The Unquiet Dead
And on the best fake girlfriend a gay dude could ever have
My grandmother died a few days ago.
I knew it happened before my sister told me, even if I didn’t necessarily know I knew. My partner pointed this out after I spoke with my sister. The last few weeks, we’ve been remodeling several rooms in our home, including my office and a storage room. We were on the last bits of it, sorting things we’d displaced into the garage as the final clearing of the construction projects, and suddenly I’d become distant, cold, and listless.
I had begged off the last of the work and went back upstairs. I had thought I was just tired, or maybe even was about to get ill. It’s the same sort of feeling during certain moons for me, a sense of sinking, or like sitting in a draining tub.
Then my sister told me. She texted first, asking if I had time to chat, and when I saw that text I knew already what she would tell me.
One of the traditions we’ve mostly lost in modern society is that of ancestor veneration. Especially in the United States—where very few people live where their grandparents lived—and especially because of capitalism—in which most are compelled to move long distances in search of work or survivable situations— displacement and rootlessness are rather the default of human existence.
Ancestors don’t matter to us supposedly, though regardless we spend millions of dollars going to therapy to resolve unhelpful subconscious patterns and beliefs instilled in us by family members. We tell the therapists that our parents “messed us up,” and their work in the end is to help us understand how they got messed up and how we learned the wrong lessons from moments which were never even meant to be instruction.
The thing is, this isn’t all that far from what cultures that engaged in ancestral veneration understood. Veneration means worship in Latin, yes, but its older roots which manifest more obviously in other languages referred to desire and striving after (venereal, as in venereal disease, preserves this sense of “desire”). Ancestors were people to strive after, to desire to become, but that’s still only half the story.
We can see the other half of the story in Catholic ancestral rites, which are even less veiled pagan continuations than saint veneration. At any Catholic church, family members can pay for a mass to be performed in the name of a dead relative. Officially, the theological reason for these masses is to speed the dead soul’s transition from purgatory to paradise, and often many masses are performed for people who were particularly sinful during their lives.
These echo Roman pagan rites of passage for the dead, and also many of the funereal rites for Germanic and Celtic peoples. These elaborate ceremonies were performed to help the dead “pass on” and to keep peace between the dead and the living, and especially prevent the problem of the unquiet dead messing up the life of those who remained.
African animist cultures had similar beliefs, and many Shinto, Hindu, and Buddhist beliefs about the dead reflect this concern about the unquiet dead. Such dead continued to meddle in the lives of those who remained, their concerns and desires haunting the living to such a point that they might as well not have died at all.
In other words, the dead leave things unresolved in the living, who are then compelled to find a way to resolve them. Here you can probably understand then that rites for the dead to speed their passage or pacify their souls, as in the Catholic masses for the dead, were not just for the dead but also for the living. They were ritualistic methods of reconciling their lives with the lives of those who remained, a kind of communal act of resolution therapy.
This isn’t to say that our modern therapy is useless. On the contrary, without communal rituals of ancestral reconciliation, it’s usually our only option, and a good one in their absence. However, this older kind of ritual is still possible and quite powerful.
Since my grandmother’s death, I’ve begun to sort out her legacy in my own life. Of all my ancestors, she’s been the most difficult to reconcile, because that legacy was both profoundly helpful and also profoundly hurtful.
From her, I’m related to a famous 19th century supreme court judge, and a famous poet, and also to Alfred Hitchcock. My Welsh ancestry comes through her as well. These are for me more matters of curiosity than anything very significant. What’s more interesting, however, is what I learned from her.
I think, more than anything else, I owe my intelligence to her. When I was young, living in squalor and miserable poverty, she would send me mass-market children’s workbooks. You used to be able to buy these just next to cash registers in grocery stores, workbooks full of math problems to solve, grammar, history, science, and my favorite—atlases. Every few months she’d send a stack of these to me, her prepubescent grandson, and I’d finish all the problems and read through all the lessons.
I learned many other positive things because of her, some of them very subtle arts which have always proven to be a boon in my life. Unfortunately, from her I first learned to feel shame about my body and sexuality and particularly my masculinity. I understand how this happened, how her own life required the suppression and obscuring of the sexuality of others. She was abused as a child, and her children were abused by the same person who abused her. She kept silent because it was too terrible to speak about, repressed everything about herself and urged everyone else to repress themselves too.
People who repress like that, yet who are nevertheless generous and kind in the rest of their relations, set up a really unfortunate dynamic in those who love them. I adored my grandmother, and always wanted to impress her. It was awful, because who I actually was and what I was actually doing in my life would have shocked her, so I had to pretend otherwise.
The evening she died, I recounted a story to my partner about the great lengths I went to “keep up appearances” for her. It’s quite hilarious, actually, so I’ll tell you, too.
