Just before local governments issued shelter-in-place orders, my grandmother suffered a stroke. It affected her speech, ability to walk, and movement of her left arm. Although she survived her second stroke at 85 years old, it reminded us of the limited time we have left with her and grandpa.
I called my grandparents every day they were in the hospital. I spoke to my aunt Rhoda – the executor of my grandparent’s estate – about the plan after discharge.
“Who is going to take care of her?”
“We’re praying on it.”
My mother’s family is part of the Wesleyan Holiness Church, which is like diet Amish. The strict traditional gender roles place women as housewives and mothers, while men are the sole breadwinners.
My mom “left the church” to pursue the American dream of success and independence. She chopped off her hair, threw on a pair of pants, and enrolled in nursing school. Eventually, she would break many more of the Wesleyan rules – including having a child out of wedlock and becoming a lesbian – creating an ever-widening gap between her and her family.
Some years ago, my grandparents decided to move closer to their daughters for additional support as they age. They had two choices:
- Move to Tennessee to be near aunt Carm and my mother, the nurse
- Move to Pennsylvania to be near aunt Lois and aunt Rhoda, the favorite child
Aunt Rhoda has never had a job besides that of a preacher’s wife and mother of three. Her formal education includes public high school and some Christian college. Between her parents and her husband, she has lived a very sheltered life. Bless her heart, but she was unprepared to handle the responsibility of aging parents.
“Does she need to go to rehabilitation?”
Aunt Rhoda didn’t have any answers. Mom wasn’t going to let her mother’s health and wellbeing deteriorate because of her little sister’s ineptness and the on-again-off-again disownment by her parents. She asked me to come with her to Pennsylvania to help take care of grandma post-hospital discharge.
My friends and boyfriend urged me to reconsider, and I passed the same concerns to my mother. I didn’t want to expose myself to the coronavirus as much as be the cause of my grandparents becoming sick.
Besides the pandemic, the family’s beliefs were another reason I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to go through another attempted conversion and hear about how I was putting my soul in danger.
But, I needed to be there for my mother like she needed to help hers. I couldn’t let her drive 10 hours by herself, and I wouldn’t want her to deal with her family alone.
We arrived at my grandparent’s home an hour after them. Grandma sat in her wing-backed chair, draped in blankets with pillows cushioning her arm, sides, and back. The woman who once scared me just by saying my full name looked like she would shatter from a stiff breeze.
My barrel-chested grandpa pulled me in for a firm hug. My grandparents married at 19 and 23 years old, having met in church and courted for an appropriate time. They utilized their strengths in the 66 years together and formed the most loving bond I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness.
Mom took on the direct care of toileting, washing, and dressing grandma. I did the cleaning, laundry, and cooking, figuratively stepping into the shoes of my namesake.
While I was ironing, I remembered how my grandfather stopped wearing jeans – the poor man’s pants back in the day – after he got married. He wanted to project an image of refinement despite his farmer roots. He would only wear slacks because jeans were, even if he had to alternate between only two pairs.
I smoothed the wrinkles, steamed the creases the wash stole, and admired my work once the shirt was on a hanger. It was satisfying; the simplicity of pressing shirt for someone I love to wear with pride.
A lot of long silences occur when half the group cannot share aspects of their lives. I couldn’t share my thoughts on getting another tattoo and had to tiptoe carefully around the subject matter of the book I’m writing. Even mentioning my Christian boyfriend backfired when I let it slip he’s divorced with children.
So, we talked about the travel, weather, and food. My mom brought up how she and her wife took turns each week preparing food.
“Goodness,” my aunt teased, “I wish I had someone to cook for me.”
“Should’ve got a wife instead of a husband,” I threw back to stiff faces.
Like most mother-daughter relationships, my mom’s and mine is on a spectrum from best friends to antagonists. But, our dynamic is at its best and strongest when we are with her family. We are each other’s sole respite in a crowd of zealot Christians.
Yet, the most significant transformation in relationships was between grandma and us. A tough German mother raised Grandma and, consequently, was always cold with a downcast grimace.
The stroke melted the ice queen, and she looked – dare I say – content. She told me she loved me with each hug. She spoke to my mother with affection, something I’d never witnessed in my life. Instead of saying “that lady,” she asked about my mom’s wife by name — little acts with enormous meaning.
On the third day, both my aunt and grandfather took separate turns trying to convert me back into the religion. It happens each trip, and never by the same person as if they decided beforehand who would talk to me.
“Did your mother tell you that you were born with a hole in your heart?
“We’re all born with holes in our hearts. Do you know why?”
“Ah! Cause we need to accept Jesus to fill out hearts. Wow! You almost got me there, Aunt Rhoda!”
With my grandfather, I let him talk without any cheeky remarks for 10 minutes. I tell him that I appreciate his concern, but I’m living a life that I believe is morally apt, and that I don’t think there is only one proper way to live to get into heaven.
What I can’t tell him is that I’m not entirely sure about an afterlife, much more an omniscient being watching and judging every move. I can’t say to him that I suspect religion was a humanmade creation to answer unanswerable questions like:
- Why am I here?
- What happens when I die?
- Does someone love me?
The family finally agreed on a care plan for grandma. Grandpa would pay for care during the day, and my aunts would take turns sleeping over, so someone was with them each night.
My aunt tells us to visit more, and mom counters with, “The road goes both ways.” Except for staying in the house of a gay couple is not a possibility for them. And, mom could never bring her wife with her.
I said goodbye to my grandparents, fully aware that this might be the last time I see one or both of them. They thank us for coming and helping.
“If there is anything you need…” my aunt’s voice trails off, probably knowing she cannot finish that sentence without lying.
“Just unconditional love and support,” I say pointedly.
“We’re praying for you.”
It’s a simple but unreciprocated request. Our lifestyle choices go against their religion, and they cannot support or love us unreservedly because of them.
I might be as cold-hearted as my great-grandmother, but I’ve come to terms with this being the last time I see them. I went to see my grandparents to say, “I love you and goodbye.” I know now that both sides have closure when the good Lord comes to take them home.
But more importantly, I went for my mom. It hurts me to see her heart break when her parents and sisters criticize, ostracize, and reject her for following her path. I went to be the unconditional love and support my mom deserves. I went to show my blood what being family really means.