Naming love: the significance of labels

I was raised by my grandmother Spence, and the woman I believe was her partner, Dee, from when I was a baby until I was four. Almost every memory I have of Spence also involves Dee, including my memory of the day Spence died of a stroke. It was Dee who called the paramedics and Dee who hugged me until that evening, when I was taken away to live with my grandfather.

I can’t be sure that Dee really was my grandmother’s lover, because they were of a generation that did not acknowledge same-sex relationships. Some in my family said they were; others denied it. But everyone seemed to agree that my own relationship with Dee was special; after Spence died, I was driven periodically across town to spend weekends with her. When she moved out of state, I was sent to visit her in the summers.

I’m pretty sure they were lovers, though, because of the way Dee talked about Spence. She made sure that I grew up to know who my grandmother was and how much she loved me. They were both proud veterans of World War II, Dee in the Women’s Army Corps and Spence in the Spars. Later, they both worked as probation officers. When Dee talked about Spence, her face and voice glowed, even decades later.

They’re both buried in VA cemeteries “” on opposite sides of the country.

Dee and I always struggled to explain our relationship to others. “This is my good friend, Kelly,” she’d say.  “She’s like an aunt to me,” I’d say, or, “She was my grandma’s friend.” The words we were looking for, of course, were “granddaughter” and “grandmother,” names we would never have thought to use in the 1980s, but might have now.

After all, Dee spoiled me the way only a grandmother could. She took me to the Cabbage Patch Kid Factory to buy me a doll, back when people rioted over those things. And she loved me the way only a grandmother could: with unconditional joy and endless patience. Most of the family I knew as a child is dead; Dee is the only one I still miss.

I’ve been thinking about Dee and Spence a lot recently. When you have a child, as I do, it’s natural to think of yourself at that same age and of the people who cared for you. When I watch the way my little girl loves her grandmother, I see the way I loved Dee.

Marriage equality is important, not just for same-sex or transgender couples, but also for the family members who love them, who would like to honor their love with a name that accurately reflects their relationship: mommy, daddy, grandpa, grandma, aunt, uncle.

I wish Dee and Spence could have lived in a world where their love and my love for Dee could have been named; where they could have called each other “wife” and been buried in the same plot; where “beloved grandmother” might have been written on both of their headstones.

Kelly Carlisle is an assistant professor in the department of English.