When I was 21 years old, my mother in an moment of emotional distress told me something that will forever resound and hold true with me. It is a sad statement about my family, but also a miracle I survived my youth. She said, "Greggy, I have no idea where you got to love people so much, but you sure didn't get it from this family." My family, living in a small town in Southeast Michigan, was upper-middle class and material things often weighted more on life than the love and kindness of a friend or stranger. I feel I am the man I am today because of the unconditional love I have given and received from so many young people, friends and extended family in my life. My life has been full of challenges and the journey one amazing step after another. I think often of the LGBTQ kids, teens and college students I meet weekly and hope they will have love, support and a mentor to guide them along the way. My own life I didn't have the support growing up and how I survived is a miracle.
Several people within the LGBTQ community are often cast aside from their own families and seek out those people in life we come to know as our extended family. We long for those who will love us for who we are, unconditionally and without judgment. Many of us have survived because of these wonderful people. One such person that comes to mind that I think of often was my dear friend Bobbie.
I met Barbara (Bobbie) Stinchcombe in January of 1998. I was working at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, Michigan and Bobbie was a student in my Acting One class. It was my first semester of teaching this course and I was fortunate to have a full roster of excited students. The class was made up of all ages. Bobbie was the eldest at 70 years old. She was a tall, large framed Polish woman who was aspiring to be a poet. She told me she was taking the class to learn out to express herself better so that would come across in her writing. She was a divorced woman who was reclusive and lived alone in an old farmhouse in Harbor Springs, MI. Her little country home was left to her by her brother who had passed away. The home had character and charm, just like Bobbie.
Bobbie was a delight to have in class and many of the students, young and old took to her. She was so grateful to me for the experience when we wrapped up the course work in May. She asked if I would be interested keeping in touch and maybe having dinner at her home sometime. Of course I said yes. The summer months came and on one visit to Bobbie's house in July, I found her boiling a beautiful sweet pot of raspberry jam. The jars were boiling away in a canner waiting for the jam to be filled and sealed. The smell reminded me of my own Grandmother canning homemade jam from my childhood. She told me it is a great skill to have and would teach me, as I once taught her a new skill. I was to report back at her house the following morning to go raspberry picking at 6:00 a.m.
The next morning with coffee in one hand and a basket for the berries on the ground in front of me, I ended up picking eight pounds of raspberries on that dew drenched morning in July with Bobbie. The raspberry patch was beautiful and to this day I have never seen such large raspberries. While picking and talking about everything I came out to her. Without a moment to pass she hugged me and told me she loved me the way I am. The way God created me. Bobbie, being a woman of faith told me that she could never understand the hate that people preached. Also the fact my own parents would not invest in my life to know that great man I had become. In her own matter of fact way that I loved, she said it was ‘Bullshit!" I knew right then and there, this wonderful Polish woman would be a great mentor and friend for me.
The months and years passed. Bobbie would often have me over for dinner in her small farm house. We would sit in the kitchen while she cooked, drank wine, talked about organic food, movies and current affairs. We would often have the best homemade pesto with pierogi's and apple sauce. The dog and cat would be at our feet. Bobbie was part of my extended family almost as the mother I never had. She was an old, but wonderful soul.
Many years passed since those days in Northern Michigan. I moved to Chicago to pursue my career as a National LGBTQ lecturer in 2003. We kept in touch to talk about our different lives with her in the country and now me, an urban dweller. In May of 2008, I called her and left a message to let her know I was heading up-north in Michigan in a few weeks for a visit. I wanted to stop by and see her. When I arrived in Petoskey, I tried to call again, but still was not able to contact her. I told my friend that I was staying with it was odd that I had not heard back from her yet. That evening I would find out why.
After going out to dinner with my friend Michael, I came back to his place and picked up the local newspaper. A few pages in I saw Bobbie's picture, in the obituary section and my heart sank. Bobbie had passed away from heart failure. I sat there and thought of this wonderful woman who had come into my life that taught me to listen more, appreciate nature, love unconditionally, enjoy a good meal with loved ones and how to make the best jam you ever had.
With winter still having its hold on us, I think about the summer ahead. For a person living in the city with cooking skills from a small town, I honor Bobbie every summer. I can homemade raspberry jam and other fruit jam to share it with friends who are my extended family. It's my way of remembering Bobbie and not forgetting the incredible legacy she left. I know she would be very proud. I miss her. Wrap your arms around the people who have helped and influenced you to where you are today and thank them.