path” and struggle to accept myself. I have found comfort and freedom with a gender identity, and pronouns that fit me in a way I never could fit into “F” or “M” options. My occupation entrusts me with the honour of assisting 2SLGBTQ+ folx of all ages with any barriers they may be facing, and providing education to others. I am most proud when I can be for youth the role model and support person I wish I had had (and accepted) as a teenager.
Inspired by those who fought before me and others I am honoured to work alongside today, I am committed to using my life’s greatest gifts for this work: the work of educating all; to ensure all have the right to self-identify and define how they are to be seen and acknowledged; to be able to access the supports and resources when needed; to find home and belonging within a community; and ultimately accepting one’s self.
The title of this story is inspired by a drawing my nonna made in December 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, hopeful that by spring we would be “free” like the flowers.
Originally published in Here & Now: An Anthology of Queer Italian-Canadian Writing (Longbridge Books, 2021).
C.J. Volpe is a genderqueer individual from Southern Ontario. They are dedicated to supporting 2SLGBTQQIA+ communities both in their professional life and volunteer work. In 2019, this work earned C.J. a YMCA Peace Medal.