When I was in kindergarten, every Tuesday my grandpa would pick me up after school and take me out all afternoon until my mom was through teaching her lessons (she’s a music teacher, and back then she hadn’t started teaching school yet, she just taught kids privately.) He’d take me to eat lunch wherever I wanted to go (usually McDonald’s), then take me to a toy store and buy me something, which was generally stickers and/or a sticker book, or a coloring book, and then we would sometimes go to the lake, if the weather was nice, and feed ducks or play on the playground. He even let me listen to whatever radio station in the car that I wanted to, and he would get so tickled at how bad he thought all the music was, and tease me about it. I called them “Grandpa Days,” and I loved them. Obviously. At his funeral, for some reason I just didn’t really feel his loss. I guess it wasn’t real to me or something. But what really got me, for whatever reason, was at his grave site, when the military guys presented my grandmother with the folded up flag that I guess they give to every veteran’s spouse, and they played Taps and did the gun shots. That killed me for some reason. Maybe it was the heavy symbolic nature of it, or watching my grief-stricken grandmother accept the flag and sit there and hold it on her lap. Or maybe that made it real to me, and the military aspect drove home what a long, complicated and eclectic life he’d led, most of it all before I ever existed.
One reason I decided to go ahead and go back to Arkansas this Thankgsiving, despite the fact that I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving in, like, 13 years, is because my grandmother is now about to die. She has very advanced Alzheimer’s, and about a month ago, hospice gave her about a month to live. So it’s doubtful she’ll make it to Christmas.
Seeing her now is very strange. She started getting dementia even a little before my grandfather died (which was in January of 2001), but she’s had pretty full-blown Alzheimer’s for about 3 years now. The grandmother that I know and love is not there anymore and hasn’t been for a long time, and I’ve been largely absent for most of the downward spiral. The way that families work (or at least my family) has finally begun to be very clear to me.
My grandmother was definitely the matriarch of our clan. My family is pretty small, and every Thankgsiving and Christmas for almost 50 years has happened at their house. Everyone would gather there for those 2 days, and it was never even considered having either holiday someplace else. They were my second set of parents. I saw my grandparents at least twice a week or more the entire time I was growing up, and almost always took vacations with them during the summer.
Considering what generation they came from, and where they grew up (Kansas and Arkansas), they were pretty hip folks. They were both solidly Southern Democrat, very open and liberal in their thinking (when my older brother came out, they barely even batted an eye, and my grandmother even scolded my mom for making too big a deal out of it). They were never racist and I never heard a hateful word about anyone come out of either of their mouths. In high school my grandmother told me that of all the colors I dyed my hair, she liked blue the best, because it brought out my eyes. My grandpa always got a kick out of what I was doing, and went to great lengths to foster my interests in things like theater and music, and when I expressed an interest in Shakespeare in high school, he wanted me to tell him all about my favorite Shakespeare plays. One of my favorite memories of childhood was spending the night at their house on Friday night (which I did frequently) and waking up on Saturday morning to the smell of coffee and pancakes and bacon. I didn’t drink coffee, but I still loved the way the smell of it permeated the whole house, and to this day, the smell of breakfast cooking is one of the most comforting smells I can think of. I know that they would both be proud of what I’m doing right now, and my grandpa would have absolutely adored my nephew. It’s so weird that they never met.
I used to think that being gay meant I had to give up the idea of having a family. Then for years I pretended like children were the last thing on Earth I could possibly subject myself to, which, naturally, was overcompensation for the fact that I desperately wanted children, and that taking care of people is pretty much the only thing I’m good at. As my family continues to shrink (for whatever reason, no one, hardly, in my family is reproducing) and I start to understand the magnitude of my grandparents’ deaths, and what it will mean for our future, and our traditions, and our sense of cohesiveness, it’s becoming imperative to me that it continue.
I really miss my grandpa. He was a very quiet, very intense man, who came from an extremely cold and abusive home and suffered debilitating depression most of his life, but was of that generation that sucked it up and soldiered on. But his grandkids made him happy, and I remember most of all his big, hearty laugh and the way he would always grab your upper arm and lean into you when you said something that made him laugh.
My grandmother was feisty and determined, and set the stage for the women in my family calling most of the shots. My mom had two sisters (and my grandma had one, who was also a big part of my life), and all of them are and were very outspoken, independent, and opinionated women. Despite the fact that I have two brothers, and my grandfather and father are such a huge presence in my life, my childhood felt dominated by women, all of which I looked up to.
When my grandmother dies, it will truly be the end of an era. The end of a long, exciting, prosperous, and sometimes tragic life, but also the end of many traditions and ways of doing things. These will have to be redesigned and reintegrated. It’s already happening, but it’s soon becoming official. Hopefully when I have kids, they’ll be able to look back upon their lives and feel the same sense of connection and belonging to the bigger picture that I feel.