We were sitting at my little sister’s basketball game, my Granny and I, when she started talking about gay marriage.
Sitting to her left, I didn’t make eye contact. My palms started to sweat, and I tried to gauge where this conversation could be going without stealing a glance at her lovely, wrinkled face.
“I went to my first gay wedding,” she said.
This was about 11 or 12 years ago, during a break from school, when I was still living through the fallout that was my coming out to my parents. As a junior in college I’d taken the plunge and finally told them, and it was worse than I’d expected it would be.
Neither of my parents were physically violent when I came out, but I was largely deserted emotionally and mentally. They were concerned about my life, my choices, the people I surrounded myself with, you name it. They didn’t think this was the way I should be going – didn’t I know that life as a gay would be harder? Didn’t I know that it would have more roadblocks than if I were to just marry my high school boyfriend? The word “phase” made a few appearances, because of course.
So I’d gone on with my life, living a little more quietly, but knowing that if I wanted to be who I was, I’d have to do it alone. My parents weren’t going to be there, I realized, and if they did ever come around (they did, very much so), it would be years later (it was). At that point, I was adrift, which was an odd sensation, being from a large family, the third daughter in a family of five girls with strong leadership from my parents.
My mom’s mom, who we always referred to as Granny Bou (her real-life name was Ruth Boudreau), had eight children, and my mom was smack in the middle. All the kids were raised Catholic per my very French-Canadian grandfather. But he had passed away before I was born, leaving me with my granny as the rooted connection to my mother’s homeland in Canada.
Because my mom had bucked the family norms and moved to the United States, where she’d met my father, moved to Montana, and started a life across a border from the rest of her siblings, we didn’t see granny as much as our Canadian cousins who lived just across town from her.
But when she would visit, we would lap up every minute with our sharp, optimistic, ever-game-for-anything Granny Bou. When she visited, my sisters and I became rich in Jujubes, Smarties, MacIntosh Toffee, Red Rose Tea, Shreddies, and other foreign delicacies.
Sometimes Gran would show up with wool sweaters or socks she’d knitted while watching hockey in her Ottawa apartment, the yarn ball sitting near her feet becoming the puck anytime the players on TV got close to the goal. She’d kick the yarn to help them out, ever the cheerleader for anyone who was trying.
In 1996, when I was 11, she visited during the best time: The Olympics, held that year in Atlanta. My sisters and I were glued to the screen as the Magnificent Seven defeated the women’s world of gymnastics, screaming as Kerri Strug pulled off that vault. My Gran laughed every time I did my impression of Strug’s tiny, gymnast voice, and I left her a note in her luggage with Strug’s words, so Gran could have a laugh when she got home.
With eight kids who all ended up having children, my Gran had dozens of grandchildren, but still managed to get me a birthday card nearly every year. This was our thing – we shared the same birthday, two spitfire souls born exactly 64 years apart. Her 80th birthday, which we celebrated with a family reunion, was my Sweet Sixteen. It was perfect, I glowed with the freshness of a teenager who’s got it all figured out, and she was so happy to watch her entire family be together.
Three years later, I’d find myself on those hard bleachers next to Gran, my body and soul feeling emptier than I’d ever remembered. In those days, I felt like I was being held together with rapidly fraying dental floss, and couldn’t be sure where to turn; my usual safe haven – my family – wasn’t really a place to turn while my parents tried to wrap their brains around my queerness (my sisters, though super supportive, were scattered and young, and we did the best we could).
So when Gran brought up that she’d been to a gay wedding, I didn’t know what to think. I knew my mom came from Gran, and my mom was pretty flustered by the whole idea of gayness. I stared ahead, waiting for the disappointed-grandmother shoe to drop; I hadn’t come out to Gran, but surely my mom had said something.
But I had forgotten that this was Granny Bou, not a mere grandmother.
“Oh yes, I went to a new church — Unitarians,” she said.
To my cradle-Catholic ears, that sounded fairly blasphemous. Were Unitarians harsher than Catholics? Was this going to be a lecture?
“It was lovely,” Gran continued, emphasizing the love in “lovely” the way she did.
I turned and looked at her. She looked back at me, nothing but that same sweet, wrinkled face that I knew as well as the mountains around my hometown. I think I nodded, a little too surprised for words.
She patted my hand, her skin smooth and warm. I kept watching the ball game, trying to understand my new reality, the one in which I wasn’t facing the storm alone. I had Gran, I had an ally who didn’t throw her weight around but made me feel so much safer. She was the first blood-related adult who, through that small conversation, gave me permission to be myself, letting me know that I was OK as is, that I wasn’t a mistake.
I credit that conversation and my Gran for a lot of the courage I’d need in the next few years. They weren’t easy, but when I felt down or that I’d never belong, I could hear her, feel her hand, and know it wasn’t true.
On the day of my wedding, in August 2015, I Facetimed Gran. Her health had started flagging, and her memory was getting a bit spotty. She couldn’t make the trip to Montana for the big day, but I was wearing her necklace — a tradition for the women in my family — and wanted to show her how well it went with my tailored suit.
“I’m getting married today, Gran!” I said.
“Oh, how lovely,” she said. “To whom?”
I smiled, knowing she’d met my wife several times before.
“Lauren, you remember her, Gran.”
“Ohhhh yes,” she said.
“And how are you?” I said, making conversation.
“Oh I’m FINE with it!” she said, meaning my marriage to a woman.
I told my mom about the conversation as soon as I hung up, and we both laughed until we cried a bit. Twelve years had brought us so far, though Gran likely couldn’t recall as much.
Even when she couldn’t remember everything about me, she still accepted without hesitation.
My Granny died on Feb. 11, in a nursing home, surrounded by all her children. It was expected, but it is still a blow to our family, now a huge network spanning North America.
We’ll all get together to celebrate Granny Bou, to tell stories and comfort each other through our loss. I’m sure each and ever one of my cousins has a story like mine, when Gran made them feel special and safe and loved and brave. For instance, we all tried to show our love at once during a family reunion in Ontario in 2011. We reworked the lyrics to Katy Perry’s “Firework” to
“Granny, you’re a firework!” It was her 90th birthday, and age was starting to take its toll. She had no idea what we were singing about, all her adult grandchildren, but she loved every single second.
She was fond of saying to the dozens of people milling about and laughing during our family reunions: “Without me, none of you would be here.”
In my case, she was right on several levels.
I love you, Gran, and I’ll miss you forever.