My parents were very young when I was born, as I’ve mentioned before. As they grew into adults, they were as different as two people could be, as were their respective families. My mom’s side of the family, which I was inherently around more, included a long line of strong-willed, independent women. My dad’s side, on the other hand, did not. He had four brothers and no sisters. Their only female influence was their mother, my paternal grandmother, and she holds an extremely antiquated view of women in general.
I can think of a few examples to illustrate. One Thanksgiving when I was in high school, after all the women finished fixing the holiday meal, I heard her say to her various daughters-in-law, “Okay, wives, fix your husband’s plates.” I’m sure my facial expression reflected my internal thought, namely, “What? The? Hell?” Another example occurred once when the Divine Miss M and I were at her house and M was still a toddler. My sister, who is 19 years my junior and therefore 14 at the time, was sitting beside my grandmother and I near her kitchen window and we could see my dad playing with M outside. My grandmother said, “Your dad sure loves being a grandpa. If you had done it the normal way, he would have been one a long time ago.” I rolled my eyes thinking “the normal way” was some reference to M’s manner of conception (artificial insemination with an anonymous donor). But no. As it turned out, she was referencing having a child at 18 or 19 years of age, rather than almost 30. I proceeded to lose it a little since I would have had no education and therefore, no means to support a baby and “oh my god, do you say things like this in front of her?!?!” pointing to my barely teenage sister. She took my little outburst in stride, though, seeing my views on the matter as bizarre as I saw hers.
She also subscribes to a very fundamentalist religious view. I mean, really fundamentalist. She attends a church where they speak in tongues and she tried to exorcise me when I was 15 and talking back to her (as a member of my Chosen Tribe said once after laughing hysterically at that tale, “Oh, if only she’d tried just one more time.”). She quotes more Bible scriptures than most have ever read, thinks women should be submissive to their husbands and well, just all the things.
I am a head-strong, independent, opinionated, educated woman. In many ways, I am her antithesis, the opposite of the females her sons were taught to admire. She’s never really known what to do with me and as I wholly rejected her views and approaches, we were not always kind to each other.
As I began coming out to my family, I did not expect positive reactions from my dad’s side of the family, though one can only imagine whose reaction I anticipated would be the worst. My dad and brother reacted the most negatively, as it turned out. A couple of my uncles were fairly offensive. One of them said that we could come to his house for a holiday gathering so long as we didn’t show any public displays of affection … yes, because obviously Jodi and I are totally the kind of people who would make out in public. (Those that know us can continue reading once they stop laughing). Another uncle immediately said, “We’ll pray for you.” Oh, believe me dear, I’ll pray for you too. What I never anticipated was that I would end up wishing they’d take lessons from their mother.
The heart of the conversation with my grandmother went like this:
Me: “I’m gay”
Granny: “Well, are you happy?”
Me *thinking, oh good lord, she doesn’t even know what it means*: “Not gay as in happy, gay as in I’m a lesbian.”
Granny *with an admirable amount of annoyance in her tone*: “I know what it means.”
Me, most eloquently: “Oh.”
She then went on to tell me in no uncertain terms that it isn’t for her or anyone else to judge me and if people think it is, then they obviously don’t have enough to do and they’re not reading the same bible she’s reading. I can honestly say, I’ve never, ever been more shocked by anyone in my entire life. We went on to have a marvelous, even at times light-hearted, real conversation. We talked and laughed like we hadn’t in years, possibly ever. At some point, I told her how surprised I was and perhaps hadn’t given her nearly enough credit. She questioned what she’d ever done to make me think she was going to react negatively. I chuckled a little under my breath as my mind conjured up years worth of statements from her and I bit my tongue. Hard.
After that, she was more welcoming and inclusive toward my family than any other family member. Even now, I’m still stunned by those events.
This past week, my grandmother suffered a stroke. After seeming to make a good bit of progress for a few days, the aneurysm they found following the stroke burst on Thursday evening. She’s undergone some intense procedures but hasn’t gained consciousness since. I don’t know if she will again or what the long-term effects will be if she does.
I’m not one to make saints out of people when these kinds of things happen, and I don’t want anyone to do that to me when I’m gone. None of us are one-dimensional and to pretend otherwise is a disservice. Each individual is filled with spectacular qualities and crippling faults. We are all marvelous and flawed. I know that one week ago, before this happened, there were probably very few things on which my grandmother and I saw eye to eye and I’m not sure we ever could relate to each other very well. She was never a part of my soul the way my Nanny was or my maternal grandmother is. But over the past several years, what has defined her in my mind is that she accepted me for who I am and she did it gracefully in the face of opposition from other family members. Knowing her, I think she would appreciate the legacy she left me with and it is not what I would have anticipated ten years ago: In the moment when I was the most vulnerable, she really did embody Christianity as it is supposed to be but rarely is. No matter what happens from here, that’s what defines her in my mind.