Sometimes I feel I ought to be further along at 51. Like I should be more successful. A better parent and spouse. More evolved. The truth is, I feel I should be finished. Framed and hung on a wall for all to admire.
But then I remember my grandma Ellen, a woman I admire more than anyone in the world, who—when faced with her most daunting challenge nearing her 80th year—stepped out of her frame and became living art.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic and near-hysterical homophobia in 1998, her daughter—my Aunt Barbara, who'd once been married to a Paul Newman lookalike—came out as gay.
The news hit Gram (that's what we all called her) particularly hard. She was born on a farm in the heart of the Bible Belt in 1913. Her default position on the subject was always denial until a pivotal moment brought her up short and made her question everything she believed.
I'll let her tell her own story in a letter to her church pastor:
I have two daughters. My younger daughter is a lesbian. As with most parents, I found this extremely difficult to accept. Denial was my middle name. I understand people who are homophobic because I was there. And I was wrong.
When homosexuality presents itself into your home, especially into your heart, it takes on a whole new meaning. About three years ago my daughter told me, "Mom, I'm gay."
I remember saying, "Oh, Barbara, I can understand friendships, even strong friendships with women, but beyond that I cannot go." We reached an impasse. The love never wavered, but the impasse was always there.
To complicate it for me, quite a few years ago I had gone into an in-depth study of the Bible, which became a source of great strength and comfort as I dealt with my husband's six-year battle with cancer. I knew what the Bible said about homosexuality. I Cor. 6:9-10 places homosexuals among idolaters, adulterers, thieves and slanderers. "These will not inherit the Kingdom of God."
So we continued with our impasse. I had no idea what a battle Barbara was waging. I wasn't aware that she had contemplated suicide more than once. She had kept this from me.
She called one evening and was crying (Barbara seldom cried or complained). She said something that reached deep inside me. She said, "Mom, I feel so abandoned."
I thought about what abandonment means in the life of a homosexual: abandoned by family, the workplace, society, the church. I put myself in her place and felt a brick wall.
After this, I knew it was imperative for me to do something for her, for myself, for the whole family. I called a Christian counselor and went to see her. At our first meeting, like the good counselor she is, she let me talk.
I spoke not only of Barbara, but also how to reconcile all of this with my faith. At the end of the hour, she walked to her bookshelves, took down a book called "Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Another Christian View" and loaned it to me.
I took an entire week to read it. When I finished, a question came forcefully to my mind: "Is this Barbara's problem? Or is it mine?"
I'm reading much about the research on homosexuality. I don't see how anyone can close his or her mind to these findings. Studies link the brain to sexual orientation. I have come to believe that homosexuality is not a choice.
When I hear of the tremendous oppositions and even dangers to gays and lesbians, I want to say: "Learn about this, know the facts, be compassionate, it so easily could be your child."
My grandmother had hoped the letter might soften her church's stance on homosexuality, but it fell upon deaf ears. One Sunday after services, she found a hate note on the windshield of her car saying "her kind" was not wanted in the parish. We received our own letter from Gram shortly thereafter:
"My faith has not wavered," she began, "but I am searching for a place of worship that is more open and understanding and where not only I, but my entire family, would feel comfortable."
My grandmother left her church of 40 years to join the Unity Church and happily attended my Aunt Barbara's wedding to her wife Suzanne several years later.
The beautiful, soulful matriarch of two daughters, one daughter-in-law, one grand-daughter and two great-granddaughters passed away on September 24, 2012, nine months shy of her 100th birthday. Her life was a masterpiece for all of us to behold.