Memoir

Grandma’s Dementia Made Her Forget Her Homophobia

After watching how my family treated my lesbian mom, I assumed it would all repeat when I came out. But as my grandma’s memory faded, her disapproval of gay people vanished too.

Grandma’s Dementia Made Her Forget Her Homophobia

I sat on the shag carpeting in my grandma’s basement near her vintage Pac-Man arcade game, watching my cousins whip the joystick around, trying to beat the record so they could leave the initials A-S-S on the system’s high-score board. When a ghost caught up with Pac-Man, my cousins screamed, but I was more invested in the yelling echoing from the floor above us. I quietly crept over to the basement staircase, trying my best to hear what was happening in the kitchen. My mom was up there with Uncle Jay and Grandma, and they didn’t sound happy.

“I didn’t raise you to be this way,” I heard Grandma say. “What are you going to tell your kids?”

“My kids love me,” my mom said, her voice strained like it used to get when she fought with my dad.

“Listen, Denise,” Uncle Jay said, ruffling through some papers. “Take a look at these. It’s a conference that many women who think they’re lesbians have attended. It’s helped them change their lifestyle, and it’s here in Michigan.”

When my mom started crying, I found myself wondering why I always found myself watching relationships crumble from the vantage point of a staircase. At 5 years old, I had sat at the top of the stairs, watching my parents devise their divorce in a language I couldn’t understand yet. At 8 years old, I had watched through the bars of the upstairs railing as my mom begged her partner, Janet, not to break up with her; until then, I’d thought they were just best friends. And now at 12, I sat at the top of another staircase, listening to my grandma estranging her only daughter.

My mom says that the first time she realized she was gay was in high school when she developed a crush on a girl who later ended up being one of her bridesmaids when she married my dad. She thinks her dad and brothers knew way before she did. Her brothers nagged and teased her, calling her butch and a lesbian, and while her mother ignored all of it, her dad tried to overcompensate by giving her extra attention.

In 2001, right before my parents divorced, my grandpa suffered a heart attack and died. I was only 5, so I don’t remember him much, but I wish I did. Before he passed away, he was alone with my mother in his hospital room and said to her, “You need to do what you need to do to be happy, and don’t let anyone hold you back from doing that.” He told her that he knew she was unhappy in her marriage, and he wanted her to follow her gut.

Because I was only 6 when they split up, the memories I have of my parents together are mostly sensory. The sight of their headlights when they pulled into the driveway at the end of their weekly bowling night. The scent of cigarettes and beer on their smooth, leather jackets when I hugged them both before they could even set down their bags, and how they never reprimanded me for being awake even though the babysitter had told me to go to bed hours earlier. The warm comfort of crawling into their bed after a nightmare I’d pretended to have just so that I could spend more time with them.

My mom told me that she met my dad when he literally slid into her at second base during a coed softball game near the end of their 20s. I can imagine the whole scene: My mom, thinner before her three children. Her dangling brown curls dancing under her baseball cap, before she started chopping her hair shorter and shorter. In a jersey and dirt-stained pantaloons, she twists her fist into the palm of her mitt as my dad approaches the plate with a bat. He stands under the sun that shines on his too-long blond hair, goofy mustache, and cystic acne scars that he never seemed to be insecure about.

I’ve immortalized these stories and memories of them together and happy in my mind because rewinding and replaying them like a VHS tape was my way of coping as I watched them drift apart. As my mom’s new partner, Janet, came around more and more, my mom and dad transitioned from amicable co-parents to archnemeses who used their kids as pawns in the chess match that is raising children post-divorce. When my brother, my sister and I got old enough to understand my mom’s relationship, my dad would openly condemn it. In 2008, he even banned Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” from being played in his household.

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A car ride with Dad was like Sunday mass. Whether the drive was five or 45 minutes, a homily from Dad was inevitable. The second he reached to turn down the Christian rock station, I knew it was coming.

