Return to Ring of Keys
[THEME MUSIC IN]
KATHY: Today we are revisting one of the most popular stories we've ever done on Nancy.
TOBIN: We have ever done.
TOBIN: It was also one the first stories we had on the show. It involves all of our favorite things- musicals-
TOBIN: The outdoors-
TOBIN: Awkward pre-teens-
TOBIN: And it centers around a certain kind of role model that a lot of our listeners really related to.
KATHY: So we're gonna play that conversation for you now and then afterward we'll find out what happened to the two women at the center of the story.
[THEME MUSIC OUT]
KATHY: I wanna tell you a story about a girl named Sarah.
SARAH: Hi, my name is Sarah Lu, and I live in Chicago.
KATHY: She's a grown-up now, she's in her 30s, she's a radio producer.
TOBIN: Love it.
KATHY: But back when she was a kid she'd go on vacation with her parents to Wisconsin.
TOBIN: Love it less.
KATHY: [BOTH LAUGH] They'd stay on a lake where they'd fish and hike and all sorts of outdoorsy stuff.
SARAH: When my folks had their fill of outdoorsy activities, they'd take me to a nearby town to goof around because there are interesting shops and restaurants there. To kinda switch it up a little bit.
KATHY: And their favorite spot to visit was called "Henry's General Store."
[ACOUSTIC GUITAR PLAYING]
SARAH: It had outdoor equipment, a canoe hanging from the ceiling-
KATHY: And there were wool shirts.
SARAH: Like, Pendleton shirts, or Woolrich shirts.
KATHY: Mittens and hats.
SARAH: Whimsical wind-up toys.
KATHY: High-quality pens and pencil sharpeners, and notebooks. Leather-bound notebooks.
TOBIN: So, basically, this is like your dream store.
KATHY: Yes! Canoes and high-quality pens! What else do you need in this world? [TOBIN LAUGHS] [BEAT] They'd go every year, and they talked to the woman who ran the store.
SARAH: Maura had blue eyes and short hair, and brown bangs that kinda, like, swoop in front of her forehead. And, just like, a really kind voice, and just a warm persona. She was probably wearing, like, dark jeans and boots and, like, a cool flannel. [LAUGHS] Or some kind of comfortable but classic outdoorsy look. [MUSIC FADES OUT] I thought she was super cool and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. And I wasn't usually like a shy kid. I was a pretty talkative, precocious kid, actually. But around Maura I kind of clammed up a little bit. There was just sort of -- for me, this sort of, like, charge in the air. Like, kind of like an electricity or something, that's just, like -- something was up.
KATHY: The thing is, Sarah only ever talked to Maura for 10 minutes, total, over all those years.
SARAH: Even though our interactions were very brief, Maura still loomed large in my life.
[INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC TO SONG RING OF KEYS IN]
KATHY: So, eventually, Sarah became an adult herself. She came out, she went to college, she got married, and over time she kind of forgot about Maura and the general store. Then one day she's at this concert, and the person performing sings a cover of the song called "Ring of Keys."
TOBIN: Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God! I know "Ring of Keys," Kathy.
KATHY: [SARCASTICALLY] Do you?
TOBIN: It's from Fun Home. Is this a story about a musical?
KATHY: No, it's not a story about a musical becuase I don't like musicals. But you are the musical guy, so why don't you explain Fun Home?
TOBIN: With pleasure. So Fun Home is about the queer cartoonist Alison Bechdel. And the scene that this song, "Ring of Keys," is from is when Alison is a little girl, maybe like 10, and she sees this butch delivery woman with short hair and jeans and this ring of keys on her hip and she is completely entranced.
[CLIP FROM THE SONG "RING OF KEYS"]
Your swagger and your bearing
And the just right clothes you're wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace up boots
And your keys, oh
Your ring of keys"
SARAH: When I heard it, I cried a lot. I was, like, just totally transported back to being 12, and being in this store, and looking up at this storekeeper, Maura, and thinking, like, "Oh my gosh." It was a very charged moment and I was, like, instantly taken back there.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
KATHY: Sarah suddenly realizes that Maura was her "Ring of Keys" person. The adult that showed her who she could be someday.
