Take it from someone whose routine trip to the GYN turned into a kerfuffle of mis[fat]diagnosis--when a doctor is supposed to be treating you for something and launches into the fat talk you can politely tell them "I am not here to discuss my weight with you. I am here to discuss my bits, my HIV status and whether I am at risk for cancers." I like to have a mantra to prepare ahead of time.
Some of the best gifts I have given myself were making decisions, even when I didn’t know how to move forward. The decision to stop hating my fat body. The decision to pursue an art career instead of law. The decision to move to LA. The decision to be myself, no matter what. Authenticity is freedom and the gateway to real connection.
In 2011 I made a decision to have a close relationship with my Grandmother. I had always loved her, of course, but our relationship was through the veil of family dynamic and not one-on-one intimacy.
Grandmother would always come with me to Crystal Fantasy, one of my favorite metaphysical shops. We shared an affinity for amethyst.
As you can imagine, when you have a Grandmother who you call “Grandmother” like it’s a Royal title or something, she’s unusual.
Grandmother is a title not a term of endearment. Flowers in the Attic is one of the only cultural references for that, and it’s not a warm fuzzy one. Even on Downton Abbey where they emote in the most British and subtle ways they call their Grandmother “Gran.” Emily Gilmore, that vestige of Connecticut upper class propriety, went by “Grandma.” Whenever someone outside of the family called her “Your Grandma” you kind of wince a little and correct them.
Calling her Grandmother was the first way I put her on a pedestal. I worshipped her, in a way. She was an icon: of femininity, fanciness, elegance, intelligence, independence and beauty.
My mother (who just went by “Mom”) raised me as a single mom in the Bay Area, about a seven hour drive from the rest of our family in Camarillo and LA. Grandmother lived Beverly Hills adjacent with Grandfather David. I only saw them a couple of times a year, and usually amongst the crowd of our family. I grew up knowing her as the Grandmother character in our family but not in a personally intimate way.
Rare shot of Grandfather David not wearing a suit.
I think if I had spent some time just the three of us (me, Grandmother and Grandfather David) it would have been great because we were all three Capricorns and loved to ask people questions. However, I’m super sensitive and my Grandfather could be crabby* so it was probably good we saw one another infrequently so he was always on his best behavior.
Our lifestyles growing up were so different! I lived in an apartment, my mom was literally always stressed about money and Grandmother was living in a big house finally doing well in her life financially as a Real Estate Broker in Beverly Hills. (Her 90210 office address was so cool to me in high school. I loved that show a lot.) Grandfather David was a professor of biochemistry at UCLA. Their house on Warner Drive looked huge to me. It had floor to ceiling bookcases, a standard of opulence I still appreciate today.
I have no idea who this dashing celebrity looking dude is but I wish I knew. I also wish I knew where that dress ended up!
It really mattered that I pursued higher education. Growing up I never questioned that I would go to a University, it was all I ever heard from my mom and from them. I went to Law School in large part because of their influence. They told me higher education was completely vital to credibility and that because I was smart there would be a yellow brick road of security paved after I got that JD.
I learned after charting my own course in life that security is not happiness. Having a JD made it way harder to get a job a lot of times, the complete opposite of what the Dean of Admissions said during 1L Orientation. When my “secure” law firm job of five years suddenly disappeared during the economic crash in 2008 that message finally hit home—nothing is truly secure. It became vital to me to live my truth and do what I’m passionate about.
So here I am a writer and making reiki infused tea and producing parties and working towards that talk show I am destined to host. I had an amazing, spiritual moment with an older man at a bus stop who, I realized in hindsight, was clearly channeling my Grandfather who told me I was a writer and he was proud of me. I know Grandfather could never have said that to me in this realm.
She really did a Norma Jean / Marilyn thing when she went from being a brunette bombshell to being a blonde bombshell.
I had to learn how to perform myself and not perform other people’s expectations of me. Grandmother did her own version of performing herself.
