Today I am excited to be posting the second of the Guest Blogs that I’ll be sharing in the run up to the release of Listening to our Grandmothers in September. For the guest blogs I have asked a number of wonderful women to reflect on their experiences of Grandmothers or elder women in their lives. I’m really proud to say that this post, about some of the things that we so often don’t talk about, is by my cousin Stephanie Gunner. Stephanie who is a writer for LGBT Theatre and you can read more of her articles at www.lgbtfringe.wordpress.com.
A friend of mine lamented the loss of the wisdom of elders to me recently, feeling it was a shame that in the modern age, we don’t have the collective reverence for older voices that countless civilisations before us have demonstrated. I agreed it does seem counter-intuitive not to consult with the voices of experience, and together we began to wonder why that tradition has been lost in Western society.
We wondered whether the sexual revolution may have had something to do with it, as younger people’s concerns extended from marriage and family matters to complex questions of sexuality, sexual desire and the struggles of navigating an increasingly multi-faceted romantic landscape. But what is it that stops us asking about these things? An assumption that all of our grandparents are sexually repressed as most of them were married pre-war? I’d argue against that notion, as I suspect it’s more a question of silence than inactivity. Throughout history, sexuality may not have been discussed in polite society but that doesn’t mean it’s not still happening behind closed doors.
The reason I say this is because both of my grandmothers were incredibly vibrant; unconventional figures, who imbued me with a sense of the fun and philosophical in their own respective ways. They also managed to impart a couple of strong influences, albeit indirect ones, on the way I saw myself; my body and my sexuality.
My maternal grandmother, Joan, was a larger than life character, remembered by me for her colourful dresses, frequent travels abroad and her penchant for tipping a little extra sherry in the trifle. From her I learned to make the most of life and opportunities, as well as not to care too much what my body happened to look like. When I was small, I was sitting on her bed one day while she was getting dressed into her swimsuit and I asked her why there was a foam lump in the front of the suit. She told me it was her bra-filler, as she’d had a single mastectomy as a result of breast cancer before I was born. I remember being surprised as I’d never heard of such things before, and it was an early example for me of how our bodies are not all the same. She certainly showed me that difference is nothing to be ashamed of, too. At a subsequent family barbecue to celebrate her birthday she decided to model one of her presents for fun: a long silky nightie. The laughter and cheers as she came outside quipping ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’, showed me how you can be comfortable and happy in your skin despite what your body may have gone through. It’s a lesson that should have been more obvious of course, but as I grew up in a world of teen magazines and airbrushed photos, it was good to have that memory as a counterpoint to prescribed perfection. I learned that our bodies are the stories of our lives and experiences, and we should be proud of all we have survived and accomplished.
My paternal grandmother, Iris, was less outwardly performative but had a spiritual vibrancy that transcended appearances. She described make-up as war paint, gave her cats three names each and had a love of all things Native American. As I grew into a teenager, she wasn’t shy about mentioning boys and relationships, and when I was in my twenties she spoke to me a little about what she saw ahead for me in love. It’s not something I want to go into detail about here, but suffice it to say if she’s right I have a lot to look forward to. A lot of emotional jungle to machete through too of course, don’t we all, but her optimistic outlook is still a source of comfort to me. Also, when I was 18 she gave me a book on sex and horoscopes, confidently telling me at the time that there was nothing shameful about sexual desire and that it is ‘the last thing to go’ as one gets older, and that makes her legendary in my book.
So I would argue it’s not necessarily that we’ve lost access to that voice of the elders; it’s that we have to find new ways to listen, particularly when it comes to sexuality. There doesn’t need to be that disconnect, if we understand that frankness is a style of discourse that may not have been available to our grandmothers as they grew into women. We may never be able to have as candid a discussion about sex with our elders as some of us would like, and many of us will struggle to ask the questions we really want to put to the voices of experience, but I hope this is something that becomes easier as we move forward. It’s naïve to think those older than us have nothing to teach us about love and desire, and as we post-1960s children get older, I hope we continue the discussion around sex and relationships with future generations. The more I remember of my childhood around my grandmothers, the more I realise I was listening and asking questions all along; I just hadn’t worked out how to vocalise them yet.
You can find Stephanie @StephanieGunner or @TheatreLGBT. If you want to be kept updated about the launch of Listening to our Grandmothers please sign up for my mailing list or join the Facebook page here. (edit)