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Making My Grandmother Cry

STORY: I make my grandmother cry.

I come out to her and her fists close and her eyes fill up. She is silent for the longest moment and then, speaking through the tears, she astonishes me: “It’s that gym where you go, that’s where they all are!”

Her assertion makes me laugh inside. How could she possibly know that? She’s never been to my gym. How could my frail little grandma, a sheltered girl from an Orthodox family, a woman who has barely left the house for the past thirty years, have any kind of insight on the subject?

The conversation continues with her becoming progressively more and more upset. She’s perched on her upholstered green rocker from JC Penny, a half-finished afghan in her lap, and I’m facing her sitting Indian-style on the wall-to-wall carpet. I’m peripherally aware of my mom and dad listening helplessly to the whole exchange as they pretend to wash dishes in the next room.

Though I came out to my parents after college, as a rule, I managed to find a million nonsexual things to talk about when visiting them — a relief since when I was with my friends, sex was the only thing we ever seemed to talk about. But this time Granny brings up the issue and continues pressing it until I have no choice but to come clean. She also confesses to having purposely avoided the subject of my sexuality until now, but has finally decided to take the leap:

“Well, I thought that you were, and I made up my mind I was gonna ask you!” ”Well, how do you feel?” ”It’s a shock!”

She sheds more tears and my soothing accelerates to match her distress. I hand her a Kleenex and hold her hand. My mother, accustomed to taking charge in a crisis, takes advantage of my grandmother’s poor hearing, tiptoes behind the rocker, shakes her head, and mouths to me, “You shouldn’t have told her, you shouldn’t have told her.”

It’s a big help.

With an evil stare, I send her back to the sink and continue my comforting. Two seconds later, the phone rings. I hear my mother pick it up and can tell from her voice it’s my brother Jack who’s in grad school in Chicago. I turn my attention back to Granny as my mother calls from the kitchen:

“Ed, Ed pick up the phone!” Annoyed, I yell back, “Not now, for God’s sake.” And then I hear my mother announcing, as if into a public address system, “He can’t come to the phone. He’s telling Grandma that he’s gay!” And so I’m outed to my brother and think, “One less call to make.”

I spend the next hour or so quietly seated on the floor and then leave my grandmother to catch my train back to New York and the apartment I share with three other twentysomethings — all gay and in various stages of self-loathing. The incident’s constantly on my mind the entire week. It’s still on her mind too, when I call home two days later:

“Hi Granny, how are you?” “How do you think I am?” (Pin drops.) “What are you doing? Watching TV?” “No, just thinking.” (Crickets.) “Well, what are you thinking about?” “What do you think I’m thinking about?”

Similar stressful exchanges occur on days three, four, and five.

Being the youngest, the favorite, and the only one who still lives close enough to visit regularly, I feel a special devotion to my grandmother. Our relationship is one of the most wonderful things in my life. She lived with us while I was growing up — my maturation coinciding with her decline. At the age of ninety-five (although she’ll only admit to ninety-two) her mind is sharp but her body is brittle. As time passes I find myself more and more in the role of the adult — keeping her informed, preparing her meals, and helping her to bed. The possibility that the bond between us could be permanently damaged is crippling to me.

After almost two weeks of tense, awkward phone calls, I again go home for a visit. There’s no reference to my revelation and the day passes more easily than I expect. It isn’t until late evening when it even comes up. I’m tucking Granny in — gently rotating her fragile legs onto the bed while I cradle her back and slowly lower her onto the mattress. As I smooth out the covers she brings up the subject that we’ve managed to avoid the entire day:

“So, you don’t like a girl to get married?” My body tenses, “No.” “You prefer a boy?” I breathe deeply, “Yes.” She pauses and then says resolutely, “Well, then that’ll be your life and you’ll be happy that way.” “Yes.” My tension melts away but returns when she says, “But it’s not like making love with a girl. What can you do?” I see where this is leading and try to head it off. “Well, Grandma it isn’t about sex. It’s about who you love and who you care for.” She will not be deterred. ”Yes, yes I know that. But it’s not like with a girl. What can you do?” I dodge the question. She presses. I parry. She asks again. I change the subject. She changes it back. And finally after the fifth “But what can you do?” I blurt out, “Well, I have two hands!” “So what do you do, jerk each other off?” I’m stunned, horrified, and amused all in a single moment. “Grandma!” She laughs to break the tension. She continues, “You know I hear that some of the boys use the behind!” I laugh to break the tension. I toy with a couple of comebacks: “Wow, Grandma what a great idea!” Or, “Yeah some of us…er… some of them do,” but settle for planting a simple kiss on her forehead and say, “Goodnight.”

After that, our relationship is almost back to normal. She’s totally accepting, but it isn’t clear that she understands the specifics of the situation. She knows I’m gay but appears hopeful whenever I even mention a woman by name. She repeatedly asks my brother “What made him that way?” and confides to my mother her worries that I’m destined to become a prostitute — a proposition that, given my precarious finances, occasionally worries me too. My mother who joined PFLAG immediately after I came out, suggests giving my grandmother a copy of “Now That You Know,” a book the group recommends and that I cynically refer to as “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Homosexuality but Were Afraid to Hear.”

I pick up a copy for Granny.

Two weeks later I’m home for a visit and to do some laundry. I see the book lying on the nightstand; the wrinkled spine and folded corners tell me it’s been read. I turn to Granny who’s busily working on yet another afghan.

“Hey Granny, did you read that book?” The crochet hook stops, she looks up, and says point-blank, “Yes, and it’s disgusting!” My heart sinks and my guard goes up. “Disgusting?” “Yes, it’s disgusting! It says that some of the parents don’t love their children anymore.”

She makes me cry. – Eddie Sarfaty



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