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 Jan 26. She’s my grandmother by marriage, having accepted my widowed grandfather’s proposal when my father was already in his teens. She was 20 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 the bedroom.
Despite her 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.
An unexpected 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 I took my daughter with me (currently 11 and looking, at most, 13), my grandmother leaned discretely towards me in the most well mannered way and said, “I’ve forgotten your wife’s name.”
That part we got cleared up, but no matter how much I insist 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 wife.”
Continually 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 for 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 granddaughter.
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.