SARAH: That triggered these memories of childhood and made me think about Maura and what she might be up to, and I wondered if I could, like, go back to Henry's, and what that would be like, to walk back in as an adult, and, like, to say hi to Maura. But I found out that Henry's was closed. And then I did a little Internet searching, found her email, I wrote her, and I said, "Hey, I don't know if you remember me, but ... I'd really like to talk to you." And ... she wrote back!
MAURA: Wow, look at you!
SARAH: What's up? I haven't seen you in, like, fifteen years.
MAURA: This is amazing. You're so grown up. [BOTH LAUGH] I can't believe it.
SARAH: Okay, well, do you wanna go to the studio?
MAURA: I would love it.
MAURA: The name of my store was Henry’s. And my name is Maura Koutoujian.
SARAH: The first memory I have of your store is you had like a bunch of back issues of Outside Magazine that like didn’t sell cuz they were old or something,
MAURA: [LAUGHS] Yes.
SARAH: But you were like, "But it’s a cool magazine!" And then you gave me a bunch of copies of it.
SARAH: And then I read it, and, like, I still subscribe to that magazine.
SARAH: And I’ve read every issue for the last 20 years. So ...
MAURA: I’m smiling ear to ear. [LAUGHS]
SARAH: So how would you describe the general store?
MAURA: Ahh... I think I had this idea in my head, grab your backpack, grab an amazing pen, grab a notebook that feels good to you, and go walk outside and write. And it just kind of started building from there.
SARAH: In my memory there’s this sort of like North Woods-Norman Rockwell almost nostalgia kind of thing going on.
MAURA: Oh, yes. It gave me an opportunity to kind of live in this alter ego of the North Woods, and snowshoeing, and skiing and wearing buffalo plaid. Kind of the fantasy of the forties and somebody being in the Adirondacks, although we were in Wisconsin at the time. I was always open, and I never hid being gay, but I never necessarily talked about it. It just wasn’t, unless it was part of the conversation, there was no reason to. Did I ever say ... ? I don’t remember ever saying anything about a partner.
SARAH: I don’t think you did.
MAURA: I can’t imagine I would have.
SARAH: Yeah. It’s not like you were like “Hi, I’m Maura.”
MAURA: “Hi, I’m gay.”
SARAH: “Welcome to Henry’s General Store. I’m a homosexual. The pens are over there.”
SARAH: I’ve always kinda wondered more about your life, can I ask you some personal questions?
SARAH: Can you tell me where you were born?
MAURA: So, born in Newton, Massachusetts and grew up in Waltham, right next door.
SARAH: How would you describe your childhood?
MAURA: It was awesome. I was incredibly lucky, and am incredibly lucky to have parents who always encouraged us to think outside of the box -- even when things like gender identity and sexuality were not part of that thinking outside of the box -- I was very fortunate. I went to Armenian school. I did Irish step-dancing. No wonder I’m so confused.
SARAH: [LAUGHS] Can you tell me more about your alter ego?
MAURA: Um... There’s always been a part of me, certainly since I was younger, that I liked guy's stuff. I liked guy's clothing. I thought it was much cooler. I thought, why, every time I want to buy something, does it have to be purple or pink? So I think there was that little alter ego, that other part of me, whether we want to call it androgynous ... Growing up, I feel very fortunate that I’ve had that. I get to see kind of both sides, and to sometimes be called “sir”, which still happens. I’m 53 , and I’m -- it still happens.
SARAH: Yeah, I get “sirred,” also. I look like a teenage boy.
SARAH: Right now, I’m wearing a flannel, I have very short hair and jeans.
