Friday, June 13, 2008

Family history

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.

74 comments:

Tessie said...

Jess, this is AMAZING! I was RIVETED!

Wow. It's never been easier to be who we are, and I'm so grateful for that.

lspoon said...

Wow. I mean wow. That is just...i don't even have the words.

Viviane said...

Wow, what a story. I don't really know how to describe it. It is tragic that your grandparents lived in a time where they felt they had to hide your grandfather's being gay, and at the same time amazing how dedicated they were to keeping up the pretense. I am glad times have changed now.

Ms. Karen said...

They may have been happy together, just not like regular married couples. She knew his deepest, darkest secret and kept it, stood by him, and allowed him to keep his dignity.

In turn, he gave her financial security, companionship, and an interesting life.

That was a fascinating story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

The Tomball Three said...

Thank you for sharing with us ...

Maybe you can still honor them. I did. I put in our program - "We Dedicate our Day too" ... and I listed out the names. Before they started the wedding march, they read the names of all the people in our family that were no longer with us ... it was the best way i could think to honor them and make sure they were with us ...

distractedspunk said...

I almost want to write a story as your grandfather, he's so interesting and fascinating. But maybe more so, the true fascinating one is your grandmother, who chose to keep up with pretenses past his death.

Food for thought. (Would you mind terribly? I get inspired and end up writing.)

K.Rae said...

What a tragedy. It's interesting how your story reflects how our society has changed (in the 50's, a gay man felt he had to marry a woman; an unhappy marriage was blamed on the woman).

SheLikesToTravel said...

Wow! This story reminds me again about how much our society has changed in a relatively short amount of time. It makes me think about the number of options that have come to women over the last 50 years or so. Thank you for sharing this story...

Kristen said...

that is a fascinating story. wow.

Lacey Bean said...

I appreciate you sharing that story about your family, when many people wouldn't dare. What a story.

I like that new tradition of putting family photos up, but I would follow it in the way to honor those who couldnt be there with us to celebrate. Like if (when hah) Dave and I get married, I would have pictures of my grandparents that aren't with us anymore, and his dad, who passed away when he was 17.

dreamgrrl said...

Wow this is really interesting and brave of you to share. Thank you for letting us in on a piece of your family's past!

Jen @ The Cubicle's Backporch said...

Wow... what an amazing story. The crazy part is that there were probably many, many couples like that back then. (And probably a few today!)

So how did you find out the real story if your grandma wouldn't talk about it?

Pickles & Dimes said...

This was fantastic, and so well written. Like another commenter said, I wonder how many other families in that time period were in the same situation? Fascinating.

I've never seen the parent and grandparent photos at a wedding; around here, everyone does the bride and groom baby photos. (We didn't. Just a few fun photos and our engagement photo.)

3carnations said...

Wow. That is quite a story.

Jummy said...

Wow, that is quite the piece of family history. You've reminded me yet again of my plans to get down as much of the family history from my parents that I can, their memories and such.

Shamelessly Sassy said...

I love this post. It's both beautiful and tragic. Also, I can't help but think about how hilarious it would've been if at my wedding I had displayed all of the wedding photos of my parents marrying their many spouses.

La Petite Chic said...

What a heartbreaking story. It's such a shame that your grandparents never got to live their lives more openly.

Ashley said...

This was a really fascinating and powerful story and you told it beautifully, i'm sure just the way it should be told.

I can't imagine what that must have been like for the both of them, the strength both of them would have to have in order to keep up this facade. More so with your grandmother, knowing what she did and still standing by him 100%.

Thank you for sharing this!

Laurie said...

That was incredibly interesting - thank you for sharing!

It's very sad and I'm sure that there are a ton of stories like that with people of that generation. I'm glad that people are feeling free to be more open now with their sexuality.

Alice said...

WOW. wow. WOW WOW WOW.

how did the story come out to you? do YOUR parents talk openly about it? i could actually see something like this happening in my family, except NO ONE would ever talk about it, just like good silent irish catholics.. ;-P

Kat said...

What a great story, who would believe what we keep behind out closed doors. My grandfather robbed a bank during the depression and spent time in jail but we were never told until after he died. I'm interested too, how did you find out about it?

Jennie said...

Fascinating! You told this story so well. Wow.

Sizzle said...

That is quite a story and it really does tell so much about human nature, about appearances, about what we are willing to deny for the sake of saving face.

One of my oldest friends has parents in a similar situation. He was caught with another man and when the wife went to leave him, shocked and very hurt that he had lied and cheated, he begged her not to. They went to counseling and decided to stay married. They are still married but I do not believe they are intimate. It's the life they have chosen. Sadly, her father seems angry and controlling and a lot of other negative things that I attribute to what happens to a person when they deny who they are and force themselves to live a lie. Or maybe he'd be that way regardless of denying his gayness.

