Her Spitting Image

by Ozzie Totten
June 19, 2012

My mother grew up on a small farm outside of Cando, North Dakota. She was born in the red-bricked Cando hospital, graduated from the yellow-bricked Cando high school, and as a teenager, she rarely left the state and its vast fields of wheat. Eventually, all five children in my mother’s family moved off the farm, away from North Dakota, and into the world. But not Grandma. Grandma Nelson hunkered down, moved into a beautiful robin’s egg blue bungalow, and planted a luscious garden in her backyard. Her next-door neighbor was the small town church, the rickety school playground was around the corner and, though the main street was just three blocks away, she always drove her 1970s Cadillac with plush red seats and a dial radio when going to the grocery store.

Small-town life suited my grandmother. She had a group of ladies with whom she played gin rummy every Tuesday night, she gossiped with those same ladies on the phone for hours, and every day she would dust off her shelf that held photographs of her litter of children, keeping her memories in clean and pristine condition. The bookshelf was huge. Proudly on display, next to the television that constantly played reruns of Dr. Phil, it contained all of her happiest memories. The centerpiece was a family photograph of her five children, surrounding her and her long-gone husband, everybody beaming. My mother is beautiful in that picture. She’s freshly married, just gave birth to my younger brother, and she is glowing. Her hair is bright, her sweater fits her perfectly, and you can see in her eyes that she is thrilled to be right there, preserved in film, in that moment, forever.

On the shelf, surrounding the centerpiece, were school pictures of all twelve grand-children, all twelve great-grandchildren, and the various “others” included in our outstretched clan, including, next to me, a picture of my best friend Maddie. Whenever my family would take a road trip to visit Grandma in her bungalow, it was always one of the first questions out of her mouth. After a big bear hug, and a quick update about school, she would always ask me, “And how’s Maddie?”

It never felt weird. Maddie and I were always linked together. Our parents were best friends, we had sleepovers at each others house, and we were close before it was cool to be friends with a girl. Everybody teased us in elementary school, telling us we were going to get married. The pressure got to us, and we eventually stopped interacting in front of our friends, but every Sunday, at family dinner, we giggled, danced to Hansen, and imitated Macy Gray like champions.

***

I never came out to Maddie in person. I didn’t know how to. She was the one person who knew me better than anybody, I’m sure she wasn’t surprised in the least when she heard. We talked about it on AIM once, and that was that. Things went back to being as they were, only now I could tell her about my crushes. Which were usually on the boys she was dating, anyways. It was convenient.

***

On the first road trip to North Dakota after I came out, my mom pulled me aside at a rest stop.

“Oz, I haven’t told your Grandmother about you. It’s not my place, I’m leaving it to your judgment.”

Leaving anything to the judgment of an immature sixteen-year-old is a silly idea, but I told my mother I could handle it.

It was the standard trip to Grandma’s as a teenager. Lots of time spent watching Nickelodeon, lots of trips to the grocery store, and safely tucked in bed by 9 p.m. every night. We accompanied her to church, we went bowling, we drove to the nearest “city” and saw a showing of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Grandma complained that it was too loud, and that the magic was “silly.”

“And those dragons? Those were disgusting. Why did they have to show those?”

After church on Sunday morning, Grandma and I had a disagreement. I don’t remember the discussion, but my little brother Joey does. He remembers it vividly, because I had yet to come out to him, and it was in overhearing this argument he learned I was queer.

Gay marriage had come up in the sermon at her conservative church, and Grandma was thinking out loud.

“I don’t think I believe in gay marriage. They can do what they want, but I don’t want them getting married in the church.”

I took the logical, legal approach. “Grandma, what about the benefits of marriage that are denied gay couples? Like hospital visitation rights? Aren’t those important to you?”

She looked at me sideways. “I don’t know any of those people, so why should that matter to me?”

I raised my voice. “Yes, Grandma, you do. I’m one.”

Her eyes went suddenly wide, she was shocked. “No you’re not.”

“Yes, Grandma. I’m gay. And some day, if my partner is sick and dying, I would like to be by their side. Like you were with Grandpa.”

She went silent, got up, and walked away.

It was a tense dinner that night. Grandma wasn’t sure how to react to my announcement. We cut the gummy meatloaf in silence, and the homemade ice cream had an off flavor, like there was too much rock salt.

After dinner, everybody else went quickly to bed. Grandma and I stayed up, and played gin rummy. After a few hands, she looked at me. Her voice was frail, had a weak vibrato in it, the kind we get when we’re suppressing the emotions that overwhelm us.

“You can still get married to Maddie, right?”

I took a second. I mean, no, I wasn’t getting married to Maddie. She’s my best friend, still is to this day, but a wedding between us isn’t in the cards. But I looked over my shoulder, at our first grade pictures. Slightly turned in towards each other. It made perfect sense to her. Childhood best friends, we’d always been destined for each other, and she had never imagined anything different. And I looked at her, with her wrinkly, frail fingers holding her hand a little too tight, her droopy eyes sparkling with a slight glimmer of hope.

“Yah, Grandma, I can still get married to Maddie. Not for a while, but it could happen.”

She smiled, drew a card, and announced “gin.”

***

Grandma passed away my senior year of college.

She was in hospice care in my hometown over Thanksgiving. My mom’s entire family came in for the holiday, to say one last goodbye. When I entered the hospice room, it was cold and damp, and she lay there, emaciated and breathing harshly.

“Hi Grandma,” I said, and she opened her eyes. Her hands moved shockingly fast, she grabbed my right hand and squeezed it tight. Just like the bear hugs we had shared when I was younger. Her eyes closed, she leaned back, drifting in and out of consciousness, but her grip never lessened. I sat there for almost an hour before the nurse came to change her bedpan.

***

Aunt Karen picked me up from the hospice. The oldest child, she’s only twenty-one years younger than Grandma herself, and looks her spitting image.

“How’d it go?” she asked.

“It was okay,” I said, a slight vibrato in my voice.

We drove in silence.

At a red light, Aunt Karen turned to me. She smiled, and asked “So, got a boyfriend we should know about?”

“I mean, there’s this boy, but I’m not sure yet about him.”

“Does he make you happy?”

“Sometimes.”

She looked at me sideways. “Never settle for sometimes, Ozzie. That’s something your grandmother taught me.”

photo: “Sinuous” by Nicholas Tonelli