Generations Lost Cause: On Estrangement and Chosen Family
Staying in contact with biological family no matter what they’ve done is a message beaten into us from every side.
When I called her last Thanksgiving, my grandmother didn’t recognize my voice.
“You’re coming at three, right? Mary? Is it three?”
“I’m not coming today, Grandma. I think my mom will be over later.”
Staying in contact with biological family no matter what they’ve done is a message beaten into us from every side: religion, Hallmark, casual conversation. I haven’t talked to my mother in sixteen years—not since the day I ran away from home. I only call her “my mom” when I talk to my grandmother, who I’ve kept in contact with in an attempt to keep her daughter, my mother, from stalking me again. I’ve seen my grandmother twice in the last decade, but now she has dementia.
“Who is this?”
“Grandma, it’s Sassafras.”
She and I talked about whether it’s raining in New York. Whether I had a job. I was on speakerphone, like always. My grandfather was in the background. I could hear him breathing.
He is ninety-seven years old, and doesn’t like people. He never talks to me on the phone, other than to robotically say, “I love you” before Grandma hangs up. Sometimes I silently will my grandfather to try to explain things to her, to tell my grandmother who I am, to say something—anything—but he never does.
“Who is this?” Grandma asked again, last Thanksgiving.
I silently prayed to her God that she would figure it out so I wouldn’t have to deadname myself with the name my birth mother gave me—a name my grandmother hasn’t used in fifteen years, acquiescing to the ultimatum I gave at eighteen that she use my name or lose me.
On the phone, waiting in silence, I thought about hanging up. But I didn’t want to be cruel. I thought about the ethics of trying to keep my grandparents in my life in this small way, despite disowning my mother after I ran away.
“Oh,” my grandmother said. “Oh! Hello!” She sounded embarrassed, and only sort of sure who I was.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I said.
She didn’t seem to know what that was, or how to respond.
My grandmother is a proud and bitter woman. A sharecropper’s daughter somewhere in the middle of seven dirty children who had to leave their dog behind in Iowa and drive to Oregon, sleeping in fields, picking hops and apples, swimming in irrigation ditches. My grandmother was so proud that her children, my mother and her two brothers, went to Catholic school. She had a pink Rosary next to her bed and a cross and prayer cards in the bathroom, living room, and kitchen, though she only went to Mass on Christmas and Easter.
Now my grandparents live in a rest home that my mother moved them into without their consent.
“Are they nice to you, Grandma?” I asked the last time I called.
“Oh yes, honey, the people are nice.”
“Are you making friends?”
“No. I’m too old for that. I don’t know these people.”
“Is the food good?”
“The food is good—we got hamburgers for lunch.”
My grandmother’s favorite saint is St. Jude. The patron saint of lost causes. My grandparents disowned my uncles—their sons—one after the other, when I was in preschool and kindergarten. Lost causes. I disowned my mother when I ran away at seventeen.
Growing up, my grandmother would pray to St. Jude for wisdom, guidance, and protection. Did he tell her to disown her sons? Did St. Jude tell her it was okay for my mother to drink herself unconscious every night after she beat me for misspelling words on my homework? Did St. Jude tell my grandmother not to ask me if I was afraid to go home?
Disownment is our true family legacy. I grew up knowing you could be cast out from family. It was queer folk who taught me how to build chosen families based on love and acceptance, while my birth family taught me how to burn bridges, to walk away. They shouldn’t have been surprised when I took that lesson and turned it against them.
I think I’m supposed to feel badly that my grandmother doesn’t always recognize me, but I don’t. That’s nothing new. I made her cry in the middle of Back to School Night my senior year of high school, when she said, “You aren’t gay, are you?” I ran my hand across my freshly shaved head, looked her in the eye, and said—loudly, so the whole room heard—“Grandma, I’m queer and you know it.”
Growing up, my grandmother was my most consistent caregiver. As a kid, Lassie of the 1960s television series was my hero. I slept with a large stuffed collie that my grandmother had given me for Christmas when I was four. Every night after my birth mother or stepfather tucked me in, I dreamed that one of them was going to come rescue me—Lassie, or my grandmother. I was always waiting for her to come and save me, but she never did.
My grandmother never asked me how I felt about my stepfather being in and out of my home. She never asked if he touched me, even when my mother’s lip was busted open and her eyes blackened. Even when my mom and I lived in a hotel, after my stepfather kicked us out of the house the summer before I started seventh grade, my grandmother remained silent.
“You’re lucky you left,” my grandmother said, sixteen years too late, when I called on Mother’s Day. Yet when I ran away from home the first week of my senior year in high school, she told me there had been a “misunderstanding.” She told me my mother hadn’t done the things I told the police she’d done. My grandma used her little old lady charm to try to entrap me into seeing my mother, in violation of a no-contact order the court put in place after my mother pled guilty to felony assault.
Now, to protect myself from my mother, my grandparents don’t have my home address. My grandparents don’t know where I work. They don’t know that I write. The last time I saw my grandmother was three years ago. I was in Portland on book tour, after publishing my novel. I had a big reading that was listed in the newspaper, and enlisted old friends from my punk days to stand guard at the door in case my mother showed up.
My grandparents, then ninety and ninety-four, were still driving, still living independently. I had breakfast with them at the restaurant down the road from their house. I took a picture. I corrected my grandfather’s racist rant, dodged my grandmother’s prying questions. I kept my eye on the door, aware of the closest exit, afraid my mother would try to come; that my grandmother had invited her against my wishes. I held my partner’s hand under the table. I lied about why I was in Portland.
For the last sixteen years, the people who I have called family, who I have spent holidays with, those who I have considered my real family, are other queer people. The kids I met in the months and years after running away, whose stories looked like mine and who made me believe there was a future not just for me, but for all of us. We raised each other, created homes together, built our own traditions, reshaping the definition of family. The people in my life I now consider family are not those I was born to, but those who have truly earned and enthusiastically claimed the honor.
“Goodbye, Grandma,” I said to my grandmother when we last spoke on Thanksgiving. I didn’t call on Christmas, or her birthday, and she didn’t call me. I don’t think I’ll call again.