Our Stories Connect Us

Jun 26, 2021 | 2014 Summer - Intersection: Age

By Jamie Bergeron-Beamon

“I’ve written 14 pages already and haven’t even gotten to the good stuff!” exclaimed Nina, my grandmother, in a recent phone conversation. A few months ago we decided to begin exchanging stories with one another. Nina, who turned 76 this year, writes me letters recounting every detail of her travels, and I call her on my train rides home. We talk a lot about our personal relationships, LGBTQ friends and family and women. Nina discovered that she loved women as an adult, but I knew my whole life that I was not straight. Although I ask a lot of questions, she always asks me twice as many. Since we both feel very connected to our queer communities, our stories often center on sharing our generational differences.

When I was growing up my grandmother’s sexuality both was and was not a topic of conversation in our house. She and her longtime partner, Chrissy, were pretty typical grandmothers. Going to their house was a special treat for me as I loved looking at the beautiful artwork they had collected and the countless kitchen gadgets that lined the shelves. They enjoyed trying new Thai and Chinese restaurants in town so I always volunteered to join them for lunch. We often talked about Nina’s kitchen secrets for hours; she has a knack for combining flavors and inventing recipes. Other times we talked about the gay clubs in Rochester, New York where they both lived most of their lives), lesbian picnics in the ’80s, and how to tell “family” from afar. To this day, Nina and I still debate the existence of a special “strut” that she swears can be spotted from blocks away.

I’ve always felt a special connection to Nina, one that transcends our age difference and sexual identity. Our letter-writing and storytelling project is a part of my effort to deepen that connection. We appreciate the 40+ years between us. “Grandma, you’re getting old now,” I jokingly told her on her birthday this year. “Yeah, so? I have done a lot of things and I have a lot of things left to do, so there!” she snapped back. As I grow older I am acutely aware of the richness that lives in our little queer family. In fact, Nina has raised quite a few queer people. She raised my mother – a lesbian – along with a bisexual aunt. My aunt has two bisexual sons, and then there’s me, a queer woman. I love learning what Nina thinks about all of us. My interest in her reflections feels almost like searching for treasure. What will she tell me next? What can she teach me? What can we learn together? Each new conversation uncovers a new dimension in our relationship. Her life lessons and resolutions let me see a new side of her history and the intricacies of her relationships, and my stories introduce her to the ideas of a Dot Com generation and tend to bring out romantic memories of past loves.

In our last phone call, I asked Nina for her thoughts about my parents’ decisions to have two kids via donor insemination (DI). “I never would have imagined it, not in a million years,” she explained, “We didn’t know about that kind of thing back then. There were all kinds of families, which got together through this or that, but yours is something really special.” When I was growing up, I did not know any other families created through DI, and I felt it was special too. My parents taught us from a young age that our family was intentional and that they wanted to love us more than anything. However, this was not something Nina and I discussed much when I was a kid. It was a simple fact of life, and rarely came up.

Despite our mutual love of storytelling, we have different understandings of gender, sexuality, and family. Our generations have shaped our queer experiences very distinctly. I cannot relate to Nina’s experience of being a single, gendernon-conforming parent with four kids in the 1960s. Instead I had an open and affirming community of gender-bending and queer family friends that allowed me to live and explore without question. However, I learned to navigate my own challenges growing up, such as being asked to justify my parents’ sex life to kids in school, or trying to explain an eighth-grade genealogy project with information provided on a sperm bank reference form. Nina and I compare these challenges together in our letters, phone calls, and visits.

In some conversations, I get to ask Nina more about her early relationships. I’ve learned about her ten-year marriage to my grandfather, and how she found other lesbian/bisexual women after she was divorced. “We just found each other,” she said, “Sometimes you took a chance letting a woman know you had a feeling about her, which was a very brave thing to do. No one talked about it, but if you did, it was very private. But when you felt that feeling with another woman, you were rarely wrong about it.”

Nina loves to talk about the bar scene with me. She reminisces that there were more gay bars in Rochester in the 1970s than there are today. Going to the bar was always something we liked to do together after a day of running errands. We would grab a quick drink and play a few songs on the jukebox. I remember one afternoon when I was about 16 years old, we stopped by her favorite bar because she saw a friend’s car parked outside. As we took a seat, I watched her kiss the bartender’s cheek and slip him a $20 bill, saying, “The usual for me and a double for her,” with a wink. Nina and the bartender chatted about the upcoming AIDS Walk and he asked about Chrissy, her partner, whose two gay brothers passed away from AIDS in the ’90s. She told us about how she used to give rides to people heading to AIDS rallies and events, so they didn’t have to park far away. Through stories like these, I became inspired to join the local AIDS Walk in my hometown, and gave a short speech during the youth portion of the rally that year. I can vividly remember doing my best to honor Nina and Chrissy during that speech about 15 years ago, and Nina says she wishes she could have been there to see it.

Recently I was curious about Nina’s thoughts on my coming out. I was a private kid growing up, and did not share much about my personal life with my parents or grandparents. When I did, about age 14, the conversation lasted around 30 seconds. As Nina’s stories and memories are being cataloged in my mind, I am most intrigued about Nina’s intuition. I asked, “Did you always have a feeling about me? Did you know I was going to come out?”

“No, yes, well maybe. You did have that funny walk,” she said.

“So what did you think when I came out to you?”

She replied, “Well, I was delighted and scared to death. But no matter what, I’m always in your corner.”

Jamie is a social justice educator and activist living in Boston with her partner, Benae.

Featured Image: Jamie, 2nd from left, with her mother, wife and grandmother.

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