Any vague ambitions
about being out to my grandmother were dashed a few years ago. At the end of a
visit in her barren but functional nursing home room, she stopped herself short
of complimenting my daughter’s colourful winter jacket.
“I was going to
say, Isn’t that gay,” she confessed. “But you can’t use that word anymore. It’s
such a shame.”
Born in 1902, she
turns 100 on January 26. She’s my grandmother by marriage, having accepted my
widowed grandfather’s proposal when my father was already in his teens. She was
twenty years younger than her husband and now is the last surviving grandparent
in my family.
She is polite,
well-bred and hails from an era and a social standing where doors weren’t
locked, strangers weren’t dangerous, families were good, men were men, women
were women and being gay was how you behaved at a picnic, not what you did in
conventional understanding of things, she’s never seemed to mind that I don’t
really represent ideal femininity. She’s always been warm and welcoming, never
critical, and has accepted the oddities of my life – separated parenting,
shared living spaces – with grace and composure and a knowing comment that the
world is certainly a different place.
She has never seen
a computer, doesn’t watch television, thinks $2 for the streetcar is exorbitant
and never goes outside unless a visitor wheels her down to the open courtyard
on a warm enough day. She rarely even leaves her own room except for meals, which
she eats at a table down the hall with a large institutional bib around her
neck, in the company of others whose lives are circling back to infancy.
option for being out to my grandmother has recently arisen. On my last few
visits she has persisted in believing I’m a man. It’s not just her failing
memory but also her failing eyesight: the last time she saw my daughter (currently
11 and looking at most 13) she leaned discretely towards me in the most well
mannered way and said, “I’ve forgotten your wife’s name.”
We get that part
cleared up, but no matter how much I try to explain about myself, yelling at
her deaf ears that I am her GRANDDAUGHTER!, it never quite sinks in. “Oh yes,”
she says as if there was no need to be so insistent. But when I later lean to
kiss her goodbye she politely suggests, “Maybe next time you could bring your
correcting her has the potential to come across as rude. So I give in and agree
that, yes, it would be nice if I could bring my wife next time (if I had a
lover who could pass for a wife instead of another husband). My daughter and I
laugh when we leave – not at her inability to understand but at how absurd it
is. Besides, what else can you do? This is a woman who, her entire life, has
never put on a pair of pants.
Yet it’s also sad.
If she thinks I’m a man and my daughter is my wife, then who does she think we
are in relation to her, if any relation at all? Like many who’ve sat by the
bedside of those whose grasp on life is slipping, I don’t want, at the last
breath, to lose the connection of who I am to her.
But maybe at her
advanced age her brain is getting rid of all unnecessary identifiers, the way
an unsocialized infant’s mind has no need for gender beyond who’s wearing the
breasts. Maybe she can believe I’m a man and at the same time know I’m her
Or maybe, in her
very solitary existence at the end of a century, it doesn’t matter who I am – as
long as I come and sit, hold her hand, listen to her stories, give her a kiss
and tell her I’ll be back again soon.
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