MAURA: I sort of had the same thing. Up until I was probably in my mid forties, people still thought I was a young boy. Or, couldn’t quite figure out why I had such soft skin and gray hair. [LAUGHS] There were those moments when I was little where people would say, oh your sons are so handsome, and I would be like, “Ooh!” I loved that. It was empowering.
SARAH: Yeah. I feel like when I was misgendered as a kid, I thought it was awesome.
SARAH: And like it embarrassed other people. I wasn’t embarrassed, you know?
MAURA: Yes. Yeah. I would get embarrassed when other people would figure it out and then they would be embarrassed, or something. One of the worst is when I was wearing a shirt that had the Declaration of Independence on it. And somebody came along, and thinking I was a boy, put his hand on my chest and was reading it. It was one of the worst days of my life. To this day I still remember. It was a lot worse than just ooh, that’s uncomfortable. I’ve never really forgotten that moment. And so, yeah.
SARAH: What was the hard thing about that?
MAURA: I think the hard thing about that was laughing about it afterwards – that everybody found humor in it. “Ha, ha, isn’t that funny that he thought you were a boy, and you are actually a girl?” What am I? What can I do? What am I allowed to do? I think I always knew something was – there’s no doubt I knew from a very, very young age that something was different. But, I had no language for it. I had no visual language for it. Nothing.
SARAH: So, I used to come to your store with my parents, probably around 1996, 1997.
MAURA: Wow, just when I opened.
SARAH: What are your impressions of me then? How would you describe 12 year-old Sarah?
MAURA: 12 year-old Sarah was so ... gosh, you were so cute. I remember you and your parents would come in. I can still see it, you’d put your hands in your pocket and you’d dig them deep in. And you’d kind of tighten up your shoulders a little bit ... and everything became -- not stiff, but certainly regulated. Your head would be down but you’d kind of look up at me. It was so sweet. So sweet. And I used to think ... “Wow, I wonder if she’ll be gay.” And I do my best. This is not how – I don’t go around making assumptions, and I don’t think anybody should go around making assumptions and assessments. However, I was doing with you in that moment what you were doing with me. There was a connection.
SARAH: I think it’s just game-recognize-game. And there’s a certain skill or like art to being a genderfluid person in the world [MAURA BREATHES IN SHARPLY] and when you see that, someone else doing that, it’s like oh, hey.
MAURA: It looked familiar.
SARAH: So, like, in my girlhood, I think it was cool to be a tomboy, or encouraged. But like around 12 you sort of get the message, "That’s not cute anymore." Or like, "If you’re going to grow up, you have to change." And then going to your store where there’s this – it opened the possibility of like an adult tomboy life that was of personal significance. Both the store, but also you as an individual embodying that too.
SARAH: Being a little awkward twelve year old gay kid, and then seeing a very charming, confident gay adult, it allowed me to imagine an adult version of myself, which was huge. But also the layer of -- my parents thought you were cool. And so that made me think that they would approve of me being gay.
SARAH: So that’s a lot. Do you have any reaction?
MAURA: Let me get up off the floor. Thank you. That is the – well, I am getting choked up. Yeah. Thank you. Whew. I never knew ... that I could ... [CRYING]
SARAH: It’s okay.
MAURA: ... That I could actually be a role model for somebody. That’s pretty powerful. That’s really powerful, so thank you.
SARAH: Thank you for being that role model.
MAURA: [LAUGHS] Yeah, wow.
MAURA: It’s interesting that I may have appeared confident twenty years ago, that deep inside, not at all.
SARAH: What was going on?
MAURA: I just couldn’t seem to find a lot of happiness. I was happy on the one hand, and yet I can remember feeling unhappy on the other. I think I was depressed and didn’t really know it. Didn’t understand it. I think a lot of what was going on was still not sure who I was. I just didn’t have the confidence in me. I loved my store. I knew that the store represented me. That felt good. I knew how I fit when I rode my bike. I knew how I fit when I was in my canoe. But yeah, there was a part of me that didn’t know how I fit in the world. I was just trying to figure this out on my own.
