Betty Millard: Where Were You Yesterday?

New York, N.Y.  Sometimes my grandmother would take me along when she went down to the Loop, to Marshall Field’s or to Orchestra Hall.  She really loved me.  She didn’t realize what I’d be telling people about her 60 years later, and maybe I shouldn’t tell this; but a fact is a fact.  In the summer she used to lean out the window of the Pierce-Arrow and talk to people on the sidewalks of Chicago.

Not just talk, but admonish them.  We’d stop at a red light and she’d see someone coming whose outfit didn’t please her and she’d call out: “Miss!  You shouldn’t wear purple with green!  Never!”  Or to another, “Too much makeup! You’d be much prettier without it, my dear.  Believe me!“  The people would be so astonished that they wouldn’t think of what to answer until we were gone.

piercearrow-eight_128de

I don’t know why I don’t seem to have been embarrassed on these occasions – at least, that’s not part of the memory, and I think the emotional component is usually the glue that fixes an event in your mind.  Maybe it was because it seemed perfectly reasonable to me that my grandmother should impose her standards on the world at large — after all, that woman was wearing too much makeup and somebody should tell her.  I must have thought Grandma had the right, even the obligation, to set the world straight.  At ten, I was obviously already a little snob.  Luckily, at 15 I became a Communist and from having accepted everything I made a 180-degree turn and accepted nothing.

In those days I was always falling in love with one girl or another.  Yes, I’m a girl.  No, it was okay you’re supposed to have crushes when you’re fifteen, and you’ll grow out of it.  I’d be in love with this girl and meanwhile this boy would be walking me up to the Winnetka station carrying my books.  That was important for the social whirl.  It was important that he should be carrying your books; even better if he was on the football team and you were wearing his little gold football on your charm bracelet.  If you were really cute, you could get away with not even kissing him for that.

The thing was, I didn’t grow out of it.  When I went to college, it was more like I grew into it.  I loved girls.  I still love girls, even though I’m not exactly a girl myself anymore.  I still have endless discussions about whether it’s in the genes or not, that sort of thing.

My grandmother was born in 1853, so you can figure how old I must be.  When I was a teenager, she and I used to play double solitaire and talk about life.  Once she told me she never liked sex, but that it was a woman’s duty to submit to her husband.  I told her I was never going to do any submitting, and I never have.  When I said it, she looked at me with a sad little smile.

Grandma loved opera.  When she had a stroke and was upstairs dying, I put “La Boehme“ on the phonograph downstairs and turned the volume up so she could hear it.  My mother said, “How could you do that?” and scratched the record with the needle in her hurry to turn it off.  “It makes her cry,” she said.  I thought it was all right for her to cry over Rodolfo.  I thought it was better to have an intense emotion, even to be struck ·by the incredible tragedy of having to leave this world and its divine arias, but maybe I was wrong.  I don’t know.

Later I went upstairs and held her hand on the side that could feel.  She lay on white silk sheets, propped up on about 20 pillows.  She was 85, short and stout.  She couldn’t speak, and her breathing was rasping and desperate.  I wanted her last thought to be that I loved her and that she would live forever through her granddaughter and her great-granddaughter and her great greet-.  I said all that to her and I kissed her hand.  I know she got the message because she pressed my hand in return.  You never forget it if a dying person communicates love to you.

But what I want to say is, I feel bad that l have let her down.  I never had the daughter I promised her.  I was her only granddaughter and I promised her immortality, then never gave it to her.  I had other priorities.  After college, I spent 15 years trying to change my sexual orientation, thinking it was necessary.

Now I think those years went down the drain because it never was necessary or possible.  My psychoanalyst was my age, fresh out of school, and we more or less started together.  Many years later, I met him at a dinner party and he told me none of his patients had ever changed his or her sexual orientation; he no longer thought it was possible.  I don’t blame him for not knowing that when he started out.  He helped me to understand a lot of things, but not that.

When I go to upstate New York on the weekends, I’ve trained some chickadees to come to my hand and get sunflower seeds.  It’s pretty easy to do with chickadees.  They’re tame by nature.  Sometimes one will give my finger a little peck.  Does that mean, “Where were you yesterday?” or “Thank you“?  Are they grateful?  I guess not.  Am I grateful to Grandma for having had my mother so I could come into the world?  I’m not even grateful to my own mother, so how can I be grateful to history?  Now, I think no generation is under obligation to another to either reproduce or not reproduce — so I shouldn’t feel bad about not doing so.  Yet I do.

My brother calls me from California on Sundays (lower rates) and after talking 20 minutes about his house, his children, his grandchildren and his arthritis, he asks, “And how about you?”  I claim he never asks me about my life.  Is that proof he does?  And what should I answer him when he does? Well, I’ll tell you.  He expects, “I’m fine,” followed by one sentence, at most two.  I can’t tell him a single thing about my life because he would reject all of it that’s meaningful to me.  Yet I love this brother.  I once told him that, sitting in his Jaguar.  It took us both by surprise, and I remember the slow flush of pleasure that suffused his face.  I’m sorry that he can’t understand my life.  That he’s limited to the Republican, WASP, heterosexual vision that I rejected at fifteen.  I feel he has been in a sort of ideological prison all his life.  I feel that I have been freed.

And Grandma?  Sometimes I imagine she comes to me like a little bird, a chickadee, and gives my finger a little peck.  Is she admonishing me?  Or, maybe, saying that in spite of everything, she loves me?

By Betty Millard. Originally published April 1996 Sappho’s Isle.

Tags: ,

The Editors
The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is the communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org). There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.