For a long time in my family, there was an understanding that my grandmother refused to watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show because the host was a lesbian.
She used to say, “The nerve of that woman, being all gay in public like that.”
There was an unspoken pact among my relatives not to tell my grandmother that I was a lesbian.
My uncle had said, “You know, she’s pretty old already, so you should just, you know, wait it out until she [passes away].”
It became a kind of family joke: “Don’t tell Grandma that Catherine’s gay!”
In college, I had this rainbow bracelet that I used to take off when I went into Grandma’s house, even though I knew she wouldn’t get what that meant. Sometimes she’d walk into the kitchen, and I’d be telling someone a story about a girl I was dating, and I would tone it down and say, “She’s such a nice friend.” It was exhausting, though. The coming-out process didn’t feel very freeing if I was keeping secrets.
The challenge with my grandmother was nerve-racking, but she and I had that in common because she was no stranger to challenges. She’d moved all the way across the country to be with her husband, who ended up dying really early. And she raised 12 kids, mostly by herself. She never finished school. I didn’t want to be another one of those challenges, ’cause I thought, Having a queer granddaughter, what’re you going to do with that?
Whenever we hung out, I was a wreck. It was late summer, about two years after coming out, and a bunch of people were at Grandma’s house, and the summer had been long and wonderful and full of this new woman I was dating whom I loved so much. I was sitting on the back porch, smiling and thinking about her. Grandma came outside, and I think we were talking about how my younger sister was about to get her driver’s license, which is already a terrifying thing.
And then I asked her about how she and my grandfather met. It’s a story I’ve heard a billion times, but I love hearing it again. She got this smile, and she was talking about what Grandpa was like in his early 20s and about their slightly sneaky courtship. She basically conned a priest into setting her up on a dinner date with my grandfather, which I thought was adorable and hilarious.
She has great stories, but mostly I love watching her talk about him. I can tell that she still remembers exactly how his hand used to fit in hers and the intensity of his scent. He smelled like pipe tobacco and mint. It’s been over two decades since he passed away, and I know that she’s thought of him every day. And she was telling me about him on the back porch that day.
She said, “He was the best man I know, so you need to find yourself someone like that, someone who will love you and respect you and tell you you’re beautiful. Someone to bring home to meet the family for family dinner.”
Without thinking, I said, “Well, I think I already have, Grandma.” And then I was like: Oh no. I said that out loud. I thought to myself, I don’t know what to do. What is going to happen? I’m a lesbian. She’s going to kill me.
She said, “Is he a nice boy?”
And I said, “Yes. She is a very nice lady.”
And the two of us looked at each other for a long time.
I have no idea what’s running through her head, but mine was going something like, Why are you still sitting here? Run! She’s actually going to kill you.
Then she reached over and patted my hand, and said, “Well, you tell her to come around anytime, all right?”
And I was like, “What?”
I looked over, and she had a smile on her face that meant she was thinking of my grandpa. She said, “You’re my granddaughter, and I love you so much. You should know that there will always be a place at my dinner table for you and whomever you love.”
I wanted to cry and to hug her … and I also wanted to make sure that she knew I was telling her I was gay, like, to be clear. But she just kept looking at me and patting my hand, and so I said, “Thank you.”
Since then, Grandma is the first to reprimand anyone who tells a gay joke.
My uncles are actually the worst offenders, and when someone says, like, “OK, so a queer walks into a bar …,” she is the first to slap them upside the head and tell them to cut it out.
Every once in a while, I will even see The Ellen DeGeneres Show playing in the living room.
*Told live at a Moth show at the Fremont Abbey Arts Center in Seattle, WA