Welcome to Life in Chains, where writers share the essential roles played in their lives by chain restaurants—great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Here, writer Drew Zandonella-Stannard on the happiness to be found in both a spaghetti dinner, and an expansive definition of family.
he order never changes. Raspberry Italian cream sodas served in keepsake glasses rimmed with the stripe of the Italian flag. Iceberg lettuce with creamy pesto dressing. Spaghetti with mizithra cheese and browned butter served alongside steaming loaves of sourdough. Maybe an order of broccoli for the table. Always a single scoop of spumoni ice cream for dessert, icy and glistening. In my family, The Old Spaghetti Factory is a restaurant reserved only for the inner circle, for those who understand its subtle magic.
The Old Spaghetti Factory is a big Italian chain with locations all over the world. Our Spaghetti Factory — our Spag Fac, as some of my family members refer to it — opened its doors in a nondescript brick building near Seattle's waterfront back in 1970, a little over a decade before my parents shacked up together a few miles away. But as far as I'm concerned it was built in preparation for us to arrive, waiting years for two women and their daughter to walk in the door, surrounded by a pack of a half-dozen more hungry women, and all of their respective offspring.
I hail from a big gay family, and I don't mean that in any figurative sense of the word. My mothers, my father, a few aunts, a rogue cousin — plus the large network of women I consider to be my extended family — all identify as gay. I was raised in the ‘80s by two lesbian mothers during a time when families like mine seemed nearly invisible, at least to anyone outside of our circle. But my family refused to be accepted as anything less than normal.
They knew that I might often find myself the lone kid among their circle of friends, a group that primarily consisted of childless radicals with cats
Even before they pledged their love to each other, wearing matching tuxedos in a small backyard ceremony, my parents understood the importance of bonding with other gay families with children. They knew that I might often find myself the lone kid among their circle of friends, a group that primarily consisted of childless radicals with cats. So in 1983, a full year before I was born, they helped organize the Mothers Group, a parenting group made up of lesbian couples embarking on an essentially uncharted journey into motherhood. Most members of the group had originally met during a workshop entitled "Self Esteem: a Family Affair," in which couples, all sitting cross legged on the floor of a church basement, learned how to nurture the emotional needs of their future children.
My parents arrived for the first meeting of the Mothers Group still wearing their work uniforms — they both drove buses for the city, which is how they met and fell in love. The group of aspiring mothers passed around mimeographed instructions on how to conceive at home with the assistance of willing donors, who for the most part were gay men, friends of friends. Stories from that era take on the tenor of heroic legends: women volunteering as sperm runners, driving around the city delivering fresh DNA to hopeful ovulating lesbians, praying that they wouldn't be pulled over for speeding.
Like many of the kids produced by the Mothers Group, I was brought into the world by way of donor insemination. Unlike many of the them, I had a dad who was a fixture in my life from early on, attending birthday parties and taking me on monthly jaunts to exotic places like the zoo and the mall. While my mothers were there for the day-to-day, Ron was a fun force of nature that blew in bearing gifts, and was gone before any real parenting got in the way.
As the babies of the Mothers Group grew up, its members shifted their focus away from conception and towards family life. Furtive late night sperm deliveries were a thing of the past; now, our mothers baked cookies and held Easter egg hunts. They dragged us along to march with them at gay pride parades. They wore comfortable shoes. They packed us into vans and took us on camping trips in the rain. These are the women who loved me into being.
Over the thirty years of my life, our big gay Mothers Group family has expanded to include a bevy of children and grandchildren, friends and peers and kids who I have always thought of as my weird cousins. The Old Spaghetti Factory has been the venue for every reunion where we gather as a loud lesbian mafia, greeted by dozens of perky young servers who welcome without question our battery of separate checks.
