On one of my last visits to see my 90-year-old Grandma Pearly before she died, I decided to take the plunge and tell her I’m gay.
I hold on to that complicated and intense conversation so dearly now. It was a tough one for me because while I loved her deeply, we didn’t always get along.
At times, I didn’t feel she respected me for who I am …
My hair was always too short for her.
In middle and high school, the first thing she’d say to me when we talked on the phone was “Do you have a boyfriend?”
She was annoyed with my baggy t-shirts often saying, “That should be ironed.”
Sometimes before I went to visit her, I would strategically go shopping looking for more “feminine” clothes … a tighter shirt, less baggy shorts. And even when I would wear these new clothes – I’d hear the same comments.
They wouldn’t anger me – they were just annoying.
So once I came out as gay and had a girlfriend, I wondered when – or if – I’d come out to her.
I remember thinking, “Did she know this about me all along and think she was going to change me with her comments?
Will she be relieved that I finally started dating? Or is she homophobic?
“Grandma, there’s someone I want you to know about,” I said as I pulled out a picture of me with my then girlfriend.
“Nooo,” she said shaking. “I don’t want to know.”
The way she said it wasn’t stern … it sounded to me like she didn’t want to know this truth about me. I continued anyway. “This is my girlfriend” and preceded to tell my grandma all about her.
She asked me if I was sure I was gay.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
Then she wanted to know if I just couldn’t find a boy.
“I’m not interested in men.”
She continued to search for clarity about why I “turned out this way.”
I asked her why she didn’t want me to be gay. “You can’t have kids,” was her reply.
I dispelled that myth.
She wanted to know if I was gay because I went to an all-women’s college.
I also dispelled that myth and told her I came out in high school.
She talked about the Holocaust and the discrimination I would face as someone who is gay (the Nazis killed them).
She talked about my liberal “hippie” parents. I said it wasn’t about them.
She shared other fears. I can’t even remember them all anymore.
Our conversation remained calm – it was a quiet dialogue about stereotypes, differences, identities, generations. Almost an hour passed like this. I wanted my grandma to know more about me, her granddaughter. For me, I had said everything I needed to.
It seemed to be her turn.
She told me of another relative who’s gay and how supportive she was to this family member. And then she said, “Your grandfather and I used to invite my school principal over for dinner when I was a teacher. He used to bring his partner over.”
That’s how it ended. And in those remarks, she seemed to be telling me “Emma, it’s okay that you are gay.”
It wasn’t perfect after that discussion. But with some gentle reminders from my dad to “ask Emma about her partner,” she did, although often asking, “How is your friend?”
I would smile upon hearing this because it showed me that people can change.
Change is slow and requires that we be open to dialoguing with others – sharing our insecurities, questions, stories. We must share our vulnerabilities. Sometimes we can plan parts of these important yet challenging dialogues, as I had done.
Sometimes dialogues come at unexpected moments, catching us off guard and we become angry or hurt, feelings that coursed through me at times with grandma’s comments.
In the end, I am so honored and blessed to have had a grandma who at 90-something was willing to sit with her 20-something granddaughter and talk. I was able to be honest about what I needed and wanted from my grandma and said confidently, “I am not changing.” She could eventually hear this and say, “Okay and I love you.”
In my last visit with her, I showed her some videos of my teaching. She had been a teacher in New York City. It was a beautiful last visit that I will cherish forever – especially when she said with excitement, “You can wear pants as a teacher!”
We ate some Jewish baked goods and Noodle Kugel. And – without any prompts – she asked me about my girlfriend.