There's a wedding trend these days that involves displaying the wedding photos of parents and grandparents at your own wedding. It's a sweet thought, the idea of displaying these period photos as an example of the type of happy marriage the newlyweds will be striving for. But in this era of mixed families, I think couples whose parents and grandparents are all happily married are increasingly few and far between, and it only takes one divorce, or one bad marriage, to throw a wrench in the plans.
Torsten and I do not have any divorces amongst our combined parents and grandparents, but I still don't want to follow this tradition. A long marriage doesn't equate a happy marriage, and I have one set of grandparents whose marriage particularly exemplified this idea.
My grandfather was gay. He knew this when he married my grandmother in the early 1950s. She did not know this, and didn't find out until 20 years and six children later, when she and my grandfather wound up in couples therapy in the 1970s. They were having intimacy issues of some sort, and what shocks me now to think about is that both of my grandparents apparently believed that the issues stemmed from my grandmother, the straight one, rather than from my grandfather, the gay man married to a woman.
I don't know much about the situation or how it all went down, but apparently during the course of this therapy, it came out that my grandfather was gay. In my head when I imagine this, I think of what a big shock it must have been for my grandmother--but maybe not. Maybe she suspected. Maybe she had been in denial. Maybe it was a relief. You can never really know what's going on inside other people's relationships. But in my head, I assume it was shock and dismay.
The revelation about my grandfather's sexuality, however, did not end the marriage. Both grandparents were extremely concerned about external appearances--a major reason why my grandfather had chosen to marry a woman, back in the 1950s, when it was most certainly not acceptable to be gay, and particularly if you were a doctor as my grandfather was. No patient would visit an openly homosexual doctor.
So the two of them came to some sort of arrangement. I'm not clear on the specifics, but I know that it allowed my grandfather to have extramarital affairs with men. I have no idea what my grandmother did, if she ever fell in love with a man who loved her back, if she ever slept with a man besides her husband. But despite what was going on internally, outwardly their marriage was fine. They were the happy family, the well-off physician and his lovely wife and charming kids living in a small town in the northeastern US, in a community where everyone knew them. And as far as I know, that's how everyone continued to perceive them. Norman Rockwell personified.
Except that when my grandfather left town on business trips, attending medical conventions and whatnot, he was also visiting bathhouses and sleeping with men. And on one of those visits, sometime in the 1980s, he contracted HIV.
It was in 1990, when I was six, that he went to get tested and learned that he was HIV-positive. It was in the early years of HIV, before advanced drugs, before any kind of HIV acceptance, before any kind of mass education. HIV was a highly unpleasant death sentence, one that would involve the truth coming out, everybody in their hometown finding out, the ruination of their perfect public image. In other words, his worst nightmare, the one that he had done everything to avoid.
For a long time I would believe that my grandfather died of exposure, that he went for a hike, climbed down the side of a cliff, then couldn't climb back up and wound up freezing to death. For awhile my parents would believe the same thing, because that's what my grandmother told them, told everyone. That's the story that the police kindly agreed to stick to, the story that was put in his obituary, the story that everyone in that town may still believe, for all I know.
But the truth is that he killed himself. He called one of his sons, my uncle, and he told him that he was going to do it. Then he obtained a lethal dose of medication (not difficult for a doctor to do), hiked partway up one of his favorite trails, and committed suicide. I do not know whether he left a note.
It may have truly been the best choice for him. This was a man who was willing to give up the possibility of a fulfilling romantic relationship in order to keep up appearances. HIV promised a sure death, but worse than that for him, an embarrassing scandal that would mar the last few years of his life, that would invalidate all of the sacrifices that he had made in years past to prevent that scandal from coming to light. So he did what he believed he had to do to prevent that from happening.
In 2001, eleven years later, I had to write a paper about the history of my family. In researching, I interviewed my grandmother on tape. She answered all my questions about her past willingly, until I ventured into new territory. The second I started to ask a question about my grandfather being gay, she closed her mouth, shook her head, turned off the tape recorder, and insisted that I rewind and record over the question before she would continue the interview. She would never talk about it. True to the very end to their shared principle of keeping up appearances, of not allowing their personal lives to be shared publicly.
I didn't glean that feeling from them. My grandmother would probably be horrified at the thought of blogs, and she may roll over in her grave when I publish this story for the entire internet to read. But for me, it's a fascinating story, a worthwhile story, a story worth sharing. A story worth contemplating. And a story that explains, in part, why there won't be family wedding photos displayed at our wedding.
In a way, I admire them both for their singular dedication to the ultimate goal of appearing like the perfect, happy family. Certainly they were persistent, and certainly they were rigorous. In 2001 I shared this story in my family history paper despite my grandmother's refusal to talk about it. Because even though she viewed it as shameful, it's a part of our history as a family. And I never want to be afraid to talk about that.
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