Robert Madden (right) with Tom Kurthy at StoryCorps in Los Angeles.
Robert Madden grew up in Mississippi in the 1960s. He was close to his parents, able to talk to them about anything. But one subject kept taking his mom off guard — and it surfaced early and often.
"When I was 10, I told my parents I was going to marry a man when I grew up," Madden recently told his friend Tom Kurthy.
That declaration was laughed off. But the idea behind it kept arising. Finally, when Madden was about 19, he decided to live openly as a gay man. He told his family about his decision.
"And my father was very cool with it right away," Madden said. "He said, 'It doesn't matter to me if you spend your life with a man or with a woman, as long as you make it something you can hold your head up about.'"
Things didn't go as smoothly with Madden's mother, however. She felt guilty, and she couldn't accept her son's decision.
Six years went by before the two had a productive talk about it.
It was Madden's grandmother who finally put things in perspective.
"You're missing out on a beautiful relationship," she told Madden's mother, "because you can't accept this about him. He's still the same person you raised."
Then one night when Madden was visiting his parents, his mother asked him to stay up with her.
What followed, he recalls, was a stream of questions. What was his life like, she wanted to know. And what could two men possibly do together?
His mother said that Madden didn't have to answer if he was embarrassed. So, more shocked than embarrassed, Madden answered her questions.
"Hmm," Madden's mother said. "Just curious."
Madden's mother died in 2006. As she neared death in October of that year, she put her hand on her son's face.
"You are so precious. I love you," she said.
When he said he loved her too, Madden's mother corrected him.
"No, I mean unconditionally."
"I was astounded," Madden said, by "such open, beautiful acceptance.
"It was just the greatest gift she could've given me."
Produced for 'Morning Edition' by Nadia Reiman. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.