Tribute to my Grandma, Beloved Friend

Though I did not get to spend much time with Grandma growing up, she was always an important role model and point of connection for me. Life saving, in fact. Growing up as a gender creative kid, it was hard to feel a sense of belonging. Peer groups were organized by gender, so I had my friends who were girls and my friends who were boys, but I was just always something else–something for which there was no language available, so when I looked out on the world, I didn’t see anything that resembled me.

In this context, it was so incredibly reassuring to have Grandma in my life. Here was someone like me, someone else who was introverted and bookish so it must be ok to be that way. I thought she was super cool and saw myself in her. I always gravitated towards her understated presence, and her physical presence was always very calming and comforting to me as well. Her quiet demeanor was a respite for my senses that were used to being bombarded by continual stimulus and her body was soft and nurturing. I remember as a kid driving down to San Diego with her during one of her and Grandpa’s visits, when we first moved to southern California. I lay my head against her arm in the back seat on the car ride home. It was so pleasing to me that I still remember the sensation of it even today.

I had a chance to reconnect with Grandma on my own terms as an adult when I started attending the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I stayed with her for a couple days after the Festival for most of the 17 years I attended the Festival and our regular visits built a strong relationship. Though I’d brought my girlfriend at the time, Cindy, the first time I attended, I was not out yet to Grandma and Grandpa. But Grandma was deceptively savvy.

When I came downstairs the first morning after the Festival–my tent and gear strewn about their communal backyard drying out, as everything had gotten soaked at the Festival in one of its characteristic August thunderstorms–she was busy reading the newspaper. I was barely awake when she mentioned quietly, “it seems like that Festival of yours is mostly lesbians.” My jaw dropped and I was speechless. While the Festival was pretty well known in lesbian circles, its existence was largely a secret in mainstream society. Still to this day, I have no idea how she found out about the nature of the Michigan Festival–especially in the days before the internet!

Coming out as transgender to Grandma, I felt even more warmly received. In my first visit with her afterward, she simply asked, “Should I call you my grandson now?” I said, “Whatever you would like, Grandma” and she just replied “Oh ok” and that was that. There was never a moment of awkwardness or tension–it was something that could just be openly acknowledged without having to be a big deal. Characteristic of this interchange was her frequent amused observation, “I don’t know where you get all that hair–not from our side of the family.”

When Angie and I did a guest sermon at the Unitarian Universalist church in Kalamazoo, we spoke at a forum on transgenderism following the service. In the midst of one of my descriptions of the effects of testosterone, I looked out in the audience and saw Grandma sitting there in the back row. “Oops,” I thought, “I probably shouldn’t be talking about my genitals in front of Grandma…” But that was the kind of relationship we had–I always felt like we could talk about anything and nothing seemed to shock her. And I always welcomed her thoughtful, intelligent observations as she was extremely well-read and had interesting commentary on most any subject you could think of.

Because of our incredible personality similarities and ease of communication, over my adult life I always thought of Grandma as one of my best friends, rather than just family. I genuinely looked forward to spending time with her and I did speak openly with her as a friend about whatever was on my mind or going on in my life.

Despite that ease and commonality, we did have areas of tension. Grandma was a morning person–the only morning person in the Bullington clan–and I was definitely not. When I would visit her, to be polite I would drag myself out of bed much earlier than I ordinarily would at home. As soon as I would straggle out to see her, she would instantly inquire, “What do you want for breakfast?” which always made me feel like puking, as I’m never ready to eat anything for several hours after getting up, regardless of what time that might be.

I’m also frequently overheated as a person, so visiting Grandma could feel suffocating at times. Especially when I used to visit her when I was living in California, I found the humidity oppressive, so trying to fall asleep in the little bedroom upstairs in her townhome–where there was not even the slightest breeze–was quite impossible and overwhelming. I don’t know whether she was actually opposed to air conditioning or it was just her frugal nature, but, in more recent years when I would visit her at her senior apartment and sleep on the couch, I would secretly put on the a/c for a couple hours after she went to bed (which always made me feel guilty…), because the temperature in her apartment was far too warm for me to be able to sleep.

