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When my partner, Mal, and I moved in together, my grandmother knit us an afghan. No doubt she’d worked on it for months — the perfect square stitches and intricate floral pattern were the work of an artisan, not a crafty grandma. But the gift itself felt like an afterthought. I was standing in the hallway at my cousin’s house after a family dinner, when my mom handed me the afghan in a plain cardboard box.
My sister got her afghan at her bridal shower. Friends put down their cake plates to run their hands across the perfect stitches. My grandmother blushed a little at the compliments.
It didn’t matter that the months leading up to our wedding were spent rallying at the State House instead of choosing cake toppers. I was a woman getting married.
It was 2001 when I got my afghan. I imagine my grandmother assumed there would be no further milestones. I would never marry a man or be the guest of honor at a bridal shower. But my same-sex partner was big-hearted and funny and appeared not to be going anywhere. That tough, resilient purple blanket was a gesture of acceptance. But without the structure and ceremony of a wedding, that gesture became an afterthought, lost in the chaos of clearing the table and loading the dishwasher.
When Mal and I started dating, my mom and grandmother could barely look at her. They would come to Boston to visit my sisters in college, and Mal and I would push through our dread to meet them for dinner.
“You grew up in Boston,” my mom once said to Mal. “So you must be a bad driver.”
But Mal learned my grandmother’s cookie recipes and helped her grate potatoes at Thanksgiving. She fed me ice cream when I had my wisdom teeth pulled and did my laundry six months later when I had mono. She joined our raucous holiday celebrations and added her voice to our off-key show tune sing-alongs.Mal would never be a son-in-law, but she was something.
Then, in 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex couples couldn’t be denied the right to marry. The first call I got the morning of the court decision was from my mother. Mal and I had just told our families we planned to have a commitment ceremony, and my mom was overjoyed that our wedding would be, in her words, real.
It didn’t matter that the months leading up to our wedding were spent rallying at the State House instead of choosing cake toppers. I was a woman getting married. For the first time in my adult life, I was doing something my family understood.
May 17, 2004, was the first day cities and towns could accept marriage license applications from same-sex couples. While most municipalities waited until the morning, Cambridge began right at midnight. City Hall opened the night of May 16, and the lawn outside was as packed as Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
My mom and grandmother were with us as we walked past the cheering crowds and into City Hall. We kept noticing that people were cheering louder for us than the couples around us. I couldn’t understand why, until someone leaned over and congratulated my mom and grandmother on their marriage.
We gathered in the City Council chamber with couples in tuxes, couples in matching sweatshirts, two men wearing angel wings. The city clerk and a dozen municipal employees worked through the night to process our applications. At 3:15 that morning, Mal and I became the 147th same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license in Massachusetts.
Mal and I got married that October in an outdoor ceremony at an Audubon Society nature preserve. In her wedding toast, my grandmother told the story of being mistaken for a couple at City Hall. When our guests’ laughter died down, she raised her glass and gave us her blessing: “May you be together,” she said, “as long as me and your mother.”
My grandmother went into hospice the day the Supreme Court heard arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges. She died the next day, surrounded by people she loved, wrapped in an afghan she’d made for herself. I don’t know if last week's Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage would have mattered to her. In her mind, we were married in 2004, and all the civil rights victories that followed didn’t seem to phase her.
My mom and grandmother were with us as we walked past the cheering crowds and into City Hall. We kept noticing that people were cheering louder for us... I couldn’t understand why, until someone... congratulated my mom and grandmother on their marriage.
But I can’t help thinking about the grandmothers in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. I wonder if the right to marry will make their grandchildren’s loved ones easier to embrace. I wonder what it means that recognition from my state’s government made Mal’s and my relationship more “real” in the eyes of my family.
The last time I saw my grandmother, she was sitting in a wheelchair, looking out the window to the courtyard of her nursing home. Mal and I tried to coax her into conversation, but the effort of discussing the flowers in the garden outside seemed like too much. Her eyes were glassy. She was barely holding up her head.
I asked if she wanted to listen to music.
“Frank Sinatra,” she said.
I found an old recording of "Luck Be A Lady" on YouTube. Mal and I took her hands and danced around her wheelchair. She smiled and swayed a little. At the end of the song she asked for help getting back into bed. As we said goodbye, I couldn’t imagine Mal not being with me. The time when my family treated her with anything less then un-ambivalent acceptance feels as remote as the Ice Age.
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