The first time we were alone in the car after my mom came out, I sat in the passenger seat of his moss-green minivan, and we had only just left our subdivision when he said, “So, how do you feel about gay people?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I like Mom and Janet being together.”

“You know that’s not right, right?” he said.

“Why not?”

“Because in the Bible, God says boys are supposed to be with girls, and girls are supposed to be with boys,” he said. “I’m not saying your mom is a bad person. I love your mom. I married her. I’m just saying that you can’t get sucked into the idea that it’s OK, and you can’t encourage it. Don’t you want your mom to be in Heaven with you?”

I did want my mom to be in Heaven with me. I wanted it desperately. Conversations like that sprouted incessant nightmares in which I would die and float up to Heaven and God would tell me that Mom was in Hell for being gay, and I’d never get to see her again.

“But they seem happy together, Dad,” I said.

“Life isn’t always about being happy.”

I wanted to disagree with everything he was saying. I wanted to tell him he was mean, and that he was an idiot. I wanted to tell him, and Grandma, and everyone else, to stop talking about my mom that way. I wanted to get out of the car. There was a powerful force inside me that knew she was an amazing person no matter who she loved. I wish I could’ve told him that, but looking back, I realize I couldn’t have defended her because I was nervous he might have become suspicious about me.

As I got older, the conversations about my mom felt more and more like they were also about me. I was aware of my attraction to men, which began with Zac Efron in the High School Musical movies and was confirmed when I simultaneously discovered gay porn and how to delete my browsing history. I still believed I would end up with a woman because I was no good at interacting with other boys, and the girls I surrounded myself with were intelligent, captivating, and superior to any man I’d ever met. I didn’t realize then that I was attempting to pull off what my mom had tried — and failed at — with my dad.

By the time high school began, I had dropped out of all of the sports my dad had signed me up for all my life, the majority of my friends were girls, and I’d even begun experimenting with concealer on the acne that had sometimes driven me to tears. I was severely lacking in the traditional masculinity department, and when my dad spoke of “the gay lifestyle” I could feel his eyes boring into me, and I felt like an addict realizing he’s at his own intervention.

One night during my junior year, I found myself alone at the dinner table with my dad, and he brought up my mom’s “lifestyle” again for what felt like the millionth time. With newfound confidence that came with knowing I’d be free from his lectures in less than two years when I graduated high school, I told him I was done discussing my mother. In that moment, I could imagine us estranged, exactly like my mom and her mother, and that seemed better than this Hell. I was overloaded with AP classes, maintaining a 4.0 GPA, and on track to becoming valedictorian. I didn’t have time for his religion anymore.

“Why do you think you know if Mom will go to Heaven or not? Why do you think you know everything?” I yelled, louder than I’d meant to. I took the napkin from my lap and tossed it onto the full plate of food. “I hate to leave you alone at the dinner table, but you’ve got God, right? You two can talk all about your stupid Bible all you want!”

My dad looked like he’d just seen a ghost, and he yelled my name as my body carried me out the front door.

I stomped through our neighborhood. My head was pounding with rage and shame, and as I passed each perfect home and its pristine green lawn, I felt like I was slowly being suffocated by a performance I’d never auditioned for.

About a year later, I got a scholarship to a summer acting program in New York City. It was a summer full of firsts: My first time living on my own, my first time smoking a cigarette, my first time sneaking into a bar, and most importantly, my first time falling in love with another boy. This sun-kissed boy from L.A. helped me toss the closeted and curated version of myself into a New York City dumpster — and yanked out the free spirit that was hiding underneath.

When he first grabbed my hand in public, I flinched, but when I gave into love, it was mesmerizing. Hand in hand, we walked through crowds of people of all races, ages and occupations, and I realized that no one gave a shit, so I decided I didn’t either. I came out to everyone except my dad before that summer ended. If I had to go back to Michigan, I was taking my newfound freedom with me.

