Old people are fragile. Delicate. They don’t understand these things. And for those children who get too pushy, “Don’t tell your Grandfather/Grandmother. It’ll kill him/her!”
In a word: baloney.
I’ll grant you that grandparents can be a big challenge, but I can almost guarantee that if it’s going to kill anyone it will be you.
On my Father’s side of the family, my Grandmother was the original southern belle. First one on the hay wagon, ukulele in tune and vocal chords just itching for a rousing chorus of “I Got a Gal I Do.” Lemonade always chilling in the fridge for any gentlemen callers and a porch swing well-oiled so as not to creak. She worried about me as only a southern grandma can.
What? Pushing eleven and still not interested in boys? She used to enquire in every letter about the status of my dance card and in person would recall her young swains, always assuring me that my attitude problem would radically change. Overnight, perhaps. Just keep reading Tiger Beat and everything will be fine.
Overnight? The thought of this wolfman-like transformation horrified me as I saw the day when my individuality would be suddenly but quietly erased. I’d wake up humming “I Got a Gal I Do,” toss out my high tops and start squeezing lemons. I already had my own ukulele.
The attempt at imprinting did not work, however, and I found myself living two or three different lives depending on current company. At age fourteen my ulcer was alive and growing. Wanting to tell people who I was and deciding against it because they may not be able to handle the news. By the time I had screwed up my courage it was too late to tell my grandmother anything without the help of a Ouija Board.
My Grandfather was the true southern gentleman. In school he majored in martinis with an elective in barbecue. He did not know where anything was in the kitchen, but the lawns were meticulously well groomed. For years our only contact had been the usual birthday card with a crisp ten-dollar bill tucked inside.
As I got older, I made the effort to get to know him. He was set in his ways, but cute as a pin nonetheless. As we corresponded he became more and more interested in my marital plans. What’s wrong with all the men up there? (Got a week?) Okay, here goes. I wrote him an honest, though delicate, letter trying to put lesbianism into larger, more bland terminology... mindful of the ever-warned impact this could have.
I sat at home picturing his crumpled body slumped over the mailbox, turning blue... one large vein standing out on his forehead near the left temple... and my opened letter clutched in his hand.
The letter I got back was basically “glad to hear you’re happy and gay.” He didn’t get it. Subsequent letters were less delicate, but still did not contain the dangerous word “lesbian.” Still no luck. Finally, I wrote a letter with the words “woman” and “sex” in the same sentence. I mailed it, palms sweating and heart pounding.
His answer? Are you a lesbian, dear? Why didn’t you just say so? It’s okay with me. Whatever makes you happy, sweetheart.
So much for the news killing him. The process had come close to wiping me out.
On my Mother’s side of the family? My Finnish Grandmother had only lived in America for 60 years and naturally had never really bothered to pick up the language. I spent a year just learning the Finnish word for “coffee cake” and still had the pronunciation wrong. How would I ever translate lesbian?
Hanna Aiti (Finnish for Grandmother) had always held a special place in my heart. What little I knew of her personal history told me the story of a courageous woman overcoming incredible odds. I wanted to know her and wanted her to know me.
With my Mother acting as interpreter I managed to tell her. Her answer was a shrug and a “big deal,” in Finnish, of course. I thought back on the many times I’d been told, “Don’t tell your Grandmother!”
Of course, your Grandparents may be a different story. But, if you’re interested in telling them the truth, try sitting down and sifting through all the misinformation you’ve collected over the years. Physical vigor may deteriorate over the years, but mental stability and a sense of live and let live seem to increase. Though I didn’t write to my Grandparents as often as I should, I can at least share with them my joy of falling in love, fun with friends, work in CAGLR, you name it.
There’s nothing drearier than writing an empty, I-am-fine-how-are-you letter. Except receiving one.