By Scott Van Tussenbrook
Some of my favorite childhood memories are of times spent at Grandpa Tuss & Grandma Carol’s. They lived in a little two-bedroom house on a third of an acre of property in Bountiful, Utah. Their gigantic back lawn was the perfect playing field for Freeze Tag, lawn darts, volleyball and Hide & Seek. The very back corner of their yard was a less-manicured scrub of plum trees and overgrowth — that was for building forts, climbing trees, and more Hide & Seek. Family gatherings at Grandpa & Grandma’s were loud, boisterous affairs full of kids, running and screaming; skinned knees, giggles and games, all kinds of games, made up on the spot, while the adults sat around the picnic tables on the back porch and talked. Very often, about family not present — what they were doing, who had left for their missions, who had just returned from their missions, who was getting married, who had a new baby. We used to take big family vacations, to Bear Lake and Lava Hot Springs and Lake Powell, bringing everyone from great-grandparents on down to the newest newborns. Whenever I close my eyes and think “Summer, when I was a kid,” my mind is filled with the sound of these giggles, me, my brother and sister, our cousins; the aroma of potato salad and grape Kool-aid and coconut-y sunscreen lotion and the barbecue grills at Liberty Park.
We have an obvious, distinctive last name, and in our little community of Bountiful, Utah, I couldn’t go anywhere that people hadn’t already heard of my grandpa, and his kids. “Oh, you’re Terry’s boy,” people would i.d. me as soon as they heard my name. Anonymity was not possible. And I was fine with that — I had no problem at all being associated with a man that I, and my dad, considered to be a hero. I remember riding somewhere in the front of a pickup with dad and grandpa, and I had asked how tall was the statue of the Angel Moroni on top of the Temple. Without missing a beat, dad said, “About two feet taller than your grandpa.” Later, after I looked it up and did the math, I spent the next several years thinking the average height of men in my family was ten feet. And my grandma, well, she was the Bree Van De Kamp of their Wisteria Lane. She was a talented artist, and the walls of their home were covered with original oil paintings — mostly hers. Her Angel Food cakes were never anything but perfect, her home always smelled of flowers and Chanel No. 5, and pot roast or apple pie or fresh-baked rolls that she somehow always managed to juuuust be taking out of the oven as we arrived. Grandpa Tuss and Grandma Carol were pillars of the community.
Which is why, I suppose, my Dad was so concerned about what they might think, once they found out about the bomb I dropped on them — I was gay. That conversation wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had with my parents, but they came around really quickly to being amazing and supportive and loving — to the point that it jeopardized their own standing with the church, too, but that’s a whole nother topic for another day. The only people we played “don’t ask, don’t tell” with, were grandpa and grandma. Grandma was no fool — she had been a florist, for years (my prom dates always had the most gorgeous corsages at the dance, if not the most interested dance partner), and she had had friends and many co-workers who were gay. One afternoon, at lunch with my mom, she came right out and asked, “Is Scott gay?” Mom said that yes, I was, to which grandma replied, “Mm hmm,” took a sip of her herbal tea, and that was the end of it.
We never got to have any such conversations with grandpa about this, because in the midst of these years, he suffered a massive stroke, which left him paralyzed on one side, and completely unable to speak. He was still in there, though. Always the character, he was able to make himself pretty well understood with one-handed hand motions and sounds that tried to be words, but weren’t. One year, I came home for Christmas with my boyfriend Phillip. We did the usual dancing around the issue of who Phillip was and what our relationship was, until my grandpa would no longer put up with it. He made himself clear in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t going to be lied to or coddled or “shielded from the truth” in any way. After dinner, he summoned both me and Phillip, front and center, and by way of hand gestures and those very, very expressive eyes he still — and always — had, made it clear he knew exactly what was going on here and that he was super ok fine with it. Phillip and my grandfather in a tearful embrace at the end of their conversation is another one of my favorite memories. He gave me a wink and a smile and a big hug of my own. He was fine. He passed a couple of years later. He knew the truth. And he didn’t care.
Over the next handful of years, I brought whomever I happened to be “serious” with, to various family functions, just like everybody else always did. And the reception we got was pretty universally chilly. After one particularly uncomfortable Christmas party at my uncle’s, I decided not to subject myself or any significant others to that disappointing crush of disapproving glances, ever again.
Flash forward a few more years, after I was with Antonio, we were in Salt Lake for my sister’s wedding. By then, everybody knew about me. Us. And it was one of those family gatherings where everyone was being oh-too-polite and talking about stuff and nothing, though trying to pretend that us cousins, who had been so close as kids, didn’t seem to have 2 things to say to each other now. There were a couple of folks who were cool, and chatted up Antonio as much as me, wanted to know how and where we met, etc. But 90% of the people there seemed like they were avoiding us. We made them uncomfortable, like always. Toward the end of the evening, I was sitting alone at a table with my grandma, when she steered the conversation: “So, that handsome man — is he with you?” I wasn’t sure what to do – I hadn’t really ever spoken with her directly about this (cos no, really, her picture is in the dictionary next to “TRADITIONAL FAMILY MATRIARCH”), and I was still taking my dad’s lead of “Let’s just not tell her *too* terribly much about all of this, ok?” — so I copped out, “Yep, he came with us.” She grabbed my hand on the table and looked me straight in the eyes with a face that said, “Don’t be dense with me, young man, I’m 89 years old and I can spot bull from a mile away…” and re-asked: “No, I mean, is he with *you?* Are you guys *together?*” I figured what the heck, no reason not to go all in, at this point. “Yep. Coming up on five years now.” She smiled. “Well then, I think I need to meet him!” I brought Tony over and the two of them sat there and turned up the maximum charm, and chatted for 10 or 15 minutes, making an obvious attempt to find common ground where they could. She wanted to know all about his growing up in Guatemala, and she regaled him with similar tales of her youth in Salt Lake. The whole scene was unbelievably touching. This, my favorite memory of her, is also my last. She passed away later that year.
While all this was going on, I kept looking around the room. Various relatives were looking over like, “Huh, I wonder what’s going on THERE?” and I realized, at that moment, that I no longer cared what any of them thought. If my very conservative, VERY Mormon Grandma Carol was ok — and making a point of showing the whole wedding party that she was — then it really didn’t matter what anyone else had to say about it.
After that, I never worried about whether Antonio or I would be “welcome” at family functions. Grandma had set the precedent – she was FINE WITH IT, end of story — cousins who disagreed were welcome to go pound sand.
That doesn’t mean we’re regulars at family functions — we’re not, I still don’t like the uncomfortable silence/stares/whatnot and I live 900 miles away from them anyway — but I like to remind myself that two of the people my father was so worried would never accept this, ended up making SURE we all knew they loved me and accepted us in the strongest possible terms — even after one of them couldn’t even speak anymore.