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'You Make Your Own Family': Losing A Mother, Gaining 2 More

Jul 12, 2019
Originally published on July 19, 2019 6:55 am

When Corinthia Isom was a child, her mother sat her down on the steps of their home to tell her she had a deadly illness.

"I have HIV, and things are gonna change within our lives," Isom says, recounting the words of her mother, DeSeane Isom.

DeSeane was a single mother, so before her death, she asked two of her closest friends if they would care for Corinthia after she was gone.

The two friends, Kathleen Payne and her partner, April, had met DeSeane through an LGBTQ gospel choir in New York City.

"Every weekend, April and I would hang out with you and your mom," Payne told Isom in an interview with StoryCorps. "I remember that she said, 'Don't tell her that I'm going to die.' "

But keeping that promise, Payne says, made it difficult to get to know Isom better.

"When we got the news that your mom had passed on, I was really scared," she says. "For one thing, it was difficult for a lesbian couple to adopt."

The couple would eventually win guardianship of Isom. Still, it was a big transition as Isom grappled with adjusting to having two new mother figures in her life. She and her mother had grown very close in the years before her death, and as Payne remembers, Isom would ask her questions like, "Do I have to call you Mommy?"

"Well, no," Payne recalls answering.

"Then, later on, you said, 'Why do you guys talk like you're white?' " she told Isom.

Laughing, Payne says she explained to Isom that "this is the way some black people talk."

Isom says that at first, she was unsure being placed under the couple's care was the right fit.

"You guys are very educated and, for me, it was like, they're going to want me to study all the time," Isom says. "But I enjoyed you guys, and I was looking forward to you guys being my parents."

Payne told Isom that her mom trusted that she and April would take good care of her daughter.

"She knew we had the support of a lot of people who knew her and would be there for us," Payne says, "which is the kind of thing that you also develop when you're queer and your family may or may not accept you ... you make your own family."

It has been more than 20 years since Isom's mother died. She says her mom never talked to her about why she hoped Payne and her partner would take her in. "But she made a good choice," she says. "A very good choice."

Produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is Friday, when we hear from StoryCorps. And today we have an example of the saying that you have two families - the one you're born with and the one you find. Corinthia Isom was just a child when her single mom died, having arranged for her daughter to be cared for by a couple she had met in an LGBTQ gospel choir in New York.

Here Corinthia tells the story to Kathleen Payne, one of the women who took her in.

CORINTHIA ISOM: Me and my mother were very close in the last years. She was a stubborn woman, vibrant. She looked like me. I look in the mirror, and I see my mom.

KATHLEEN PAYNE: How did you find out that your mom was HIV-positive?

ISOM: She sat me down one day on the steps and told me, you know, I have HIV and things are going to change within our lives.

PAYNE: April and I were partners. And at that point, your mom had decided that we were going to take care of you when she passed away. And every weekend, April and I would hang out with you and your mom. I remembered that she said, don't tell her that I'm going to die. And so we didn't say anything, which made it kind of hard because we wanted to get to know you better.

So when we got the news that your mom had passed on, I was really scared. For one thing, it was difficult for a lesbian couple to adopt. And I remember you asked us - do I have to call you Mommy? And we said, well, no. And then later on you said, why do you guys talk like you're white?

(LAUGHTER)

ISOM: Yeah.

PAYNE: I looked at you. And I said, this is the way some black people talk (laughter).

ISOM: Yeah.

You guys were very educated. And for me, it was like, they're going to want me to study all the time. But I enjoyed you guys, and I was looking forward to you guys being my parents.

PAYNE: Your mom trusted that we would take care of you. And she knew we had the support of a lot of people who knew her and would be there for us, which is the kind of thing that you also develop when you're queer and your family may or may not accept you. And so you make your own family.

ISOM: Every day, I think about my mom. And she never talked to me about why she chose you guys. But she made a good choice - a very good choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "FILING AWAY")

INSKEEP: Corinthia Isom with one of her moms, Kathleen Payne, at StoryCorps in New York. By the way, Kathleen is no stranger to StoryCorps; she's worked at the front desk there for years. To hear more, get the StoryCorps podcast at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.