A Legacy of Pride
My grandmother bequeathed me a priceless treasure. In a plain brown box.
My grandmother died four weeks before Christmas.
Adults always say they don’t have a favorite, and everyone knows that’s bullshit. I was my grandmother’s favorite, and everybody knew it.
We were kindred spirits, she and I. I think in part that was because we were so unlike the other members of our family. But my grandmother had always marched to the beat of her own drum.
And so did I.
When I came home with a side shave in eighth grade my mother nearly had a heart attack. I thought I’d done a pretty good job, actually – I mean at least the part was even. No easy feat in the scratched-up mirror of a middle school locker room. Fortunately, I had the good sense not to mention the fact that I’d “borrowed” the shaver from the grocery store that morning when I was supposed to be in PE. Nevertheless, you would have thought I’d taken a knife out of the kitchen drawer and stabbed her in the eyeball or something. “How could you do this to me?” she said. “What will people think?”
Who cares? I said.
She did. A lot. If my mother was passionate about anything it was What People Thought.
When I came home with a nose ring in ninth grade, she simply grounded me. I was so unlike my good girl sister and jock brother I don’t think she knew what to do with me. No one in my family ever seemed to break the mold of conservative, Bible-studying, country music-loving, flag waving model citizens – not my parents, or my aunt and uncles, or cousins or even in laws. No one except me.
And my grandmother.
Where the other women in our clan wore modest skirts and dresses, she went around most of the time in worn overalls and unisex t-shirts. Where my aunts and cousins wore their hair long (usually in a braid down their back), my grandmother wore her glorious white hair chin-length. I think the only shoes she owned were a beat-up pair of Doc Martins. She loved heavy metal and EDM.
At the ripe age of 72, my grandmother showed up at Thanksgiving dinner with a nose ring of her own – a show of solidarity. “I love it,” she said, pouring giant ladles full of gravy over her mashed potatoes while my mother sat straight as a rod and my father stared at his green bean casserole like it might sprout wings and fly off the table. “Next I might do a nipple or two,” she said, winking at me. Afterward my mother had to lie down with a cold cloth. It was beautiful.
My grandmother was born just after World War II ended. She grew up in the 1950s, when cookie cutter families centered around a home managed by stifled, subservient housewives. Girls grew up with one goal in mind – to get married and raise a family. For someone like my grandmother (and someone like me), that’s basically the definition of a living hell.
I never officially came out to my parents. I came out to my grandmother.
“Oh sweetheart,” she said. “I’ve known for years. Haven’t you heard of gaydar?”
I buried my head in her shoulder and sobbed that day – mostly in relief, but also there was still a sliver of shame. Shame because I knew my parents would say I was wrong. Shame for reasons I didn’t even understand. And fear. But mostly relief.
And after about two minutes, shock.
“What?” I said, wiping my snot and tears on my sleeve.
“What?” my grandmother said.
It had never even occurred to me that my grandmother was gay.
“But Grandmother,” I said. “You were married. You had kids.”
She affectionately rubbed the soft stubble on the side of my head. She was the only person in the world I’d ever let touch my hair. But when she did I always wanted to curl up in her lap and go to sleep. She looked at me, half smiling, but her eyes looked sad.
“I was,” she said. “I did.”
She sighed. “And believe me, I’m not sorry. Your grandfather was a kind and gentle man. I loved him. And I love my children and all of my grandkids. But it wasn’t the path I wanted.”
She stroked my hair absentmindedly. “It wasn’t talked about in my day,” she said. “And if you did talk about it, or approach the wrong person, you could quite literally go to jail. I remember – oh I was maybe 10 or 11 years old – a group of gay men in my town met in a bar. They didn’t do anything but meet. They were arrested and later committed to an institution. It made a big impression on me.”
“Jesus,” I whispered.
“I tried very hard, for a lot of years,” she said. “I did all the things a good wife and mother are supposed to do. I shoved my real self down deep. I did my best to be like everyone else.”
God, if anyone understood that, it was me.
“But then, your grandfather died. And I was left alone with five kids,” she said. “It was the most terrifying – and liberating – thing that ever happened to me.” She patted my arm. “Here. Come with me. I want to show you something.
She took me to the closet in her bedroom. On the floor was a little wooden box with a gold clasp. Like a jewelry box, but I was confused because my grandmother hardly ever wore jewelry. She handed it to me. “Open it,” she said.
Inside was nothing I expected. It was just some folded up pink material. Wool, I think. She nodded, and I picked it up and unfolded it across my lap. It was an old-fashioned skirt, the kind every typical housewife wore in the sixties and seventies. I was confused. Was it for me? “I don’t think it’s my size,” I said.
