Living

What It’s Like Coming Out To My Grandmother—Over And Over Again

In the 15 years I’ve been coming out, rarely have I had to disclose my identity again and again to the same person. That all changed after my grandmother was diagnosed with dementia.

Illustration of woman meeting with grandmother on her porch, as various iterations of her past self linger in the background

(Illustration: April dela Noche Milne)

When Nonna’s memory fails her, she returns to familiar gestures. On a weekend afternoon in winter 2021, she offers me a piece of hard licorice candy, piles of which sit dusty in a crystal dish on her coffee table. She suggests she put on a pot of espresso. Then, she tells me her plight: It’s been five, maybe 10, years since she’s left this house, a bungalow in north Toronto, where she’s spent the past 50 years raising her kids and watching her grandkids grow up. It’s not true, but for an elderly woman whose dementia has advanced rapidly in the midst of a pandemic, it must feel like years of solitude have passed. My efforts at re-explaining COVID-19 never work, so I let us fall into comfortable silence, an Italian soap opera playing on the TV in front of us, before she asks once again if I want a piece of candy.

I see Nonna, my dad’s mother, every few weeks. My visits never last longer than half an hour, because Nonna gets angry when she forgets. She becomes paranoid that there are people in her basement trying to steal from her; when she realizes she’s wrong, she berates herself. My refusal of espressos and candies gives her little to do, and she hates this feeling of immobility. Sometimes I drink her heavy, black coffee, my stomach burning; I know it’s the small things that make her feel better.

Before Nonna began to forget, we’d relied on a give-and-take rhythm. Growing up, I lived across the street from her. Weekends were often punctuated with calls to come over and taste whatever dish she’d been cooking for hours—usually cheesy lasagna, topped with tomato sauce, sugo, she and my grandfather made and jarred themselves—or to fix the TV when she’d inevitably pressed the wrong button on the remote. Well into my adulthood, she showered me with adoration and food, and I was benevolent. I’d do anything to make her, the matriarch of our family, happy. Most of the time, that meant eating greasy, deep-fried foods when my stomach ached not to. But it also meant concealing parts of myself to keep her expectations of me, her only granddaughter, in check.

For more than a decade, I hid my sexuality from her. Past girlfriends, I’d say, were best friends; I worked too much to date; my long-time partner, Arielle, was just my roommate. Raised in a devout Catholic household on the southern coast of Italy, Nonna couldn’t begin to conceptualize what a happy, in-love lesbian granddaughter might look like. I feared she would shun me, pulling my family apart. So I made it easy for her: Nonna didn’t have to know.

For years, I hid in plain sight. I created excuses for her not to visit my one-bedroom apartment, where Arielle and I obviously slept side by side. “It’s too far out of the way,” I’d tell her. “Maybe next month you can visit.” When Arielle joined us for holidays and family events, I’d lie that she had nowhere else to go, that it would be rude not to invite my best friend; Arielle always begrudgingly obliged to play along, understanding my situation. On days when the guilt gave me a stomachache, I tried to remind myself of the stakes: that telling the truth could cost me a relationship with my beloved grandmother. That was enough to keep me quiet.

The concealment worked until November 2020, when Arielle proposed. Hiding our nuptials felt cruel: How could we get married without the woman at the centre of my family in attendance? Worse yet, how could I deny an 82-year-old the opportunity to see one of her grandchildren at their happiest? The day after our engagement, my mom told Nonna on my behalf; I couldn’t bear her possible rejection. My mom kept it matter-of-fact: I was getting married to a woman, and it was a happy moment in our lives. Nonna cried, admitting she had a hunch. But she was, above all else, happy that I was happy. After my mom relayed the news, I exhaled years of fear and anxiety. When Nonna saw me the next day, she hugged me tighter than usual.

Then, mere months later, Nonna’s dementia accelerated. It began with misplaced objects—missing slippers and spoons found under the bed and in the fridge. Sometimes she would confuse timelines, asking me when I was set to graduate from high school. During some visits, she quietly looked into my eyes, searching her memories for my name. As time wore on, the news of my wedding—of my queerness and the happiness it brought—was eventually lost to her illness, too.

***

There is a common refrain among queer people that, despite Hollywood portrayals and anecdotes in popular media, coming out is never a singular event. There will always be a new colleague or acquaintance or doctor or family friend to whom you’ll have to reveal your identity. It’s a recurring experience often rooted in fear: Will my disclosure make this situation uncomfortable? Or worse, will I be at risk of violence or discrimination? This cycle—of disclosure, then bracing in fear—is my everyday reality as an openly gay person.

But in the 15 years I have been coming out, rarely have I had to disclose my identity over and over to the same person. With Nonna, I have entered a new cycle: disclosure, again and again, constant reminders of the person I am—her granddaughter, a queer woman, a person happy and in love.

Each time the cycle restarts, I’m filled with sorrow. During my visits, I’ll often ask if she’s excited for my wedding. “What wedding?” she’ll ask. “You don’t have a boyfriend.” The remark always elicits that familiar fear response in me, a concern that maybe this time she won’t accept me.

Erica poses with her grandmother and grandfather at her wedding in September 2022. (Photo: Christine Lim)

I’m always wrong. Even when Nonna is frustrated or angry that she has forgotten, she always smiles and always tells me she loves me. And then I’m sad: I know she certainly won’t remember the day of my wedding or any special days after that, nor will she remember my incredible partner and the life we’ve built together.

But most of all, I am sad that Nonna has missed out on one of the best parts of me: my queerness, the most impassioned and unashamed component of my identity. I often wish I had taken that final leap out of the closet with Nonna sooner, so that the fragments of her memories of who I am might be better reassembled in her mind. If I had sooner trusted that she would love me unconditionally, maybe we could have celebrated this moment in my life differently. Maybe she would have known me better, and remembered me better, too.

***

These days, I am learning to find solace in little moments with Nonna. Sometimes, in the smallest of ways, she reminds me that she knows me well, the way only a devoted grandmother might. On a warm afternoon this spring, she asks me if I want ice cream before revoking the offer. “You can’t eat dairy,” she says, harkening back to my adolescence of lactose intolerance. On another sunny weekend, she asks where my ball cap is—a childhood staple I’d never leave the house without. Where her memory fails, Nonna’s mind now forms recollections of the person she watched grow up across the street, a granddaughter she loved and still loves and sees in the woman sitting next to her on her porch.

It’s through the joy of these tiny moments that I forced myself to take one more leap this summer: For the first time, after a champagne toast at our joint bridal shower, I kissed Arielle in front of Nonna. I knew it would restart the cycle of coming out to her. Would she be confused about the woman I was kissing? That I was kissing a woman at all? But peering over at her, I saw a familiar smile on her face. The fear dissipated. I knew she loved me and she wanted me to be happy, and I was.

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