There’s long been an assumption that people tend to get more conservative as we age. This assumption has been debunked, and this fits with my own experience of watching my relatives age.
Take, for example, my grandma. She turned 94 a few weeks ago. Growing up in rural Quebec as a Famine Irish Anglo, she worked from the time she was 14, mostly raised her siblings, and, like all good Catholic women, went to Mass without fail. She raised my mother in the Church, and when she moved in with my parents in the late 70s, we had a fish-on-Friday household due to her influence.
I didn’t have a good relationship with my grandma as a child/adolescent. I resented her strict religiosity, her need to be right, and her superseding conversations and negotiations I’d already had with my mother. Having her live with us when I was 4-14 was hard on all of us: she’d retired from paid work during that time, and was likely dealing with feelings of displacement and depression at her life changing suddenly. I’m sure my mother struggled with the challenge of simultaneously being mother and child, and having her own parenting criticized regularly within her own home could not have been easy for her.
And me? Well. Yes. Unpleasant.
Let’s move forward a few years. I’m in my very early 20s, and I’m about as out a queer as one is likely to find in Ottawa. One morning, I was on CBC Newsworld, going head to head with the medical director of the Canadian Red Cross (now Canadian Blood Services), about the ongoing donation ban on men who’ve had sex with men.
My aunt called my grandmother after hearing it, horrified. She wanted to “prepare” my grandma, just in case someone less bigoted called her to surprise her about her big dyke granddaughter. My aunt danced around the topic, of course, and tried to talk about how gross I was without actually coming out and saying that I was a disgusting and immoral lesbian, but was vague enough to insult her. The gist of what came out of her is as follows: You think I don’t know what you’re talking about? That just because I’m old I don’t know anything? That child has never done a single thing that I’m not proud of.
Then I got knocked up. Without being married. I was the first (that we know of) in my family to do so. And grandma just took it all in stride. I had a long talk with her about why I had no intention of baptizing the baby, and she completely accepted my reasons (though she did say, at the end of it all, “But it wouldn’t hurt.” Ah grandma, always good to keep your bases covered!).
I was talking to her on the phone yesterday while I was back at home visiting my parents. We had a fantastic talk how GREAT it is that women now have the very real option of living independently from men, how women can leave partners (abusive or even just a bad fit), and survive. In her day, many women were trapped by marriage. She talked about how terrible it was that you could be stuck with someone you hated, or who abused you mercilessly, and you had no income, no outside support system, no way of raising your children if you left with them. Your community would shun you, your church would not support you.
To hear my 94-year old grandma talk about living through this time, and how happy she is that times have changed so much that her granddaughter has been able to (more or less) successfully raise her children without having to stay trapped in an awful situation, has done so much to heal my relationship with her. She really is a very neat old lady. And a whole lot more liberal than you’d think.
Postscript: My grandmother died Wednesday June 22, 2011. She had a second heart attack 6 days ago, and her body just couldn’t recover from it. She was 23 days from her 95th birthday.