As a kid, I often felt that my family of two lesbian moms and a gay dad was dramatically different than the families I saw on television
As a kid, I often felt that my family, lacking in processed foods but rich with two lesbian moms and a gay dad, was dramatically different from those I saw on television — even dramatically different from those of the kids in my class at my very small, very progressive Montessori school. By kindergarten, my friends understood divorce, but couldn't quite grasp the idea of my father who lived not with me, but with his roommate Barbara, or how two women were able to make a baby. A large amount of my time was spent explaining the concepts of both homosexuality and human conception to various fascinated classmates. My mothers eventually donated a copy of Heather Has Two Mommies to the school library.
The epitome of what I considered to be "normal" was the ultra-conservative family that lived across the street. The Bahlmans had two children around my age, a boy and a girl. Their daughter Sarah and I were inseparable — at least, until Mr. and Mrs. Bahlman decided she might be old enough to start wondering what lesbians were. Although Sarah was no longer allowed to come over to our house, I would frequently wander across the street to bask in her family's apparent normality.
Mr. Bahlman shaved and used to be in the Navy. Mrs. Bahlman loved Footloose and let me try on her makeup. I imagined the family gathered together in the evenings, eating Jell-O pudding while watching the Disney Channel. I pictured Mrs. Bahlman microwaving buttered popcorn and wearing a mint-green mud mask. At my house, we made popcorn on the stove and topped it with nutritional yeast. My mothers did not wear makeup. We did not own a microwave. But rather than sheltering me from the crushing societal expectations of femininity, as my mothers intended it to, our left-of-center life only increased my longing for exotic pleasures like plastic clip-on earrings, and Barbie dolls that were not required to have professions beyond being beautiful.
My father understood this. Every birthday and Christmas, Ron would arrive with intricately wrapped packages full of forbidden treasures: dress-up clothes made of synthetic fibers, child-sized high-heeled slippers, and the kind of makeup fancy businesswomen on television wore. I was in love — with the gifts, and with him. He was endlessly entertained by my love of the feminine ideal of the 1980s; he called me his "little Republican." While I can't recall him ever cooking me a meal, together we frequented restaurants like Marie Callender's, where he introduced me to lemon meringue pie, the importance of a good booth, and the quiet beauty of a menu untouched by time.
The summer before third grade, my mom bought me a cherry Italian soda, and told me that Ron was HIV positive
The summer before third grade, my mom bought me a cherry Italian soda, and told me that Ron was HIV positive. My parents had known for nearly five years, but Ron couldn't bear to tell me himself. I felt betrayed, but in my eight-year-old reality I was prepared: earlier that year Magic Johnson had announced that he had HIV, and I'd watched his Nickelodeon special on it.
Two years later, Ron lost his eyesight. He was getting sicker, although he never wanted me to know. That summer, my mothers and I flew to Cape Cod, taking over the daily operations of a small tennis court from an elderly hoarder, in a complicated rental scam long before the days of Craigslist. In my memory, I'm sweating inside a clapboard clubhouse manning the lone rotary phone when we get the call that Ron is in the hospital. I'm sure that can't be entirely right.
I don't remember the first time I visited Ron after he went blind. His deterioration was lonely by choice, and hidden from me at his request. This solitude and secrecy was in stark contrast to my mothers' constant, vocal processing of all conflicts and emotions relevant to our family unit, and I unexpectedly relished this new gift from my father, the foreign experience of denial. Sure, my dad may have been blind, but my mothers pointed out that so was Helen Keller, the hero of my Scholastic Biography paperbacks. At home, we talked about his illness, but never mentioned death. The inevitable didn't need to be addressed.
At dinner parties at my mothers' house, Ron held court with his roommate Barbara by his side, describing the layout of his plate to him as if we were on a whale watch. "Chicken at twelve o'clock! Asparagus at three!" she would call out as he sang along to the Jefferson Airplane on the stereo. In photos from this time, Ron is posed with his arm around me, smiling, both eyes open.