After watching the way my mom’s family had treated her, my own coming out was difficult, even though I knew I’d have her by my side through it all. Not only was I worried that I would be treated the same way she had, but I also worried that they might blame her for me ending up gay, and she already felt guilty enough. When I sent her a picture of me and the boy from L.A., her response was simple: She told me she was proud of me for being so brave while still so young, and she was happy to finally see me happy.

My dad and I never talked about it directly, but I knew he had heard through the grapevine that he’d lost another loved one to Satan. He ignored it for as long as he could. He knew that I was dating, but he never asked about it. He stopped asking about everything. The conversations about my mom finally ceased too, along with the Sunday morning texts asking if I was coming to church.

My dad was stuck in his ways, but as I got older my mom’s brothers came around. After the day that my uncle and grandma had presented my mom with conversion therapy papers, my mom didn’t hear from Grandma for months, and their relationship was nearly nonexistent for years afterward. My mom says that her brother John would call Grandma and tell her, “You’re gonna lose your daughter, Ma. You need to accept who she is.” I wondered if my grandma and dad didn’t care about losing us because the Catholic Church had convinced them that they already had.

Not long after I came out, Grandma’s body began turning against her. Her doctor discovered a tumor in her brain, and after it was successfully removed, she dealt with minor memory loss and stints of narcolepsy. After falling asleep at the wheel of a golf cart and running over Aunt Paula’s leg, they took away her driver’s license. The doctors gave her a walker that she refused to use, which resulted in many falls and phone calls from the floor of her kitchen. She convinced herself that she was strong and agile, until her kids had to hire her home assistance for a while — and for the last two years, she’s been in a hospice home, battling dementia.

Despite their history, my mom became my grandma’s most frequent visitor. When someone is dying, we tend to forget their wrongdoings and focus on the good. By the time my grandma had begun her stay in her new home, my mom had finally found “the one.” She’d fallen in love with a woman named Erika, and when I saw my mom smile at her, it was like seeing her smile for the first time — and somehow, after all those years, my grandma could see it too.

My grandma had lost a lot of her memory, and she’d apparently forgotten her disapproval of same-sex relationships too. She loved Erika from the day they met. If Erika was at work and my mom showed up without her, Grandma would ask about where she was. Once she even said to my mom, “You better not have messed things up with her!”

While Grandma’s brain let go of many of her memories, her heart held on to some of the dearest ones. She could recite all 20 of her grandchildren’s birthdays, she could tell you about every date she’d gone on with my grandpa before he became her husband, and during one of my mom’s solo visits, Grandma even seemed to remember what she’d done to my mother.

“I never would’ve expected you to be here like this,” she said to my mom, who sat in a chair next to her bed after tucking her in.

“Why?” my mom asked.

“Because I never treated you the right way. I never accepted you for who you are.”

Mom laid her head on her mother’s chest and cried like a baby until Grandma fell asleep.

As I grew up, I watched her grow up too. She started her life over, and I watched the world turn their fear and hatred into obstacles and place them in my mom’s path—but I also watched her overcome them all. All she ever wanted was to be accepted and loved, and she finally got it.

My dad has since grown at a glacial pace. It could be better, but it could be worse. He calls once in a while to talk about trivial things, but he never asks about my love life, and he never reads my writing. I constantly think about demanding more from him, and I often draft letters that end up sounding like contracts, stating my terms if he wants to continue our pseudo-relationship, but I never finish them.

In this political climate, it sometimes feels like arguments and debates and outcries and protests are changing nothing, but watching my mom and grandma has reminded me of another important element of change, and that is time. Time may be a limited resource, but hope isn’t, and I have that now. Hope starts small like a seed we plant in our hearts, and it’s watered with each moment of progress. Moments like holding hands with a boy for the first time, coming out, making my mother proud, and watching her finally get the love she deserves. I believe my dad and I will find our way to the same kind of reconciliation, and now I have proof that it’s possible. The hope I have has blossomed, and its roots are deep.