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 canâ€™t be sure that Dee really was my grandmotherâ€™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.
Iâ€™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 Womenâ€™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.
Theyâ€™re both buried in VA cemeteries â€” on opposite sides of the country.
Dee and I always struggled to explain our relationship to others. â€œThis is my good friend, Kelly,â€ sheâ€™d say. Â â€œSheâ€™s like an aunt to me,â€ Iâ€™d say, or, â€œShe was my grandmaâ€™s friend.â€ The words we were looking for, of course, were â€œgranddaughterâ€ and â€œgrandmother,â€ 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.
Iâ€™ve been thinking about Dee and Spence a lot recently. When you have a child, as I do, itâ€™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 â€œwifeâ€ and been buried in the same plot; where â€œbeloved grandmotherâ€ might have been written on both of their headstones.
Kelly Carlisle is an assistant professor in the department of English.