I wanted to be like my grandmother; I’ve been told I’m like my grandfather.
My grandmother (we called her Nanny) was all tenderness and giggles, pushing her glasses up on her nose while she planned her next card trick. She filled her house with Cajun aromas steaming from creoles and gumbos, and sitting in the refrigerator waiting for me each time I visited my grandparent’s home in a small town in South Louisiana was my favorite dessert, cherry mousse. She sewed matching Easter dresses for my sisters and me, painted ceramics, and crafted odd dough flowers and decoupage trinkets during afternoons with her friends, grandchildren peaking in on the action between runs on farms or around moss-laden Cyprus. And while watching As the World Turns or The Price is Right, there was always room in her lap for the available grandkid and her beloved Chihuahua. The southern humidity nurturing the brilliant azaleas and lush greens of the Louisiana landscape, slowing time in its syrupy thickness, became for me a symbol of her slow and easy warmth. I wanted to be just like her.
My grandfather, Pa-pa, on the other hand, was oft times crotchety and cross, barking at us each time we slammed the screen door behind our entries to the den where he took his afternoon naps. On long road trips, when he knew he would be stuck in the back seat with me, he’d complain that I fell asleep thirty seconds out of town, landing my head on his shoulder. “Ah, now!” he’d grumble and shake me off. He was opinionated about religion and politics, suspicious of things new and fearful of airplanes that he and Nanny never boarded. And as a child, I didn’t see any of it as particularly funny or endearing, but, of course, time has done its work on my perceptions.
The last time I saw Nanny before she died, she’d become sick, though at the time, doctors weren’t sure why (pancreatic cancer). She was frustrated and complaining in ways that I’d never heard from her. My aunt and uncle and three cousins lived in town, two of my cousins, girls, and I remember Nanny criticizing the fact that my aunt hadn’t taught the girls how to use the washing machine, and that she, my aunt, did all the washing herself. Pa-pa interrupted her criticisms and said, “Now Momma,” (they called each other Momma and Daddy), “I don’t think I know how to use that washer either.” Nanny answered back with, “That’s different, Daddy. You’re a man.”
I don’t think I was so surprised by Nanny’s retort; as a young girl just out of seventh grade, her mother died, and she’d quit school on the assumption that it was her job as a girl to take care of her father and brothers; taking care of men and children was the work of her life. But what was surprising to me was that Pa-pa, well into his seventies and clearly a beneficiary of a system where he’d never been expected to operate a washing machine, had missed the point of his entitlement. True he’d never been asked or expected, but was there some explanation he’d missed that privileged him over his granddaughters?
Really, Pa-pa? You didn’t know?
In a family committed to the values of the patriarch, Pa-pa may well have been the closest thing to a feminist influence on my life. And there were other things; like when I was chosen for the high school dance team, Pa-pa told me a story of my mom’s youth:
“When your momma was a girl, there was a preacher come through here who told the kids it was a sin to dance. But I told your momma if she wanted to dance, that was alright with me.”
He assumed little excepting his position on the sofa for his afternoon naps. And I wonder, sometimes, if he were alive today what he’d have to say about gay love and gay rights and all the religious heat surrounding the questions? I wonder what he’d say about his gay granddaughter?
Perhaps the culture of a small town in South Louisiana would be too suffocating even for someone of my grandfather’s sensibilities, but still I hear his voice; I hear him say to my sons, I told your momma, if she was a lesbian, that was alright with me, and I know, now, that even as I adore the love and memory of my beloved Nanny, I am, indeed, Pa-pa’s girl.