A.K.Conte: The Legacy Of Love

Our family history can affect us and our relationships in more ways than we realise.

“I never wanted you, wish I never had you, never even liked you.” My mother’s vitriolic attack echoed in my ears as I sat staring at my phone, willing myself not to send the message I’d written to my girlfriend. I tried to calm the panic that had seized my stomach and was rapidly invading the rest of my body. My heart started racing and I felt a familiar dizziness overtaking my brain.

“Seriously. You and your anxiety issues…” I muttered angrily, forcing myself to think. I looked at the Viber message I’d composed:

“I can’t move to Italy with you. I’m sorry but I can’t.”

I took a deep breath, deleted the message and Skyped my friend Erin in New York.

“It’s 2am. You okay?” Erin asked with concern, sounding abnormally alert for that time of the morning. “I’m so sorry. You’re not asleep?” I asked sheepishly, hoping I hadn’t woken her. “Nup. Jess is here,” she answered casually, trying to sound cool in front of her new girlfriend. “Did I interrupt you?!” I shrieked, exploding into hysterical giggles and wondering if I’d need to shove my head into a paper bag to make the hysteria stop. “Breathe.” Erin said authoritatively, starting to sound alarmed. “What’s going on?” After a full minute of hysterical giggling I finally gasped for breath and answered her question. “Frankie’s been offered a so-good-she-can’t-turn-it-down job in Italy and I’ve lost my shit,” I said softly, feeling mortified at my midnight madness. “I’m sorry. Go enjoy your girlfriend. She must think I’m an idiot.” I snapped, angry at myself for melting down and bothering my friend.

“STOP!” She yelled, turning the video on and pointing her finger at me. “Your trust issues threatening to ruin your relationship again? Thinking of running, are we?” Not giving me time to answer, Erin continued, her voice soft and soothing. “Frankie loves you. She’s not going to abandon you if you move to Italy. She’s not your mother. It’s okay, you can be vulnerable and nothing bad will happen.” Erin smiled reassuringly at me down the camera and continued speaking. “Look at me. If I obeyed my fear and stayed in Australia, I’d never have had my big apple adventure and I’d never have met Jess. It’s my twelve month NY-versary by the way! Can you believe it?” she asked excitedly. “I wonder if there’s a card for that,” I quipped, relieved that my anxiety had reduced and my brain was regaining full function. “Actually I can’t believe we still have this relationship even though you’re miles away. Thank you.” I said appreciatively. “You betcha kid!” she responded playfully. “Yank!” I retorted sarcastically. “Catcha tomorrow dude.” She laughed as she hung up the call.

Realising that I needed to answer Frankie’s message from hours ago, I crafted a supportive sounding reply. “I’m so proud of you sweetheart. I love you. I can’t wait to see you xxx.” Also realising that Frankie would be home in fourteen hours and that I had a congratulations-on-the-awesome-job-offer cake to make, I dragged myself into the kitchen. As I cracked the egg yolks into a bowl, I allowed my mind to wander. Erin was right. Eight years ago my mother’s hate bomb had exploded, shattering my world and demolishing my heart. After years of painstaking work to rebuild my devastated life, I still wasn’t free from my mother’s hatred and ignorance.

I grew up with the uneasy feeling that my mother didn’t like me very much. A proudly Christian and deeply pious woman, she also appeared to love God much more than she loved me. I spent my childhood trying to penetrate the wall of emotional unavailability she hid behind, to feel some kind of connection, but I failed… Until that sunny day eight years ago when her carefully constructed wall collapsed and a lifetime’s rage blew out. “I never wanted you, wish I never had you, never even liked you.” She announced down the phone line in her glacial speaking style. My mother was reacting to my sister’s horrified announcement that I was gay and my refusal to play it straight. After all of my mother’s attempts to control and manipulate my behaviour, her threats and intimidation tactics, I wasn’t backing down. “I wish you’d never had me too!” I shot back, carefully concealing the wound her words had inflicted.

