In Which Grandma Visits me in a Dream, Explains the Meaning of a Despised Heirloom, and Harnesses the Power of Queer Theory in Order to Show Me What to Treasure
Background Story #1: My family has never quite been that touchy-feely kind of family that is good at expressing affection for one another. More difficult still has been for us any attempt at letting people know what they mean to us. My parents have largely tried to counteract this with extra hugs before long car trips or when dropping me off at the airport. My Grandmother’s way of expressing love was more along the lines of making sure that we were not starving. This meant she was always cooking, always sending me home with boxes of tapioca pudding mix and large containers of roasted cashews. My Grandfather’s way of expressing love was to take my brother and I on erratic tours of his house to show us the antiques he had collected over the years, saying, “I want you to have this piece someday.” As one might expect, a 10-year-old doesn’t care much for the price of very breakable tealeaf china or appreciate the unique qualities of a boring vinegar cruet.
Background Story #2: Though we never discussed it (see Background Story #1), Grandma and Grandpa knew and accepted that I am gay. Grandma Erma was the first among my extended family to hug Keith and get him cards for his birthday. A couple years ago, as Grandpa was waiting in the car for an appointment, he somewhat unexpectedly told my mother, “I don’t know much about boys living with boys, but I think if that’s the way our Ted is, I’m fine with that!”
Background Story #3: Take a look at the photo of my humpback steamer trunk. Imagine yourself as a 21 to 27 year old man whose Grandfather really wants you to take this home with you and use it to “store your sweaters in it.” You live six hours away from where that steamer trunk is. Your boyfriend really doesn’t want it in his apartment, either. It’s got a hump on top
for crying out loud, which means it can’t even work as a coffee table. If you had a 3-story Victorian house with lots of nooks and crannies, the trunk would fit perfectly. You might even use it decoratively. However, real peoples’ things never quite fit together perfectly. The trunk is a little like a treasure chest, though. Inside it, I keep the junk mail envelope on which Grandma wrote down the trunk’s history.
Backgroud Story #4: This is a super-quick, oversimplified introduction to Queer Theory. Ignore the main idea of any given story, but instead focus on something that shows up to you in the fringes, something which most people will ignore, something which will ultimately give the story a much clearer meaning to you as a queer person. And yes, everything can be queered, even God. As Rabbi Gil Steinlauf pointed out a while back, the very notion of love is queer.
Background Story #5: My grandpa passed away in summer of 2011; my grandmother in January of 2013. My parents are now in the process of trying to figure out what to do with an entire house full of antiques. They are conflicted, because my grandparents have also taken them on the same tours of the house they took my brother and me on. They can’t remember what they’re supposed to keep. Which things have been in the family? Which haven’t? They are also just itching for me to come home to Ohio and help them sort. And they’d love for me to take some things home to my house. (See Background Story #3)
Main Story: Fast forward to last week. It’s 3:50 A.M. and I have just woken up from one of the most vivid, life-changing dreams of my life. In it, I’m back at Grandma’s house. She is making baked steaks at the stove while I sort through the junk drawer I was always fond of picking through when I visited. She’s as young and healthy as when I was a kid, but I have the feeling that she won’t be around forever. I start sobbing and give her a big hug. I ask, “What is it that you really want us to keep when you’re gone? She calms me, makes a warm, wrung-out washcloth for my eyes like she always did, and leads me to the living room where she kept her collections: one of hat pins, one of thimbles. (For the record, neither of these collections is worth much money at all.) In the walk to that part of the house, she tells me to use my queer theory. It doesn’t matter much how Grandma knows about queer theory—it’s a dream, after all!
Between the hat pins and the thimbles appears out of nowhere a shining steamer trunk. “This is what I want you to keep!” she says. Like a bolt of lightning, it’s suddenly unmistakably clear to me what the trunk means. It’s not the thing itself that I’m meant to treasure. It’s the understanding of that trunk as a heavy, awkward container and the hardships my family has tried and failed to undertake with it in order to maintain comfort. It’s to remind me that storing up treasures on earth is pointless in the end, but the love and caring behind those treasures is what counts. It’s very clearly for me an anti-symbol that will always contain within it because of this dream the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:20: “[B]ut store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” The trunk’s awkwardness in my home will always remind me how much my grandparents loved me, despite how I didn’t always fit in with their expectations. It will always remind me of how much I love my grandparents despite the awkward things they tried to give me all the time. And it will always remind me that the things and people we don’t always want in the center of our lives may end up being the things and people that teach us the most about God’s love.