All this is to say that your family story is fascinating and I am so glad you shared it.

Nilsa S. said...

Fascinating story, indeed. When I found out my brother was gay, I was in college. In the south. And was horrified. Not for who he was, but for all the difficulty he would run into in the world around him. That was 1994 when I found out. I can only imagine what it was like to be a gay man in the 1950s. Wow. Really interesting. Thanks so much for sharing.

Princess Pointful said...

This is heartwrenching, Jess.
It is so sad the extent to which people will sacrifice personal happiness for appearances.

Schmutzie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Schmutzie said...

You are being featured on Five Star Friday:
http://www.fivestarfriday.com/2008/06/five-star-friday-edition-10.html

pseudostoops said...

You write this so beautifully...

I, like others, am interested in how you came to know the truth. My family is still of the 50's era keeping up appearances and refusing to talk about things that are difficult, so I know very little of the real history of my family, which I find frustrating and sad.

Misty said...

This is a fabulous story. I think it takes courage to own it as well. So, good for you. For accepting it as history and sharing it. Because sometimes, that is the most difficult part.

Saly said...

WOW, this was so interesting!

I have a similar story to share, but not here in your comments.

sandy said...

I completely agree with your decision to talk about it. It isn't shameful- it's an amazing story.

L Sass said...

That is a truly fascinating story. How sad, too, that your grandparents couldn't have the kind of mutually, loving relationship that they both deserved.

Swistle said...

As the others have said: this is a riveting and startling and thought-provoking story, and you told it wonderfully.

My grandparents were the same about privacy. I remember I once wondered aloud why some friends of theirs (a friendship of 50 years' duration by then) had never had children, and they were SHOCKED by my bringing it up, and also said they had NO IDEA and it had NEVER COME UP. Can you imagine that NOW?

Banana said...

You are an amazing story teller Jess - and this is an incredible story. wow.

JMC said...

This is so very interesting. Something like this happened in my family as well. When my mother married my step-father, his sister was married and had two kids. A few years later, my step-aunt and her husband divorced because he was gay. He knew it when they married (in the late-60s), but went through with the marriage anyway, for appearances. She had no idea.

It IS so much easier to be who we are now, as Tessie says in her comment. But that is society-wise. A lot of families still have issues with a family member being outside the social "norm" as they perceive it. They have the point of view of "it's fine so long as it doesn't happen in OUR family." Which is sad.

fairydogmother said...

What an incredible story!

Lara said...

Jess, this is so well written - you did a fantastic job of telling the story.

Also: wow. Just....wow.

Ashley D said...

Thank you for sharing that story with us. And you told it very well. I was so captivated with how the events were unfolding. That's a great story. Isn't it so interesting how people can keep their lives so secret from those they love?

Christina said...

I am glad that you shared this story. Each family has a past and a history that makes us who we are.

Shelly Overlook said...

I have nothing clever to add that hasn't already been said, so instead I will just say thanks for such an amazing story.

SLynnRo said...

UM. WOW. What Tessie said. You do a great job of explaining why he killed himself. It's horrible, but I think anyone can understand the pressure he must have felt. We are so lucky to live in times where it is so much easier to be yourself.

bren j. said...

That's a crazy story. I guess one would wonder why he didn't just stay single...but then...where would YOU be??

Thanks for sharing some of your history!

Penny said...

I feel exactly the same way about being true to your family's roots. Because our family lived with secrets too, I vowed NEVER to hide behind them. They tear you up.

d e v a n said...

Wow - what a story!!!

Kate said...

Gosh- what an amazing story.

Amanda said...

That is so incredible. It felt as if I read a novel, so rich with emotion. I truly loved this and in reading it came away with no less respect for your grandmother. Or grandfather. Or you.

Thank you, really thank you for sharing it.

emmaelizabeth said...

what a cool trend. i love looking at family wedding pics. (esp my grandparent's, but i'm sure you know that by now!)

B2G said...

What everyone said: wow, and thanks for sharing.

artemisia said...

Wow, that is amazing. It breaks my heart so very much, though.

You wrote about this very well. You gave this incredible story -- and the complicated and sacred lives involved in it -- grace.

Ami said...

Wow, Jess. Just wow. Thank you for sharing that.

BS said...

Fascinating and tragic. You have such a fascinating family history.

We think my maternal grandfather was gay. Unfortunately, his repressed desires manifested themselves in misogyny and emotional abuse.

amber said...

what an amazingly tragic story. thanks for sharing.

jenn said...

