Lost Lesbian Lit is a series of essays about lesbian literature from before 2010 with fewer than 25 ratings on Goodreads — mostly found at Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop. This month, Assisted Living by Sheila Ortiz-Taylor.
My grandma never liked me.
Maybe it’s because I was a loud and precocious child and she preferred quiet and order. Maybe she just didn’t like how my grubby fingers shot toward her bookshelves like magnets every time I visited. I’ll never know. But I do know one time when my family went to see her, she didn’t speak a word to me the entire time. She pretended not to hear me, talking to my sister instead.
When she was on her deathbed, I flew from New York to LA for my mom, not for her. I’d been out to my family for less than a year and had not seen my grandma or any of my extended family since that revelation. The first thing my mom said upon picking me up from the airport was that she didn’t think I should see my grandma. It would just be too confusing. I took a deep breath and reminded myself I was there for my mom — even if what she needed was for me to be hidden away.
The last day of my trip, my mom told me to get in the car. We were going to drive the hour and a half to see my grandma, because if she didn’t let me say goodbye, she’d regret it for the rest of her life. My mom, my sister, and I arrived at my grandma’s apartment. My grandma was in bed. Her hospice nurse and my aunt were arguing about something, and my mom joined in.
I sat next to my grandma. I was wearing makeup, and my hair was longer than it had been since I was 13. My clothes were androgynous yet feminine. We talked but not a lot and not about any of that. Maybe she didn’t notice, maybe she didn’t care. It’s hard to know anything about someone that close to the end.
She reached out for me. I held her hand in mine. It’s the only time I can remember any physical intimacy existing between us. As the bickering continued in the background, she looked me right in my mascaraed eyes and said, “You’re the only one who understands me.”
My only positive memory of my grandma was our last, the one time I was with her as myself. My mom and sister would later remind me not to assign too much meaning to anything she did or said given her state. But, for me, it wasn’t about gender or acceptance or even love — I’m just glad, in that moment, she held my hand and felt I understood her.
Sheila Ortiz-Taylor’s Assisted Living is a murder mystery. Violet March is an 82-year-old resident of Casa de los Sueños, and she begins to suspect foul play when members of her bingo crew begin to die at alarming rates. Of course, no one else is surprised to see the elderly pass — but for Violet, these people aren’t just the elderly, they’re her friends. She may have grown accustomed to loss. She’s also grown accustomed to the plots in her oft-read crime novels.
While the book is only 173 pages, it contains 52 chapters. Ortiz-Taylor jumps from character to character, subplot to subplot, more interested in crafting a world full of individuals than dwelling on genre conventions or plot developments.
Whenever someone new enters Casa de los Sueños, Violet seems to be the first to greet them. She’s personable and curious and invites various people to dine with her throughout the story. The first of these people is Betty Stiles. She’s only 71, but after visiting her friend and dining with Violet, she decides this home is the place for her.
The book is structured in such a way that at first it seems like Betty is going to be a major character — only for Betty to have a stroke after being put on the los Sueños waitlist. Betty’s daughter, Elizabeth, then briefly takes over hints of protagonism, only to fall back, her partner Diana becoming central.
We’ve previously heard mention of Diana from Betty — a sort of dismissal of Diana holding a grudge. Only when we spend time with Diana do we learn how Betty reacted to Elizabeth falling in love with a woman. “Not a liberal, it turned out,wp_postsDiana remembers. “No. Not about that. Anything but that. Why? For her granddaughter’s sake. Because Allison was thirteen, impressionable. Needed protecting.”
As Diana holds Elizabeth in her arms, Elizabeth slipping away as her mother’s care consumes her time, Diana returns to this idea of protection. “What could protect what they had? Nothing in this society was dedicated to preserving their relationship. Nothing.”
“She would interpose herself between Elizabeth and the claims and requirements of this time,wp_postsDiana decides. “This society that hardly recognized their existence let alone their needs and rights.wp_postsDiana commits herself to figuring out why Betty can’t get into Casa de los Sueños, why the waitlist seems to be moving so slowly.
Diana is an accountant, and she’s going to claim to be there for an audit so she can look through the books. Elizabeth is incensed at Diana’s proposed scheme.
“You’re trying to apply that completely brilliant mind of yours to solving my problem. And it is mine, not yours,wp_postsElizabeth insists.
Diana doesn’t listen. She goes to Casa de los Sueños, and that’s how she ends up dining with Violet March. As they chat, Violet grows to trust Diana and sees in her an ally for her mystery-solving.
Ultimately, Violet wonders if her desire to solve this mystery, to avenge her friends, is coming from a selfish place. Many people rely on Casa de los Sueños, and there’s a much higher chance the suspicious goings-on are related to fraud rather than murder. She’s aware — and makes Diana aware — that helping and trying to help are rarely the same thing.
“It’s not a right, in my mind, helping others,wp_postsViolet says. “The whole idea of assisted living is at worst an insult and at best an impossibility.”
It’s in this titular moment that Ortiz-Taylor reveals her literary goals. The emphasis on character over plot, the chaotic jumping in time and perspectives. This may be a random lesbian book with astrology references (TW: Gemini slander) released by an independent press, but the writing itself should not be dismissed. These choices achieve something precise and deliberate.
This isn’t a book about an inquisitive old straight woman and a middle-aged lesbian solving a series of murders — it’s a book about those meals shared between Violet and her various guests. It’s about how people are different, how people’s needs are different, and how challenging it is to help others without getting lost within ourselves.
Diana didn’t need to scheme — she needed to be a loving partner. Violet didn’t need a mystery — she needed new friendships to replace her quickly vanishing old ones.
I have big dreams for our world, goals for our society I want to help bring to fruition. But as we exist in this moment of political backslide, as it becomes more and more challenging to be othered in a world that was already filled with challenge, I’m reminded not to lose these smaller achievements.
We cannot save our loved ones from oppression and hardship, we cannot save strangers from the same. What we can do is remain open and inquisitive, as curious about the people we encounter as we would be an unsolved mystery. We can try to help in tangible ways even if we know we might fail, understanding that even the trying itself might be a failure. We can forgive others and ourselves. And then we can try again, try to better understand the difference between what help mean to us and how we can truly be helpful.
It’s been almost five years since I’ve held my grandma’s hand, and my interpretation of her words has landed at the simplest of conclusions. With the nurse and my family talking over each other — all in an attempt to help — my grandma was stating that only I could understand her. Literally. Only I was remaining quiet enough to listen.
I’m still a loud person. I still think we should fight and yell and scream for ourselves and those we love. But it’s fitting, in our final moments together, that my grandma taught me the value of quiet. She was wrong throughout her life to believe that children should be seen and not heard. Nevertheless, at the end, right and wrong didn’t matter. She wanted what she wanted, needed what she needed.
All she desired was for the arguments to stop and for someone to hold her hand — even a young trans girl she’d never seen before.