SARAH: Were you the ... ? You were the age that I am now when I met you!
MAURA: I was 32 when I opened Henry’s!
SARAH: Yeah, yeah! And I’m 32 now.
MAURA: Wow….wow….yes, okay, Sarah, I think you already know this, or I hope you do, you are going to be okay. You are awesome.
MAURA: I look at you and go, gosh I wish I were that cool when I was 32. You have your parents who support you. You’re married -- congratulations, by the way.
SARAH: Thank you, you too.
MAURA: Yes! I just got married on New Year’s Eve. It was beautiful.
SARAH: That is beautiful.
SARAH: So I have one last question, how do you keep your keys? Like how do you carry your keys around?
MAURA: How do I carry my keys around? Oh! Here, I’m going to show you, hold on.
SARAH: Ha! Oh!
MAURA: Isn’t that awesome? It’s something I would’ve carried at Henry’s right?
MAURA: It’s awesome.
SARAH: Yeah, the outline . . .
MAURA: I can’t believe I love my keychain.
SARAH: Um, do you want to see my keys?
MAURA: Yes, I do.
SARAH: And of course I have a Crafty Beaver Hardware Store Customer Rewards tag on it. [BOTH LAUGH] Because I go in the hardware store a lot.
MAURA: Okay, can we just . . . you know, that’s like your lesbian ID card. I’m sorry. [BOTH LAUGH]
[MUSIC COMES UP]
KATHY: That was Sarah Lu and Maura Catujien.
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT]
TOBIN: After the break, we check back in with Sarah and Maura.
[LIGHT PULSING ELECTRONIC MUSIC IN]
TOBIN: Kathy I have a question for you.
TOBIN: Did you have a ring of keys person?
KATHY: I've been thinking about this Tobin-
KATHY: - And I thought back to when I was a baby and a toddler and a teenager and what I've come up with is no, I do not have a ring of keys person. Unless you count Angelina Jolie but that, that's maybe a different thing.
TOBIN: We've talked about this, that's a different thing happening with Angelina and you.
KATHY: Yeah yeah. [CHUCKLES] What about you, you have a moment?
TOBIN: Well so my sister was a professional ballerina so that meant as a preteen, and I don't mean to stereotype here, but I was around then a lot of out, proud gay men who were also ballet dancers, which I thought was nice.
KATHY: Tobin your sister is a professional ballerina?
KATHY: And you are a professional cellist-
TOBIN: Also formerly-
KATHY: And your brother is a professional artist-
TOBIN: Currently! [KATHY LAUGHS] I know, we're like The Partridge Family.
KATHY: It's just unfair! [TOBIN LAUGHS] [ACOUSTIC GUITAR MUSIC IN] Okay so we also heard from a bunch of you about your own Ring of Keys moments, the people who helped you realize your queer identity and how much they meant to you, we got so many emails and tweets it was so cool to see how much this story impacted some folks.
TOBIN: Well and recently, Kathy, you and I were in Chicago and we were curious what kind of impact that conversation had on Sarah and Maura. So we brought them together to find out.
MAURA: So what have you been up to since we got together seven months ago?
SARAH: Yeah since the episode came out this spring, um I quit my job at Chicago Public Radio and then I was fabricating wooden benches for an architect, just doing little random things and preparing to go back to school as the oldest person in my Master's program. [BOTH LAUGH]
SARAH: [LAUGHS] Also my wife and I are trying to adopt a kid. But-
MAURA: [EXCLAIMS] Oh! What?!
SARAH: Yeah, not a specific kid. Sorry that's a confusing way to say that, we are a waiting family in this State of Illinois to adopt a kid.
SARAH: Thank you.
MAURA: Oh my gosh you guys will be amazing parents.
MAURA: No I swear I really mean it.
SARAH: We're going to try to do our best. So...
SARAH: Thank you. How bout you, what have you been up to?
MAURA: I think kind of more of the same really honing in on what I want to be doing. I do life coaching and wellness coaching and leadership coaching. And then actually my wife and I just bought a condo.
