When I told my siblings that I was a lesbian, they had identical responses, though they live one thousand miles apart: “You’re not going to tell Mom and Dad, are you?” Of course I was going to, and when I did, my parents had a similar, albeit more vehement response: “Don’t you dare tell your grandmother.”
But I did dare, despite my family’s puzzlement over why she “had to know.” After all, my grandmother was 99 years old, and had “more important things to worry about,” according to my mother. And even I had to admit that my grandmother’s plate was full. The year she turned 99, my grandmother’s eyesight failed, her hearing declined, and worst of all, she was forced to give up the tiny Brooklyn apartment she had lived in for over 40 years and move to a nursing home.
I was well aware that my grandmother had plenty of tsouris; I spoke to her on the telephone every day. When my grandmother had something to kvetch about, it was my ear she sought and vice versa. We were extremely close. I am her only daughter’s only daughter and I am named for her husband, the grandfather I never knew who died just a few months before I was born. Yet how close were we really, when I kept such a profound truth about my life a secret from her?
The truth is, I came out to my grandmother because I loved her more than anyone else in the world and I couldn’t stand to see her suffer. And every time we talked on the phone, she spoke of the same pain: the pain of knowing she was not long for this world and once she was gone, I’d be left all alone. My grandmother was an expert on loneliness; she had been a widow for 33 years. “I talk to the walls, just to have someone to talk to,” she’d tell me, “and I don’t want that should happen to you.” Other times she’d just look at me utterly baffled, for I was her favorite granddaughter, in her eyes the smartest, prettiest, most talented girl in the world. So why didn’t I have “a fella”? This made absolutely no sense to my grandmother, and as her hundredth birthday drew near, she grew more and more agitated about it.
“I only want to dance at your wedding, mameleh,” she’d say. “Then I can die happy.”
“Then I’m never getting married,” I’d answer. “That way you’ll live forever.”
“Stop talking nonsense.” My grandmother wagged a red painted nail. “It’s no good to be alone. A stone is alone. Not a person.”
Though I was far from alone, I couldn’t face telling my grandmother that I lived with Mary, the woman I was in love with, the “friend” whom she had met many times. Instead I pointed out that even though she had gotten married, she still wound up living a third of her life all by herself, so what did it matter? My grandmother’s response to this statement was to roll her eyes and shake her head. I was talking nonsense again.
On a crisp autumn day, just a week before Rosh Hashanah, I drove down to Brooklyn to visit my grandmother with exciting news. Mary had just given me a diamond ring and we were planning to have a ceremony to celebrate our lifetime commitment to one another. Could I tell my grandmother? How could I?
But how could I not? I was still trying to decide what to do when I walked into the nursing home, and my grandmother decided for me. Though legally blind by this time, she spotted my ring before I could even take off my coat or open my mouth. “What’s that on your finger, an engagement ring, I should live so long?” she asked. I took a deep breath as my grandmother lifted my right hand to her eyes for a closer inspection.
“Yes, Grandma, it is an engagement ring,” I said. “Mary gave it to me. We’re having a ceremony.”
“What?” My grandmother dropped my hand like it was a hot potato and then did something I had never seen her do: she turned her head to the side and spit three times. “Feh,” she said, crossing her arms. “Lezel, darling, you’re ruining your life.”
“I am not ruining my life,” I folded my arms, too, but there was no arguing with her. She had seen people “like me” on television, and they had changed, so why couldn’t I? When I told her I had no intention of changing, that I was happy the way I was, she looked at me with disdain.
“Happy, what do you know from happy?” she asked. “You think you know what’s best for you, you never listen to anyone, you think you’re so smart, you think you know everything. Well, you know something? You’re too smart for your own good. Feh,” she spit again and then clapped her hands together like she was dusting flour off them, a gesture I was very familiar with. It meant, that’s all I have to say: case closed.
I left my grandmother without kissing her good-bye and cried all the way home. Maybe my family was right, I thought. Maybe it would have been better if she had never known. Now I had upset her, and my grandmother needed more aggravation like she needed a hole in the head. I anticipated angry messages from my parents and my siblings on my answering machine waiting to greet me when I got home, which I also needed like a hole in the head. But when I opened the door, no blinking red light met my swollen eyes. In fact the phone didn’t ring at all until six o’clock the next morning.
“Mameleh, I didn’t sleep the whole night, so upset I was that you was mad on me.” My grandmother’s voice was shaky with emotion. “Listen, darling, I thought it over and all right, if you’re happy, I’m happy, too. Okay, darling? You’re my Lezel and you’ll always be my Lezel. You could sleep with a dog and I wouldn’t care, I would still love you.”
Though Mary and I got a lot of mileage out of that comment for years to come, all I could do at that moment was choke back the tears in my throat and say, “Really, Grandma? You mean it?”
“Of course I mean it. I’m an old woman, darling, I don’t got a lot of time left, so let’s not fight no more.”
Unfortunately my grandmother’s words proved to be true; she died a few months after our phone conversation and she never did dance at my wedding. But she did give Mary and me her blessing. In fact, she treated Mary very differently the next time she saw her. She treated her like—for lack of a better word—a son-in-law, taking great interest in her job, her income, her plans for the future. When the visit was over, she placed Mary’s hand on top of mine and told us to take care of each other. She said to me, “I love you, darling,” and then she said to Mary, “and I love you, too, for taking such good care on her.” When I started to cry, she said, “Shah,” and turned away, but the quaver in her voice betrayed her: she was crying, too.
Lesléa Newman’s novel, In Every Laugh a Tear, the story of a 99-year-old Jewish woman and her lesbian granddaughter, has just been released in a new edition from New Victoria Publishers.