She created a persona for everyone she interacted with, she knew exactly how to get on someone’s good side and agree with them on the right points to put them at ease. I noticed this last year, she would be really positive with me and Dara because we are eternal optimists. I would hear a different story from other people and realized what she was doing. It’s a trauma response, to curate yourself to be the most pleasing to your audience as possible. I don’t think she did it intentionally to manipulate, I think she did it because she wanted to make people feel good. And people felt great around her.
Her with her hair stylist a few years ago.
When she was well into her 80s and it was convenient for her—bypassing those post-9/11 shoes off lines with her high heels still on, for example—she would proudly announce her age and provide her id. For years before that she hid her age with make-up, strategic plastic surgery and begging her children not to out her as their mom. She was a charmer and could command a crowd one by one, with each interaction and also with her fabulous looks. I’m bummed I never got to see her work a room in LA and learn how to network from her.
The fact that I didn’t feel particularly intimate with Grandmother when I was already in my thirties was what I made a decision to resolve. She had already given me glimpses of what she was like one on one in car rides, and she had been so accepting of my queerness that I decided to give it a shot. I didn’t know how exactly to create a deeper relationship, but from what I learned in Al Anon it was about trusting her with my authentic self and taking her off that pedestal. Pedestals are a huge barrier to intimacy.
Glamming together at my mom’s wedding in 2008.
I drove cross country in 2011 because I wanted to visit her alone for the first time and it was cheaper to gas up my Prius than fly and rent a car. I had run an emotional gauntlet by the time I got to her house, having just lost my job at Re/Dress when it closed, gone through a break-up, saw a beloved alcoholic ex-girlfriend who I had thought was going to drink herself to death for the first time post sobriety, and saw my estranged father. By the time I got to Grandmother’s all I could do was sleep and talk. My emotional risk paid off, she was so loving, sweet and accepting. It was very healing to be with her.
I never realized she hated Mexican food until I moved out here. Before that she would ALWAYS take me when I was visiting from the East Coast, which was a really nice thing to do. But once I moved here she knew she didn’t have any obligation quesadillas to eat with me.
That visit really opened me up to a lasting relationship. It’s interesting how when we are used to occasional visits with our families in big groups we don’t develop a lot of one-on-one intimacy. I loved that I felt like myself around her. We didn’t agree on everything, but she was always open to hearing me out.
One of my favorite moments recently was her complaining about seeing a woman doctor who hadn’t brushed her hair before their appointment. She equated sloppy personal aesthetic with not being a good doctor. Whereas I would prefer the doctor who was so consumed by her work that her hair was not at all a consideration. I told Grandmother that people have different value systems and no one here has to be wrong. Some people might think it was a waste of time for Grandmother to spend however long she did on her make-up in the morning (sometimes it was a full hour, sometimes she could be in and out with full face in 15 minutes**) but that they just had different values from her. I like to think that one sank in.
She told me I should date a Scorpio (her first husband was a Scorpio) and it turned out she was good friends with Lois Rodden, a famous astrologer, who my astrologer Katie Sweetman of Empowering Astrology confirmed made important contributions to modern day astrology. We had such great visits and I always longed to make enough money to be able to fly out a few times a year from New York City. Not having achieved that, making the decision to move ended up being the best choice.
I’m so grateful I moved to LA for a million reasons, but the ability to go visit her so often in her last year (we had no idea it was her last year, she was independent until she was felled by her only chemo treatment) was the best gift. We even spent last Valentine’s Day together! Being able to be so present for her illness and her Passing on to Something Awesome (POTSA) is something I’ll always treasure. Last Summer I shared with her a confidence I only shared with a small handful of besties. I’m so grateful that when she passed I had no secrets from her.
It all started with making a decision.
*I’m being kind; he could be a complete dick but at least he was nicer than her first husband.
**Our whole family could be waiting around for seemingly forever to go out to breakfast but Grandmother would take exactly as long as she wanted to get ready in spite of everyone’s protests. I loved her acts of defiance in service to her aesthetic.