Grandma was a forward thinker, involved with yoga and health food in the 70s, well ahead of mainstream culture. As a kid I was always amazed at her flexibility–the ways she could flop over and instantly touch her toes–and grateful that, as a vegetarian, there were always things I could eat at her house (including yummy desserts). However, being a small sized package, she often ate like a bird, so having enough food to eat could be challenging. When I used to visit her after the Michigan Festival with my partner Amanda, we would always stop for “pre-eating” en route to Grandma’s house, knowing that we would likely be served small portions of several vegetables for dinner, which–after a week in the woods–just wouldn’t cut it.

Such stops would also delay our arrival time, which used to annoy Grandma considerably. As an INFP on the Myers-Briggs temperament scale, time for me is always approximate and fluid. When my partner Angie–who is also known as Time Lord–would ask me how long something would take, my first response was always to laugh. I had no idea how to answer that question–how people make that kind of prediction. Things take as long as they take, which could be 5 minutes or 5 hours!

But I learned with Grandma that such imprecision with regards to time was not advisable. Due to her long history of abandonment, she had a strong need for people to show up exactly when they said they were going to. So many August visits with her started out with her feeling hurt and mad because I was late arriving. Thankfully, she was always willing to get over it, so that we could go on to have a lovely time together–and I learned to overestimate the travel time required to her place in order to better manage her expectations.

Usually I traveled to Grandma’s house, but one time I had the opportunity to travel with Grandma–when we drove south from Michigan to Georgia and Florida to visit Grandpa’s relatives after he passed away. Despite the fact that I love road trips and I love Grandma, bringing the two together was not the easy fun I’d hoped for. As an INFP, my approach to road trips–and the journey of life–is very organic, which turned out to be the opposite of Grandma’s inclination. She had a very rigid plan, only stopping for meals and gas where she and Grandpa always stopped previously, which I found frustrating.

For me, road trips are all about the music, which she found annoying. I’d carefully packed only my tamest artists for the trip, so when her response to the kd lang cd I’d chosen was to complain about “the beat,” I nearly lost it because I did not even experience that music as having much of a beat! The only music we could settle on was Hawaiian music–which made her sentimental about Grandpa–and what I would refer to as “elevator music,” resulting in long stretches of me staring angrily out the window, wishing that I was elsewhere.

And Grandma’s legacy was not entirely positive for me. The motto of the Bullington side of the family always seemed to be “Don’t make waves.” While this outlook definitely suited my personality, as a largely shy people pleaser, it was not compatible with my life mission, which is to change the world, generally by speaking difficult truths that most people would rather ignore. So I’ve had to spend many years working hard to intervene in my family programming in order to be an effective and confident change-maker.

Despite our areas of tension, my relationship with Grandma was one of the easiest and most supportive connections of my life, a deep and steadfast love and devotion coupled with the easy camaraderie of former college roommates. Despite our structural relationship, we always felt like peers to me–such a gift, as I have really struggled to find peers over the course of my entire life.

My last visit with her was characteristic of the energies of our connection. In her later years, she lost the ability to participate in conversations in ways she had previously and she was frequently between realities, as parts of her would travel to check out what was next for her and to solidify bonds with those beings who were preparing the way for her. As a result, I got to experience the purity of her presence, unencumbered by the limiting conventions and pretense of linear rational conversation.

What I found was similar to what I experienced with my Dad when he was in a coma–a strong and comforting essence that shone through. Grandma and I sat together for hours, just making eye contact and smiling at one another, with her occasionally reaching out to touch me and explore my physical body, much like a small child would. In that time together, we felt and shared all the love and happiness and reassurance our connection had always provided, without saying a word.

Since her passing, I continue to feel strongly connected to Grandma. A couple days after Halloween, she came to me in a meditation. She hoovered above me, standing between my Dad and Grandpa, radiant with happiness and childlike innocence similar to my last encounter with her in the physical realm. They let me know that they would be my support team for my new spiritual business–and what a dream team for a budding entrepreneur! And, since then, I regularly get this oracle card in my inquiries:

Grandparent card

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