My grandmother is 84. Her eldest sister is 86. Both are devout Southern Baptists, and both are now reading my novel. Idaho Code is about a small town, murder, an interracial family, straight people, bisexuals, lesbians, and gay men. Most of the gay men are members of the Radical Faeries, and many of the lesbians are Lesbian Avengers. Heaven help me as I await the collective family book review.
I converted to Reform Judaism several years ago, much to my grandmother’s Christian chagrin and partly in self-defense. Judaism suits me, and I am, like my grandmother, quite devout. True, I spend far too many Saturdays at Temple Beth Costco, but I light the shabbat candles on Friday night, and I faithfully observe the High Holy Days. I also keep as kosher as I can in a house full of respectful Quaker goyim. We don’t keep separate dishes for milk and meat, but I don’t eat pork, and I do my level best to avoid the snare of the cheeseburger. My grandmother doesn’t understand this — why can’t my children have chocolate Easter bunnies? But she’s happy to know that I’m not an atheist, and she believes that I’m going to heaven. (Unlike other Southern Baptists I’ve known, she’s clear on the “Jesus was a Jew” thing. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know that. Horribly surprised.)
In addition to our religious differences, my grandmother and I disagree on politics. The nearest I’ve ever come to shouting at her was when she called me about one month after George W. Bush’s second inauguration and said, “What is this he’s talking about privatizing Social Security? If I’d known he was going to do that, I’d have never voted for him!” But I counted to ten, explained the plan, and simply commiserated with her. George Bush frightens my grandmother. He frightens her two elections too late, but it’s no use crying over spilt red ink. I’ve threatened her with a highly subjective and impromptu poll test in 2008. If she can’t tell me in detail what her favorite candidate intends to do about Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and the federal deficit, then we might just skip the polling booth and both go to Temple Beth Costco.
I love my grandmother. She was the best grandmother in the world when I was growing up, meaning she spoiled me rotten, was shamelessly indulgent, and declared on a regular basis that I was a musical, artistic, athletic genius. When I was an awkward, lumpy, thick-glasses wearing teenager, she encouraged me to grow my hair and took countless pictures of my wavy locks. True, she did her Southern belle damnedest to stifle my inner butch, but when it became clear that that was a losing battle, she let me borrow my grandfather’s steel-toed work shoes and his mechanics shirt with his name stitched on the pocket and sent me off to school observing that our family had always sported a fine flock of eccentrics, and I was just the latest and greatest. I never felt like an oddball, and I never felt like a freak. I have my grandmother and my mother to thank for that. I owe them much; more than I can ever repay.
I also am indebted to my Great Aunt Wilhelmina, my grandmother’s eldest sister. “You’ve always been artistic,” she tells me, adding in a whisper, “And you’ve always been my favorite.” The feeling is mutual; Wilhelmina has always been my favorite aunt, a wonderful eccentric herself. My grandmother writes poetry; my Aunt Wilhelmina paints — she took lessons in her sixties and became quite proficient. My mother owns several Wilhelmina originals, and I’ve called dibs on them, as I have on my grandmother’s framed and often illustrated poetry. I feel the same affection for the work that I feel for the women, and so I’m as nervous as cat waiting to hear what they think of Idaho Code.
Will they find it shocking? They’ve been around the block, and they know a thing or six about gay. My family is chock-a-block with gay men, almost all of the variety that the great Florence King identifed as ‘town fairy,” men who remain in the small towns of their birth, working as florists or church organists or home decorators. I am, as far as I know, the family’s only out lesbian. (Yay, me.) I don’t know what my grandmother thinks about this. I don’t know what my Aunt Wilhelmina thinks. I know that they love me because they tell me so. Both keep pictures of my family all over their homes, in frames, up on the refrigerator, and in countless photo albums. My grandmother never forgets my partner’s birthday, and she sends her wonderful presents.
But lesbianism in a book, and me as an openly lesbian writer — what will they think? Will they worry about their social standing in Sunday School? Will they worry about my safety? Or will it be the swearing that gets to them? I learned to swear at the knees of a master, my late grandfather, Charles Randolph Watkins. An epigraph from him adorns the opening pages of the book: Everything turns from sugar to shit. It was one of his favorite sayings. My grandmother, who tells me she’s on page 52 of the book, noticed the epigraph first thing. “That would have tickled your Pa-Pa to death,” she said, but I couldn’t tell from her tone if I ought to have done the posthumous tickling or not. She did ask that in my next book, From Hell to Breakfast, that I please include a disclaimer that I “didn’t learn any of those dirty words” from her. Of course I did, but for the sake of family peace, I’m willing to pretend.
I don’t know where my Aunt Wilhelmina is in her copy of Idaho Code. I do know that she’s calling around to all the libraries in South Carolina and asking them to buy it, so I’m guessing (uncharitably) that she hasn’t even reached the epigraph. Then again, perhaps I’m selling her short. Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a woman by her age. I’ve received love and acceptance from some very old people, and found surprising hatred and bigotry in the young. A 90-year old reader, the father of a close friend of mine, recently offered the following book review:
“I’m not saying I liked it, and I’m not saying I didn’t like it. I’m just saying she’s a damn good writer, and that’s all you’re getting out of me!”
Hey, I’ll take it. This same 90-year old took his 87-year old girlfriend to see Brokeback Mountain, commenting that “on the whole, it was pretty good, though there were a few scenes [he] could have done without.” The man is a native Idahoan of Norwegian descent, kind of like Gary Cooper on lutefisk. Under the circumstances, I consider his somewhat cryptic review of my book very high praise indeed. If this, or something like this, is what I hear from Aunt Wilhelmina and my grandmother, I’ll count my blessings and consider myself lucky. Love me, love my book? I don’t think so.
I love my grandmother, and she voted for George W. Bush. Twice. Damn it.
Note: The main character of Idaho Code is named Wilhelmina “Bil” Hardy. She is not named for my Aunt Wilhelmina, not at all. Just in case any librarians (or lawyers) in South Carolina were wondering.