Somewhere in the early muddy mess of puberty, I got a new aunt. Like the other six, this one came from my grandma – but not in the usual way.
We shared a bedroom, my grandma and I, from when I was four until shortly before she died when I was 16. Our nightly ritual was watching Fox News before we said our prayers – on our knees – and went to bed, usually around 11. I was a good Catholic boy with a poorly kept secret; let’s just say it didn’t take x-ray vision to see inside my closet. Middle school was a lonely time spent mostly with my grandma and a stunning array of pulp-grade fantasy novels, mass-market paperbacks with bent spines and illustrated covers. But no amount of half-naked ladies riding watercolor dragons could change what I was.
My grandma loved me as much as anyone ever has or will, but she was raised in rural, religious Ireland, a country so theocratic that she had no birth certificate, just baptismal records. I was her kin, but when I caught her worried glances in the mirror, I knew she was trying to understand the thing that neither of us could say.
One night, after the sportscaster replaced the weatherman and my grandma’s interest in the news waned, I flipped the big bulky knob that controlled the old tube television too far. Instead of going off, it spun all the way around to the Public Broadcasting Station, where a crazy woman in a tuxedo appeared to be glued to a bucking horse.
“Weird,” I pronounced after a split second. Even unpopular tweens are proficient in snap judgments.
“Wait,” my grandma called out. “Don’t you know what this is?”
I looked back at the screen. The woman now seemed to be dangling backwards, almost entirely off the horse. The film was in Technicolor, obviously old, and I didn’t recognize a single actor. As if, I thought, and shook my head no.
“Sit,” grandma said, patting the space at the foot of her bed. “This is Auntie Mame.”
This was almost unheard of. After the news, if anything, we listened to talk radio in the dark until we fell asleep. Certainly, we never stayed up until midnight. And yet that night we did – midnight and past. For the next two hours, we watched Rosalind Russell scintillate across the screen as the most fabulous relative any child could ever dream up. This was glamour, with a capital G, and I was entranced. A week later, we rented the VHS copy, so I could see the whole thing, and for Christmas that year, I was given the novel it was based on.
Although it was published 60 years ago this year, Auntie Mame felt like it was written for me, a child of great gay dreams and straitjacketed circumstance. And in no small way, it was: Patrick Dennis, the author, was gay, and Auntie Mame was the life he dreamed of living, complete with fabulous characters, globe-trotting adventures and endless money. He even named the orphaned main character after himself. Patrick-Dennis-the-character was straight, but he existed in a world where one could at least have imagined it was possible to be gay – a small but still powerful idea for a boy living in a constrained time, be it middle school or the 1950s.
I don’t think I ever heard my grandma utter the word “gay” (and if she did, I’m certain she meant “happy”). But language and knowledge don’t always go hand in hand. She recognised that there was something in that movie I needed, some connection between the fey, quiet child on the screen and the fey, quiet child at the foot of her bed. She couldn’t make my dreams come true – couldn’t give me friends or take me around the world – but she could let me know that dreaming was OK. It was the gift she had to give me.
There was a time when I regretted never having the chance to come out to my grandma. And if I’m honest, there was a much longer time in which I felt relieved that I never had to make that decision, to chance destroying a relationship I cared so much about. Now, I think she knew – perhaps not in a way she could put in words, but enough to know that I needed something from Auntie Mame that I couldn’t get from all the other aunts and uncles and cousins I already had.
I keep a paperback copy of Auntie Mame on my bookshelf now, and I watch the movie every few years. Occasionally, I even put on the musical version with Lucille Ball (she’s no Russell but it’s still pretty fun). I’ve seen the play performed by drag queens and drunks and Broadway stars, from New York to New Orleans. It never gets old, even now that I’m out and every show on television is required to have at least one queer character. It’s not the story that gets me any more, but that remembered feeling of sudden, wondrous possibility. As soon as the title screen appears and the music comes on, I’m sitting on the foot of my grandma’s bed again, 12 years old and dreaming.