First published in Between the Lines, May 4, 2006
My Grandma Rose stood at just under 5 feet–in recent years, even less than that, as osteoporosis took its toll on her small frame. But she will always be a towering figure in my mind.
She was born on May 8, 1921, in the town of Licodia Eubea, in the Sicilian province of Catania. A few years later her father immigrated to the United States, and he would not see her again until she was twelve, when he finally sent for her and the rest of the family. I often wonder what it must have been like for her, to meet this virtual stranger who was her father. He was a harsh man, even violent, but she loved him nevertheless.
Her family embodied the “American dream,” coming to the new world, trying to take advantage of a land of opportunity. When she was nineteen her parents introduced her to my grandfather, Joseph, in what today would be called an arranged marriage. Joseph was born in the same town as Rose, and like her he immigrated as a child. Eventually he became a successful carpenter. Their marriage lasted for sixty-five years, “till death do us part” indeed.
Together Rose and Joseph had two children, my Uncle Tom and my mother Annette. (Their real names: Gaitano and Antoinette. Don’t ask me how “Gaitano” became “Tom”: somehow it makes sense to our Italian-American ears.) But they also presided over a large extended family. While the terms “matriarch” and “patriarch” seem old-fashioned, my grandparents epitomized the best aspects of those roles: commitment, dependability, generosity, dignity.
To them, family was paramount. It shaped their identity, it guided their choices, it gave them their purpose. The result was that those of us who were part of their family had a strong sense of place: we belonged and we mattered. “Nobody’s better than you,” my grandmother would tell us grandchildren, and when she said it, she meant it, and we felt it. She didn’t mean that other people were bad–indeed, despite her provincial background, she had a deep respect for other cultures–she meant that we were good. And in that way she taught us not only to respect, but also to be respected, and to carry ourselves with dignity.
That strong sense of family could be comforting–indeed, invaluably so–but it could also be intimidating. To screw up was not merely to disgrace yourself, it was to disgrace the Family. Capital F. Whenever my grandmother would talk about her family, she would punctuate her sentences with “Right or wrong?” You knew that it wasn’t really a multiple-choice question.
It was against that background that, when I was about 25 years old, I decided to come out to my grandparents. I had been building a wall between us for years, trying to hide an important aspect of myself, and that felt wrong. (I can hear my grandmother now saying, “If you don’t trust your family, who can you trust? You gotta trust your family. Right or wrong?”)
So I went to their house and…I couldn’t do it. I hemmed and hawed and skated around the issue and finally went home. Discouraged but not deterred, I went back the next day. Finally I looked at my grandmother (my conversations were always primarily with her; my grandfather taking a largely silent but crucial background role) and I said, trembling, “Grandma, I’m gay.”
“Yes, we know,” she replied, with a loving look that I’ll never forget. “You’re our grandson, and we love you, and we’re proud of you.” Then she hit my taciturn grandfather in the arm and said, “Joe, say something,” and he repeated the same sentiment. And that was that.
When people ask me how my family took my coming out, I often quip that they handled it the way Italian-Americans handle anything perceived to be a crisis: we yell, we scream, we cry–and then we all sit down and eat. At the end of the day, we’re family. In the case of my grandparents, there was no yelling, screaming and crying. There was just the powerful sense that I was family, and that was all that mattered. That sense eventually extended to my partner, whom they immediately embraced as one of their own.
Grandma Rose died peacefully on April 23, 2006. I was at her side, along with my parents, my uncle, my grandfather, and some cousins.
In a world of so-called “culture wars,” there are those who talk about family values and there are those who live them. Grandma Rose lived them, and for that, I will forever be grateful. Rest in peace, Grandma.