I want to talk about something this month, but I cannot cleverly tie it to HIV. I won’t even try. This column is actually about <someone>. More than any other person in my life, this woman shaped me. Any resolve I possess, any strength I have, any surety of mind, any sheer will to live and survive, I owe to her. So certainly, even though my diagnosis preceded her death by several years, I never shared it with her because she was just not ready for that news. It would have been too troubling for her in those final years, and she’d carried several lifetimes’ worth of burdens already. I comforted myself with the thought of what clarity she would have brought to the situation, only lesser to the unwavering support she would give. More than anything, however, she had given me gifts that allowed me to process this information with a tremendous amount of practicality and, at other times, a troublesome lack of emotion. Both my maternal grandmother as well as my mother’s former husband taught me that to betray emotion was to display weakness. That’s hardly a strength as I see things now, but at the time, it’s how I got through not only <my> diagnosis, but my partner’s previous one. Suffice it to say, he didn’t approach the situation with my practical sense of fatalism, another gift from my gran.
I would not have gotten through what was just the first of the challenges in the subsequent years if my gran hadn’t had the influence and more importantly, the love for me that she did. She was, in all honesty, often a very challenging woman to know, much less be related to. I can say with confidence that out of her six children and certainly any of her grandchildren, we had the strongest bond. We had an understanding. She was the first person that I ever told I was gay. Talk about the obvious, gran asked me in a tone, which conveyed love and trust, but brooked no argument when I was thirteen. And she had held off for a few years. We had a good laugh about that when I was an adult.
She was a small woman, small in stature, but loomed large in spirit. She always referred to herself as ‘An old Irish red-headed lady.’ It was a beautiful light auburn in her youth, but she spent her later years recapturing her red from the bottle. It was her one vanity. She was fierce in temper and caustic in wit, life had given her no choice. Her mother, when she was growing up in a small Irish town, was an even smaller woman who was beaten regularly by a drunken husband. Betty put a stop to this by clocking him in the head with a cast-iron skillet. They fled to the home of relatives, a day’s walk down the road, and with money they had been saving, contributions from family, and what remained of her father’s pay packet took a train to a port city and boarded a ship to New York. Left behind was Betty’s father laid flat on the floor. Depending on when she was telling the story, she was fairly certain she had killed him, or he was simply unconscious for a time.
She may have thrown that man out of their lives, but she later married him. Her third, and last husband, father of her five youngest children was a useless old soak, as she would say to me. He never beat her, but that’s only due to a lack of bravery. Early in their marriage, he had slapped her across the face and yanked her by her earlobe ripping her earring out, she still had the scar. But he got the iron upside his head. ‘For his sins’, as she would say. He never raised his hand to her again, the violence of drinking oneself to death would suit him fine. He gradually ceased being able to work, and she kept their window cleaning business going as long as she could and cleaned houses when she couldn’t. She got by, barely, but large meals were in short supply.
My mother never bought bologna when I was growing up. A single piece of fried baloney with a slice of wonder bread often was dinner when she was growing up. Often it was not, and they went to bed hungry. We also were never to go outside barefoot. Ma had one wearable pair of shoes and they had to be saved for school. Dire poverty goes beyond hunger and a lack of material things for some, for some it means neglect. My mom was pulled from class by the nuns one day and made to shower, that’s how dirty she was. It was all the more degrading as everyone knew what was going on. These were the stories told to me by my mother to remind me of how good I had it. I had affluent parents that made dead certain I grew up in an outwardly, civilized manner, but I saw them rarely, so busy were they with their careers and social lives. But I wouldn’t trade places with my mom at all.
My grandfather succeeded in drinking himself to death the year after my birth. Many wives would welcome the absence of such a burden, but Betty loved that man to distraction, that or suddenly became seemingly aware of something previously dormant overnight. What was inevitable was seen as the greatest of unexpected tragedies. She truly was bereft; however, she would mourn him for the rest of her life. My grandmother had previously been the devoutest of Catholics, she lost her faith. There were two portraits hung in my grandmother’s home. Three if you count my grandfather. Our Lord and John Kennedy.
Betty had a heart attack in the late seventies and her doctor agreed that she should no longer work. She got by on Social Security and public assistance. Barely got by, but her children and me, as I got older, made certain she never went without. There were many family tragedies over the years, some acknowledged, some shrouded in secrecy. The two youngest brothers were in and out of Attica for years. My gran knew every cop nearby because they all had dealt with those two at one time or another. My Aunt lost five babies to crib death. Shortly before her death, the police had reopened the case examining those deaths for possible foul play. It was a surprise to none of her siblings. Suffice it to say, there was generational abuse and plenty of bad luck. My mother had made a good life for herself far away from her past. I recount some of this circus to illustrate why my gran was the tough cookie she was. Life didn’t give her much choice. The real tragedy was it gave her so much pain in such disproportionate amounts of joy. I feel so honored that she trusted me enough to tell me things no one else knew, certainly not her children. We shared some special moments, she and I.
When my aunt died an early death in the early aughts, gran had reached her limit. Her demons caught a hold of her and wrestled her to the ground. We knew she hoarded food, what none of us knew was that she was bulimic. She played it as if eating was a struggle and that was why she was so underweight. An old friend of hers, my Aunt Bev, found her passed out after vomiting up copious amounts of blood. My grandmother had no desire to be svelte and fashionable, she sought control over something in her life.
And that’s the lesson as well. You can succumb to unfortunate events, but you can rise above them, too. Gran knew she had made mistakes, but for so long she took her lumps and persevered. She didn’t find peace in the end though and that’s the tragedy. I know that she took great pleasure in my life and my success at the time. She’d often told me that I was living a life that she could only dream of. ‘Don’t fuck it up, John Francis’ she would always add with a cheeky grin.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.