Books

Mimi Lemay’s letter to her transgender son went viral in 2015. Read an excerpt from her new memoir.

In ‘What We Will Become,’ Lemay expands on her moving essay, “A Letter to My Son Jacob on His 5th Birthday,” and shares more of her family’s journey.

Ella, Jacob, and Mimi Lemay share a laugh at their Melrose home in 2016. Jean Nagy / Boston.com Staff

Excerpted from What We Will Become © 2019 by Mimi Lemay. Published and reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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Joe promises to take Jacob for a haircut. “As short as I want?” asks Jacob eagerly. “Yes,” I answer, and my smile is real, because over the past few days I have watched nothing short of a miracle unfolding.

“It’s like a light switch just flipped on,” Joe whispers, excitement in his voice, and I concur. “Who knew he could talk so much?” Jacob’s been chattering nonstop, like he’s been saving up his words and now the dam has burst. Suddenly he’s noticing the sparrows nesting in the rhododendron bush and the green buds sprouting yellow flowers in the tree outside our living-room window. He wants to know everything about everything, and he wants to know right now! What’s that, Mommy? Why does this do that? “Look! Look!” He’s wearing us out with his pointing finger but we don’t care. We’re giddy with joy too. What cloud were you living under, buddy? I think at times with sadness, I wish we had helped you sooner.

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Not everything’s been perfect, or simple; far from it. My mom has been avoiding using a name at all for Jacob since we broke the news. She’s been referring to him as “this one” or “kid” or “child,” as in “Oh, would you look how clever this one is!” and “Hey, big kid!”

“This is getting ridiculous,” I fume to Joe.

Mimi and Joe Lemay with their three children, Lucia, Ella, and Jacob.

And to my surprise, Ella is having a hard time with the name. We have less than a week left before the start of a new camp but Ella calls her brother Em about six times out of ten, and I’m starting to panic. “I’m sorry!” she says. “I keep forgetting!” “We understand,” Joe tells her. “But you need to practice more. We can’t send you both to camp next Monday if you’re using the wrong name.” Joe’s upped the ante now, but we’re still bumbling about a few days later, and everyone’s getting frustrated.

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“How will the other kids know to call me Jacob?” asks Jacob. I’m taken aback. He knows we’ve changed his name on the camp registration. “Oh!” I say, realizing what he means. “You just need to introduce yourself as Jacob. Here, let’s practice,” I say, sticking out my hand. “Hi, my name is Mimi. What’s yours?” “Hi, my name is Jacob,” he says, taking my hand and adding, without missing a beat, “and I’m a boy.”

Ella and Joe have been watching this, and Ella starts to giggle, then laugh uproariously. I’m trying not to laugh, but it’s just too funny. “You goofball!” says Joe. “You don’t need to say that you’re a boy. They can tell that just by looking at you!” Jacob beams again. “Okay, ask me now,” he demands. Joe obliges, and with a goblin grin, Jacob announces: “Hello, my name is Jacob!” Pause. “And I’m a boy!” Then he falls over laughing. What comes out isn’t a titter or a giggle but an expansive, gurgling brook of a guffaw, a full-bodied, sidesplitting, tear-inducing howl. What a beautiful sound, I think. I haven’t heard this sound before.

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We practice over and over until the laughter peters out, and then somebody farts, and off we go again.

“Seriously, what should Jacob do if Ella calls him Em?” I ask when we’ve all caught our breath. “Just ignore her?” suggests Joe. “Hmm . . . I wish there was some way we could remind her,” I muse. Suddenly, I have an idea. “Jacob! Run upstairs and pick two of your favorite T-shirts,” I command. “We’re going to have your name printed on them! That way Ella can see your name when she’s talking to you!” Joe agrees. “That’s it!” The kids are excited. Ella wants a shirt too, of course, so they dash up the stairs to pick the T-shirts out while I start checking for local screen-printing shops. I find one a few blocks from school that I’m familiar with and determine that they can fill rush orders. Bingo! We’re in business!

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“What name did you want?” asks the elderly gentleman behind the counter at Ultimate Design Apparel. “Jacob,” I answer, “I think.” He doesn’t seem to catch my hesitation as he helps me fill out the form. For the next few minutes we talk about fonts and thread colors. He tells me they can turn the T-shirts around in a few days.

 

We are nearly a week into the transition the first time Jacob asks an adult to call him Jacob. I give Sensei Kevin a heads-up before Jacob’s private karate lesson starts. Kevin’s a quiet, slender young man who does a great job with the kids and seems to have an endless supply of patience. I’m almost frustrated when he doesn’t ask me follow-up questions, because I’d rather he do that than go off thinking I’m nuts. Nonetheless, I’m delighted when Jacob asks him shyly to call him Jacob and he answers, “Sure thing. Now let’s practice our stances,” and they go on with the lesson like nothing happened.

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But that afternoon, during the lesson, I sneak out to the car, call the embroidery shop, and ask them, if they haven’t already completed the order, to put the T-shirts on hold. I feel like a heel, a total jerk, but the anxiety is burning a hole in my gut. I know he’s happy, I can see it, but what if this is just temporary relief? What if my mother’s right and somehow his being called Jacob will close off an option for return that I can’t foresee? What if there’s another path that I haven’t discovered?

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