My grandmother chuckled. “It’s not for you, bonehead,” she said. She took the faded old skirt from my hands and laid it on the bed, smoothing out its wrinkles. “It was a few months after your grandfather died,” she said. “I’d put off giving away his clothes, so they still hung in our closet. I was grieving – I really did miss him. I remember taking off my own clothes – that skirt and some blouse or something, I don’t remember – and putting on one of his shirts and a pair of overalls. It felt … so right.” She took the skirt and began folding it. “That was the day. My day. I put on his boots. I cut my own hair. That was the day I came out to myself. And that was the very last day I wore that skirt or any skirt. The hell with what people thought.”
I was halfway through my junior year of high school when I found out my grandmother had stage 4 cancer. It had started in her lungs – although she’d never smoked – and it had spread to just about everywhere.
“Pfft,” my grandmother said. “Doctors. What do they know? I’m gonna kick this cancer’s ass.”
That summer I drove her back and forth to chemo, radio blaring, windows down, singing to the alternative station at the top of our lungs. We watched YouTube videos while she sat in the reclining chair. I made her a Tinder account and swiped right on the first 25 women that popped up. “Look at this gorgeous bitch,” she’d say. “Maybe we’ll get married.”
On Thanksgiving, we visited her at the hospital. She told me she loved my rainbow face mask and asked me to paint rainbows on her fingernails and toes. She seemed stronger, brighter, more energetic. We talked about the new Krampus movie, which she hadn’t seen yet, and made plans to spike my mother’s drink on Christmas Eve.
She died the next day. Black Friday.
I spent the next few weeks disassociating in my room. I missed two weeks of school, refusing to get out of bed, even though my mother tried to pass off some BS about how my grandmother would have wanted me “to carry on,” blah blah blah. I stole half a bottle of brandy from the liquor cabinet – which was probably older than me, because my parents only drank like once a year– and finished it off. Then Christmas break came around and nobody seemed to care that I didn’t get out of bed.
I messaged every one of her new girlfriends on Tinder. Half of them offered to be my adopted grandmother if ever I needed them.
I dreaded Christmas.
My mother had, of course, taken care of my grandmother’s belongings – putting her house up for sale, “re-homing” all of her rescue cats. Amazingly, my grandmother had somehow found the time and energy to buy and wrap a Christmas present for every person in our family. They sat under our tree along with the perfectly-wrapped ones my mother had put there.
Christmas morning was solemn. All the usual people came over. The aunts, the uncle, the in-laws, the cousins. All perfectly wrapped in the trappings of the ideal American family. And then there was me.
My father played Santa’s Elf, as always, even though we were all too old for thank kind of stuff. None of us were feeling it. He tried, I could tell, a big fake smile on his face as he handed out all of the gifts. We all sat there looking down at our packages.
All except me.
I mean, I had the Pinterest-worthy wrapped gift that was obviously from my parents. But everyone else had something from my grandmother. I looked, and under the tree there was still one package. It wasn’t wrapped like a Christmas gift though. It was just a box wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with twine.
My mother said, “Obviously, we think she meant this for you. She loved you so much.” My father sniffed and pretended he had something in his eye. “Go ahead,” she said. “We all agreed that you should open it.”
I held the box in my lap for a minute or two before I was able to pull the twine and undo the bow. I thought of my grandmother and the way her soft, wrinkled hands were so strong and so gentle at the same time. I would have given anything for one minute of her rubbing the stubbly side of my hair.
I knew what it was before I’d finished opening it. Inside the plain brown box was another box made of wood, with a gold clasp. And I knew what was inside. I pulled out the faded pink skirt and held it to my chest. And that’s when the tears came.
“Oh,” my mother said. “Well. Obviously this was meant for someone else then.” She bent to retrieve the wooden box, but I grabbed it and held it to me.
“No,” I said. “It’s for me.” I wiped my tears and snot on my pajama sleeve. “It’s definitely for me.”
My mother harrumphed. “I would have thought she’d have known you better than that,” she said. “The day I see you in a skirt - ”
“Who’s next?” I said. I was already folding the soft pink material and putting it back in its box. It was mine. And I knew what it meant.
The day before I graduated high school I got a tattoo on my arm. It’s a half rainbow splashed across a ladylike pink skirt. Above it says, “I don’t care what you think.”
Turned out I was the only one there with a tattoo. At least one you could see. Go figure. But then I was also the only one wearing faded men’s overalls, a unisex t-shirt, and a pair of slightly too-large Doc Martins under their gown. They’re big shoes to fill.
But I’ll grow into them.