Wow!

That's all I've got...

Also (and this feels a little inappropriate after such a fascinating and sad story) I've tagged you for a meme over on my blog :)

Katie: said...

Humble and raw.

Bayjb said...

Wow that is quite a story. I literally don't know what to say. It's such a shame that you grandfather was never fully free to be who he wanted to be and your grandmother lived with his secret as well for all those years because of was what noted as "acceptable."

I just found your blog and very much enjoyed your post.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

What an apropos story as this weekend is the 33rd Annual Capital Pride. Stories like your grandfather's were and remain all too common. This story is sad on so many levels and, while I can't and won't judge the decisions your grandparents made regarding their individuality, their marriage, and their family, I will say that I hope the world is changing and becoming a kinder, gentler place for all people. Regardless of whom and how they love.

You told this story with great love and respect. I think your grandmother would at least be okay with that.

witchypoo said...

I still am shocked by the selfishness of gay men who marry an unsuspecting woman. It happened to my sister, and she is still bitter about it.

the frog princess said...

Wow, that is an incredible story.

Personally though, I don't think that your grandfather being gay should automatically qualify it as an "unhappy" or "bad" marriage. I mean, obviously it's not what any of us would envision for ourselves, but I have to imagine that they felt some semblance of love toward one another, even if it wasn't a conventional romantic/sexual love. I think the fact that they stayed together, even if it is for what we would consider to be the "wrong" reasons, is admirable in its own right. Not necessarily a bad marriage... but certainly an unconventional one.

I will stop now before I start uncontrollably spouting Queer Theory. I'm not even sure if I made my point... but I tried :)

The Clandestine Samurai said...

That was a very compelling story. I feel bad for your grandfather growing up and existing in those times, that atmosphere. Not being able to affirm his true self in public because of the consequences by an ignorant, chauvinist society. May he rest in peace.

Jess said...

Incredible story. Thank you so much.

Julie said...

Families are an amazing thing.

This post was wonderful and I am glad that you shared it with us.

Stefanie said...

Wow. My grandparents had a strained and not-so-genuine relationship, too, but for entirely different reasons. That story is fascinating.

poodlegoose said...

This was quite well written. I mean, I'm in the mood where big paragraphs in blogs are a turn off for me. . . it's getting late, and I'd rather be watching some stupid video on YouTube or my reruns of Gilmore Girls.

All of that to say: this story is incredible. I can't imagine how your grandmother (or grandfather, for that matter) felt in this situation and how it has affected your family throughout your entire lives.

kilax said...

What an amazing story. It's too bad she never wanted to talk about it... it's one of those things you REALLY want to ask questions about when you find out. But you have to respect the agreement they made, and the life they lived together, despite their differences.

Valerie said...

Wow. What a fascinating story. Admittedly, I almost skipped this post because it was titled "family history" (and I am too ADD for that topic usually) but I am glad I read it!! Amazing.

Lisa said...

Heartwrenching story. Beautiful post. It's possible that your grandmother doesn't want the story known not because she wants to keep up the appearance of having a perfect marriage but because she loved your grandfather that much that she wanted to spare him and his memory from gossip. You know how people are, they will define you by what they perceive to be the worst thing about you. She probably didn't want that to overshadow everything else he's done with his life. That's just amazing to me. Thanks for sharing this, Jess.

jennifer, playgroups are no place for children said...

That was an incredible story, so fascinating to read. Thanks for posting it, despite the possibility of mortifying your grandmother.

moo said...

What an incredible story. How did you EVER learn the (real) truth about matters?

I love hearing histories like this. This was amazing; thank you for sharing.

Vanessa said...

I really admire your courage to talk about a part of your family history other members of the family want to keep secret. It is fascinating and worth sharing. Thank you for sharing and giving me something to ponder today. My family has many secrets and skeletons as well, but everyone falls in line and pretends as Mom wants so we "appear" perfect. I hate this.

Marie Green said...

Jess, I clicked over to your site to leave comments on your recent post, and then my eyes saw this and here I am!

I wanted to share that my grandma's brother (my great-uncle) was also a closet gay man. He never married, but he moved away from small-town South Dakota as soon as he was of age. He lived out the rest of his life in NY.

I never met him, but I heard lots of stories about him. His family adored him, but because he knew he would bring them shame, he never returned, even for visits.

When I was in 10th grade he too died of AIDS. At first, we were told that he had cancer. But then my dad and grandma found out the truth, and against the rest of their family's will, decided not to play along with the "cancer story".

They went to visit him (my grandma and dad) during his last days before he died. And they both regretted SO MUCH the way he felt like he was shaming the whole family.

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