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Opinion | Coming Out to the Dead

I didn’t have the courage to tell my grandmother I was gay until it was too late.

By Joanne Spataro

Ms. Spataro is writing a memoir.

ImageOpinion | Coming Out to the Dead
CreditCreditAngie Wang

Coming out to loved ones is hard. It’s even harder when they’ve died before you gathered the courage to do it.

I never came out to my grandmother, who died this year. Instead of planning an awkward announcement over a Thanksgiving turkey, I settled for making a posthumous declaration to her seafoam-green box of remains. I hadn’t seen her alive in 20 years, the same year I started putting words to the warm, tingling feelings I had for girls. As 32-year-old me spoke to the box, I left a pause, leaving room for how she would have responded to the words, “Grandma, I’m gay.”

That afternoon, she had arrived via the United States Postal Service, the only way to send human remains in the mail. They came to me instead of my aunt, who also lives in New York, because she was in the middle of moving to a new place.

My fiancée, Lara, opened the brown package to reveal 10 copies of my grandmother’s death certificate and a smooth container the color of my home office chair. She was in there, and I expected a rush of the appropriate feelings at the sight of a loved one’s remains. Instead I felt numb. The container was heavier than I expected, but how heavy had I anticipated? This was my whole Grandma, bright blue house dress, brown-bobbed haircut and caked-on hot pink lipstick, now distilled into a fine sand.

The Grandma I last remembered toddling out of the arrivals hall at Charlotte Douglas International Airport when I was 12 years old. She was visiting from the South Bronx, where her son, my dad, grew up.

After a curt hug, she said, “What are these clothes?” She pointed to my long black-and-blue floral skirt and light blue button-up.

I spent most of my time dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, clashing my prints and patterns while catching toads, snails and slugs with my bare hands, but she didn’t know that. I hoped my attempt to look traditionally feminine, and perhaps without consciously knowing, traditionally straight, would elicit a kinder response. “I bought them with money from my new job,” I said — I had recently become a youth movie critic for the local paper.

But that’s all she had to say. What are these clothes? The phrase wouldn’t let me go, and from then on I cowered around her. Something about her tone, her way of pointing at me, told me I couldn’t trust her, that she had already judged me, that if she knew my secret, she would hurt me. Before she settled into my room, where she’d be staying, I sneaked in and hid my diary, fearing she would read the only proof of my closeted gayness.

My parents didn’t yet know I was gay; still, they sensed my hurt, and they were furious about Grandma dismissing me at the airport and on the trip in general. Her entire visit was clouded by the single, first encounter.

When we dropped her off at the airport after several days, Grandma started to weep. She knew she’d behaved poorly, not just to me, but with numerous other little barbs aimed at my mom, dad and sister. Something cracked between us all that day; it was clear, even to me, that she was no longer welcome in our house, that she wouldn’t visit us again, and that my dad was unlikely to take us to the South Bronx to see her.

Over the next 20 years, I began to come out to the world: first to my parents at age 16, then my select friends in my early 20s, and finally, at 28, on the cover of my local L.G.B.T. magazine.

Grandma never found out. We had short phone conversations on holidays and birthdays. “I just want you to know how much I love you and think about you all the time,” she’d say before handing the phone back to my aunt.

As I grew older, my face started looking more and more like Grandma’s: the same crease of our cheeks when we smiled, the same way we clenched our teeth when we were barely smiling, a cheeky gleam in our eyes that dared people to guess what we were really thinking.

My mom pointed it out over dinner. “She looks just like Olimpia!” she’d say, and my dad could barely look at me in that moment, pained to see the face of the woman who never gave him the love and support he needed.

But the smaller details, the sort of things you feel but can’t see, were what really got me. I love — love! — shopping at the mall; so did she. My aunt told me about how Grandma would ask her to open the front door because she “needed the air,” sitting on a chair in the open doorway. Likewise, I found myself “needing the air” when I was stressed, sitting on a kitchen chair looking onto my patio. We shared unusual eating habits: I’d hold a cookie in my lips and devour it, hands free; that’s how Grandma ate buttery Pepperidge Farm Milanos and Chessmen.

Even with this, I knew our commonalities were a double-edged sword: She was someone who was intolerant of other people’s decisions; when I was born, she insisted on calling me Joanna instead of Joanne. My mom, still lying in a hospital bed, had to duke it out with her about my true name. Even from the start, Grandma wanted it her way. I know how it feels; will I someday be as ornery as her?

After her death, my dad emailed me a scan of a drawing I did of Grandma and me when I was 10. In the color-pencil sketch, we’re holding hands in the Carolina Place mall. She’s carrying a shopping bag in rainbow colors, which she never carried in real life. We’re both smiling.

That afternoon I rode the subway with Grandma’s remains en route to a Barnes & Noble bookstore on the Upper West Side, where I was to hand them off to my aunt.

Along the way I imagined an alternate life for us, a relationship where we both felt supported, loved and heard. Where I would have felt comfortable telling her anything about myself. Summer visits. Long phone calls. Feeling less alone, less numb as I sat in front of her ashes summoning the courage to say what I needed to say, and if her pat response in life would have meant something now: "I just want you to know how much I love you and I think about you all the time."

Joanne Spataro (@lookitsjoanne) is a humorist and writer working on a memoir.

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