You can gather from my earlier posts that I have a lot of family in Montana. I can name all of my cousins, aunts and uncles, even a few second cousins, but after that it gets fuzzy.
Those relations jumped into focus when I drew comparisons in a newspaper column a few years ago between my grandfather George Meakins and a gay cowboy.
One of my mom’s cousins–a woman I don’t know but who clearly lived in the Missoulian’s circulation area–mailed an outraged letter with the clipping to my grandmother.
My mom told me about what sounded like a furor among her cousins. One of her sisters joined the detractors. My uncle and another of my aunts rushed to my defense. It was actually kind of intimidating to learn that distant relatives were lining up against me, some of whom I wouldn’t even recognize on the street!
On the other hand, I do understand that family members can get worked up over representations of our shared history. Yet the letter, with its obvious homophobia, bothered me.
For some people in my family, a column about gayness obviously crossed the line… even though the column itself wasn’t about sexuality at all, but about the hard life of a ranch hand and his family. Yet to an ignorant reader, I had apparently insinuated that my grandfather was gay. Or maybe it’s just that my family’s bigotry couldn’t accept any association with “Brokeback Mountain.”
Additionally, I know some family members expressed outrage at my forthright descriptions of their poverty.
And yet it pained me to think the column might have bothered my grandmother, Lillian Meakins, who came up in a time and place so different from our own that it’s difficult to fathom. She was born in 1914. She grew up on a homestead on the Missouri River in eastern Montana–forty miles by horse or wagon south of Malta. She killed chickens with her hands. She could bake a cake on an open fire. My grandmother was a tough lady, but also soft and somehow uncertain of herself.
Some months after the column had appeared, I sat on the couch in her trailer home near Billings. For years, she and I had had a careful relationship, by which I mean that we avoided anything like a sensitive subject. We talked about regular things, like the weather. Or else I asked her about her life, questions she answered gruffly, as if the answers should have been obvious. “What dances did we do? Well, the two-step!”
It was time, I thought, to be straight-forward. I asked my grandmother if the column had bothered her. I reminded her what it said. I described the movie, “Brokeback Mountain,” including that it was a love story about two men.
She surprised me with the strength of her response. No, she said. It didn’t bother her. She thought I should write whatever the newspaper would print.
I believed her. It was one of her sweetest, most grandmotherly moments.
Here are some things I know about my grandmother. She rejected racism against black and Indian people. About a neighboring Indian family, she said they “had the cleanest laundry in town.” For my grandmother, it was not only a high compliment, because it meant they worked hard. But it was, in her mind, a direct counterpoint to the common slur of the “dirty Indian.” She didn’t only tell me that anecdote, or my mom, I imagine, but her coworkers at the cafe and nursing home, or the elderly neighbors for whom she drove errands.
I understand, now, that her acceptance extended to gays.
What a lady.
With my grandmother behind me, I didn’t care about the fuss.