A Column About a Conversation I Had While Packing.

Chicago Free Press Masthead

Common Life
By Jennifer Vanasco

Every day I was home, my mother and I would sort my grandmother’s belongings
into three piles: one for trash, one for good will and one to be moved to my
mother’s house, where my grandmother would soon be living. Then one of us
would take the pile to be moved and haul it three blocks in my grandmother’s
pristine Toyota to the small house on Long Island where I grew up.

One of us had to stay behind to guard the other two piles—we learned early on
that every time we left a room, my 80-year-old grandmother would sneak in and go
through the trash and good will bags, carefully picking out tablecloths to refold into
drawers and battered pots to restack into cabinets.

“The real estate agent said I could stay a few more days,” she would say
plaintively each time we caught her at her work, turning helplessly around the
room. “I’ll need things here.”

My grandmother, it seems, doesn’t want to move. I don’t blame her. I love her
house, with its screened back porch where we used to watch thunder storms and
the small living room where as a child I would dance madly in circles to the horns
of Tijuana Brass. And she and my mother don’t get along, which will make living
together difficult. They still bicker as if my mother is a rebellious teenager, my
grandmother even recalling, with venom, the time my mother flashed a police
officer from the passenger seat of a car when she was in high school.

So I was the one who stayed behind with my grandmother and guarded the piles
while my mother took the Toyota back and forth, back and forth. And since my
grandmother was desperate for company, I stopped shuffling things around while
my mother was gone, and we talked.

Most of our conversations revolved around me being a lesbian.

The first day we took a walk together, bringing along my grandmother’s small, fat
dog, who snuffled happily through the orange leaves. “I don’t understand why you
swing that way,” she grumbled, apropos of nothing.

I sighed. “You mean why I’m a lesbian?” I said. “I’ve always been a lesbian. Even
in high school—even in grade school, when I had crushes on girls and thought
everyone did.”

“Even then?” she said. “You must get it from the other side of the family.”

“I love being a lesbian!” I said, kicking leaves up into the air and trying to maintain
my sense of humor. “You can’t possibly know how great it is to be a lesbian, how
safe it feels, how strong the community is. If you and mom were lesbians, you
wouldn’t have had such bad marriages.”

That, of course, was not the right thing to say. It’s not even true. She threw a stick
to the dog and said nothing.

My grandmother is not really someone you can reason with. I keep trying, though
I’m not sure why. Sometime long ago, she gathered her opinions from the
prevailing culture and continues to hold onto them as desperately as she is holding
onto every dented pot in her house.

The second day, as we sat on the carpet shuffling through black-and-white baby
photos of my mother, my grandmother brought it up again. “I hope you don’t have
children if you’re going to continue to be a pervert,” she said.

“I probably will have children,” I said. “I mean, I might. If I felt ready for them.”

“No, no, no,” she replied, her lips tightening. She shoved down the cover of the
photo box.

“You’ve been to my house. You’ve met my girlfriend. What is so wrong about the
way we live?”

“It’s wrong,” she said. “It’s just wrong.”

The strange thing about this is that, though my grandmother voices her disgust,
she doesn’t act on it. She has stayed in the apartment I share with my girlfriend,
and though she refused to sleep in our bed, she had a good time with both of us.
She sends her love to my girlfriend in her letters; she asks about her in phone
calls. When I send articles to her, she reads my writing in the gay press.

She hasn’t cut me out of her will. She doesn’t refuse me entry into her home. She
listens when I tell her about my lesbian friends and my lesbian life. But she thinks I
am sick.

It is like someone saying “I hate you” but continuing to buy you chocolates and
flowers and taking you out to dinner. It hurts—but it also kind of feels like love.

The third day, when she brought up my sexual orientation again, I blocked it out
and continued to pack. I have no idea what she said. I only know how I responded:
by saying, “I love you and I’m happy. Then I was quiet. There seemed nothing left
to say.

Jennifer Vanasco is an award-winning syndicated columnist based in Chicago.