Most of us only realize our parents' humanity as adults. I learned about my dad through the women he loved. Bette Davis and Joan Baez were sainted fixtures. He introduced me to Patti Page and her rendition of "Old Cape Cod," putting on the record as if divulging a juicy secret. When I mentioned the idea of dressing as Rita Hayworth one Halloween, he noted dryly that I might have to grow out my bowl cut to achieve her signature waves. When he had last seen me, I was an awkward kid who often was mistaken for a boy, eating pie at Marie Callender's. In the years after he lost his sight, unbeknownst to him, I had grown into a girl on the edge of womanhood who had to ask her mothers for permission to purchase a bra. My bowl cut had grown into shoulder-length curls, made crisp with copious amounts of hair gel.
Six months after we had that conversation, a hospice volunteer named Bev moved in with Ron. She became his constant companion, helping him navigate the ugly mess of living while preparing to die. Ron and I no longer went out to eat together; instead, I visited him at his condo and drank peach nectar so sweet it burned my teeth. At school, no one knew about my dad. I'm not sure if I was tired of explaining, or if I simply didn't know how.
In 1971, long before The Old Spaghetti Factory in Seattle became our Spag Fac, my mother Meredith shared a meal there with my grandmother. They sat in the refurbished trolley car in the center of the restaurant, its destination sign perpetually set to Happy Valley. A month later, my grandmother died tragically and without warning, the kind of loss that it's entirely acceptable never to recover from. Here is a truth you learn unwillingly: people die and your world implodes. People die and you piece together a new reality. A new normal.
Ron died in 1997. I was fourteen, sad, and angry. The summer after he died, as I was about to enter high school, my parents planned to uproot us from our Seattle home to the tiny town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, three thousand miles away. There's cold comfort in moving somewhere that holds no memory of the person you miss the most, wrapped in the promise of creating new rituals.
My dad and I never ate at The Spaghetti Factory together. Marie Callender's is out of business.
My dad and I never ate at The Spaghetti Factory together. Marie Callender's is out of business. The weird cousins I was raised alongside are now grown, and we no longer gather for egg hunts and cookie decorating, though occasionally our mothers guilt us into getting together to sing Christmas carols around the holidays. We run into each other at weddings, those of our parents and those of our peers. And every so often, we all still gather at our Spag Fac. New faces show up as relationships grow serious enough to be deemed Spaghetti Factory-worthy. After dinner, we always line up along the brick wall with our assorted partners for group photos, an awkward family album charting our attempts at adulthood. As our families evolve, our experiences grow less unique. Even my parents own a microwave now.
I've moved back and forth across the country, introduced a handful of friends to the Spag Fac inner circle, and own a full set of the restaurant's keepsake glasses. In moments of desperation, often towards the end of doomed relationships, I've even dragged ex-boyfriends there, hoping to recreate the feeling of unconditional love that I know can radiate from those warehouse walls. But the magic of the Spaghetti Factory doesn't exist without our big gay family.
I am now 31 and married. My parents are eagerly awaiting an announcement from me that I will be soon producing their first grandchild. Over the phone one night, my mom explained that conception is really quite easy. "It only took us two tries," she giggled, as if it had been nothing, as if she hadn't been the one racing over the West Seattle Bridge in a beat-up Volkswagen, a baby food jar of Ron's sperm kept warm under her arm. When a group of women work so hard to bring you into the world, the last thing you want to do is let them down.
In a few weeks the Mothers Group will reunite at The Old Spaghetti Factory. One of the kids just graduated from nursing school, and it's a good excuse for us to get together and celebrate. We'll eat and gossip and linger long enough to let the spumoni melt. Because that's what you do when you're with the people who know you the best. And that's completely normal.
Drew Zandonella-Stannard is a writer living in Seattle. Her essays have appeared in Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, The Hairpin, Saveur, and elsewhere. She is an honorary board member of COLAGE, striving to unite and empower children of LGBTQ parents.
Editor: Helen Rosner
Photo: Nishant Agarwal/Flickr