MAURA: Yeah. Wow. I can't believe it. So that's pretty exciting. So the tub was just delivered today from what I understand.
SARAH: Ooo you gonna try it out today?
MAURA: Well no but you might want to swing on by because we could use a little help carrying it up the stairs.
SARAH: [LAUGHING] Yeah no problem!
MAURA: And I was just thinking about that.
SARAH: Yeah. Well actually you like that you're on my way home from my bike commute.
SARAH: So just any time you might need-
MAURA: You might be the one we call. [SARAH LAUGHS] Yeah so that's. So that's it. I mean again I think to kind of the point of what has happened since then. Those are the things that have happened but I would also say that those things are happening with this whole new energy that I have because of this, with a whole new perspective.
SARAH: Yeah. It was great to meet Marchetta your wife too! I follow her on Instagram.
MAURA: [CHUCKLES] We all went out to dinner to our favorite restaurant and got to meet your wife Jane. And the four of us had a really lovely time of just connecting for people who - Well first of all I haven't seen you in 20 plus years. And then we brought our partners or spouses our wives into it. And it was really a fun fun night to get to know you as now an adult in a marriage with a house. I've seen that. I've seen the house photos I've seen the work that's being done. [SARAH CHUCKLES] How did how did this impact you in terms of when people listen to this, parents or friends or whatever what kind of what kind of response did you get?
SARAH: I think the thing about it that is the most impactful is like I don't really think that I had felt like seen to the degree that I feel seen now after producing the piece with you and that makes me I don't know it makes me feel like more comfortable in my skin just navigating the world. It makes it makes like everything else seem more possible.
MAURA: Can I ask. Like feeling like not seeing what allows you to feel seen now?
SARAH: I think like because I was able to like talk about something deeply personal and sort of at the core of who I am and I had this like thought like is this going to make sense or are people going to understand this. I'm not sure. I'm a little bit of a space alien but then like it then people did. I was like oh OK there's was like a relief that it's possible, that's a conversation that I don't I don't have or I don't get to have with other people really. And then to have that conversation with you and go like connect over that. And then also have other people hear that and be like yeah that makes sense like I know what you're talking about. It's like you do?
MAURA: So actually in some ways realizing that is as alien-ish as we feel or as different as we are, there are so many people out there who feel exactly like we do and we're in sometimes just waiting to hear. Somebody else talk about it that they could relate to.
MAURA: Of course now I’m probably going to cry again. There you go. By you reaching out to me that ripple effect I think of what ended up happening, your generosity allowed me to feel tremendous gratitude and hopefully in turn I can ripple that out in and share with other people. So I actually had people come up and say things like, "You know I had this one woman that I knew 20 years ago or 30 years ago and I think I'm going to talk with her now. And should I do it." And I said please. It's the best thing that somebody will ever do. So thank you. For them to reach out and let people know how important they are and were in their lives and that they also realize that there are probably people that they are impacting in their lives right now and they don't even know it. And I think that was the most powerful point of this part for me in this whole experience. That you you brought to me. So thank you. I really encourage people to just if somebody made an impact how small or how large you know reach out and let them let them know and don't be worried. I think you said you were concerned that some reaching out to me like you were a stalker.
SARAH: Right right yeah, yeah, whoa. Like who is this person. Why is she trying to talk to me?
MAURA: Yeah, and I was so honored and thrilled and it sounds so corny, but truly this has changed my life.
[ACOUSTIC GUITAR MUSIC IN]
[CREDITS MUSIC IN]
TOBIN: Alright it is credits time!
KATHY: Our team is Matt Collette, Jeremy Bloom, Elisabeth Dee, Jenny Lawton, and Paula Szuchman.
TOBIN: We're gonna take some time off to produce a whole bunch of new stories and we will be back in your feeds in 2018. Until then, I'm Tobin Low.
KATHY: I'm Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC OUT]