Over the course of the following week, my mother mounted a shock and awe style campaign designed to obliterate me from her life. My tears fell silently as, one by one, the members of my family refused to take my calls. I stood helpless and alone as my father, sisters, niece and nephew all turned their backs and walked away. On day five of her blitzkrieg the phone rang. It was my mother. “If you come near us again I’ll tell Granny who you really are.” she threatened, sounding intoxicated by her power. From deep within me a rush of pure rage erupted. I’d never felt cold, hard hatred before and here it was, aimed at my own mother. “You wouldn’t…” I growled down the phone. “That would ruin your perfect reputation. Go on…” I taunted her. “I dare you.” Shocked by the strength of my rage and the force of my words, my mother fell silent. “Don’t contact us again.” She spat coldly, terminating the call. I stood frozen, a wave of nausea overwhelming me. I tried to breathe as panic coursed through my veins, my whole body shaking uncontrollably. The panic gave way to a strange feeling of disconnection. I was numb.

The war was over. My mother had won.

I was abandoned.


Ready to surrender.

Realising this was a moment that would define me forever, I picked up the phone and dialled. “Hello?” the familiar voice answered. I stood hypnotised, unable to speak. “Hello?” she asked again. “It’s Alex.” I finally squeaked. “Oh hello dear, do you have a cold?” asked Granny. “There’s a virus going around I believe.”

I’ve always loved my grandmother and she’s always loved me. One of my favourite stories is how she used to sit me in the basket when she hung out the washing. She taught me to bake, to sew, and to sing. She let me interview her for my school journalism assignment. I listened to her talk about the fiancé she lost in the war. I was there when she grieved the sudden death of my grandfather. “You’re the only one in the family I can talk to.” she said gratefully at the end of an emotional late night call. “You’re the only one who gets me.” I replied warmly.

After a long silence I willed myself to stop reminiscing and start speaking. I opened my mouth and let the words tumble out. I spoke of the joy of feeling free for the first time in my life, of finally understanding who I am and where I belong. I told her of the pain of being forced to choose between my family and myself, and how there is no real choice – I have to choose me. I told her I loved her and wanted her to accept me as I am, but that I understood if she couldn’t.

When Granny finally spoke, the pain in her voice made my heart break. “I’m so sorry for putting you in this position!” I cried. “It’s not your fault dear,” she answered sadly. “It’s our family. I didn’t let your mother marry the man she loved because he was Buddhist. Your uncle couldn’t marry who he wanted because she was Catholic. Grandpa’s sister wasn’t allowed to marry…” Her voice trailed off. “Our family has always put God before love and it used to make sense to me. But when you get to my age you start thinking about all the losses…the unnecessary losses. The Church teaches that being gay is a mental illness but I don’t think that’s true. People are born gay.” She paused for a long time, lost in her thoughts. When she spoke again her voice was strong and resolute. “God wants us to be happy. That’s what I believe. No more unnecessary losses.” Her voice trailed off again. “This is all too much for me. I can’t talk any more…” she whispered shakily. “I love you.” she said, fighting the tears beginning to fall. “I love you too.” I cried as she hung up the phone.

I remember lying on the floor as the sobs ripped through my body. I remember how strangely comforting the floor felt, like it was strong enough to hold my grief for me. I remember the pain of all the losses I’d suffered flowing out of me, each heartbroken sob releasing all the people I’d loved who’d rejected me. I remember my kind and loving therapist, who taught me to take responsibility for the pain my family’s hate had caused me. “We’re accepting what’s happened, making a space for our pain, healing and moving on,” he would say. “Let love be your legacy.” I remember thinking that was sage advice and an excellent plan, except for how deeply unsure I was that I’d ever be strong enough to move through any of it…

As I pulled the cake out of the oven I realised that here was another moment that would define me forever. Years ago I told Granny that I finally felt free, that I finally understood who I am and where I belong. “I belong with Frankie.” I thought happily as I mixed the ricotta and chocolate filling. “And belonging with Frankie means embracing this new, European version of us if that’s what she needs.”

A Taylor Swift song came on the radio and I danced around the kitchen, wishing Frankie was here to join my party. “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate…” I sang loudly, salt shaker microphone in hand. “I shake it off. I shake it off.” As I assembled the cake I remembered the words of the two people who held my hand all those painful, heartbroken years while I healed. “No unnecessary losses. Let love be your legacy.”