When I was 19, I lost my funding for the Christian college I attended because I admitted I was gay. So I had to leave, but I knew this would disappoint her to no end. She always told me I was the “smartest” of her grandchildren, and she was certain I would be a famous writer one day. My leaving university—and for being a homosexual, no less—would have really upset her.
So I lied about why I left. I told her I had transferred to a better writing program at a different university. What I was really doing was taking a lot of LSD and smoking a lot of marijuana while working at an adult video store, and not much else.
That all sounds rather pathetic, maybe, but it wasn’t a bad life. I had quite a few really good friends, some of whom would hang out with me at work while they waited for me to close the store so we could then hit a club to go dancing.
One of those friends, Jess, had taken a year off from Duke. She was my most “educated” friend, so it was she whom I asked in a panic if she’d pretend to be my girlfriend.
My grandmother was coming to visit, and I was terrified. She wanted to see my university, and she also wanted to meet my girlfriend. I never told her I had a girlfriend, only that I was dating someone, but I didn’t tell her that someone was a man.
Jess agreed, and thought the day would be hilariously fun, so she waited at my apartment with me for my grandparents. I’d been worried about my grandmother seeing my apartment, because it wasn’t really anything but part of an attic in an ancient six-story brownstone. I lucked out, though, because they couldn’t find parking, so we had to meet them elsewhere.
Somewhere in one of my grandmothers’ many photo albums is a picture of me standing next to a large sign. That’s the entrance for the University of Southern Maine, where my grandmother believed I was going.
I didn’t even know where the university was until that day. Fortunately, Jess did, and directed my grandfather from the back seat with me to its campus. Posing in front of that sign for my grandmother as actual students walked by was really awkward, but worse was to come.
See, I’d told my grandmother I was working at a video rental store as well as going to university. Now, she wanted to see that, too, and in panic I’d told her I was working at the largest one in the city, which was also a CD store and a cafe where all the most interesting people hung out. Suddenly, we were driving there, because my grandmother really, really, really wanted to see where I worked.
Jess met my panicked looks with her own, realising what was about to happen.
Like out of some American comedy film, I was going to have to enter one of the coolest places in the city and pretend I worked there, while she and I tried to distract my grandmother from actually asking any of my supposed co-workers about me.
We were two blocks away when suddenly Jess started searching her purse. It was impossible to talk to each other without my grandparents hearing, and anyway we were already looking quite conspiratorial, so I held my breath. Then, Jess pulled something triumphantly out of her purse, waved it at me quickly, and then handed it to my grandmother.
It was a photograph. Me, smiling ridiculously, wearing the cheap polyester polo work shirt that was part of my uniform. “It’s a photo of him at work!” Jess had said when she presented it to my grandmother.
Jess had read the situation better than I had. My grandfather had become impatient with all the side trips, and was anyway not much for knowing the private details of all his grandchildren. He was more practical, down to earth. He’d grown up in a poor farming family in the mid west and never really embraced all the east coast obsession with status.
“Oh! That’s great, Jess, thank you!” she said, staring at the photo while searching her own purse for her glasses.
My grandfather was happy, too. “I don’t think I’ll find parking, let’s visit his store another day.”
Jess smiled at me triumphantly. She was the best fake girlfriend a gay dude could ever have, and even more so because of her final act a moment later.
My grandmother asked if she could keep the photo, hold on to it forever as a memory of my life there. Jess asked if she could see it again for a moment, and my grandmother handed it back to her. She then looked as if she were about to explode in laughter and shook her head.
“Do you mind if I just check to see if I still have the negatives? It’s my favorite picture of him, but if I have them I can have a duplicate made and send it to you.”
My grandmother absolutely saw the logic in this, and for years later told me Jess was a perfect woman for me. She kept asking about her long after I told her that Jess had gone back to Duke. I sadly lost contact with her myself, though I hope perhaps someday she’ll read this and still have that photo.
I did so much to keep up appearances for my grandmother. Now that she is dead, I’m of course asking myself how much of that was really necessary. I tried to protect her from knowing too much about my life, which is to say that I tried to protect myself from her disappointment.
I’m a writer now. Maybe not the famous one she thought I would be, or not yet, but regardless I’m what she thought I was. I could never tell her I didn’t want to marry a woman, nor could I ever tell her that Jess wasn’t actually my girlfriend, or really much else about my life. Definitely not that I’m a pagan, or a leftist, or about soon getting married to a man.
I wish I could have, which is one of the things that ancestor veneration exists to help with. I hated lying to keep up appearances, and I lived most of my adult life in a way that I never have to do that for others. I also live my life in a way where no one feels they need to lie to me, that those I care for and those who care for me can all just be honest about who we are and how things aren’t always beautiful.
I learned to hide things about myself, and I learned that from her, but that was the wrong lesson. I’ve now unlearned that, and learned that hiding yourself from others is a great way to make yourself and others quite miserable.
Still though, it’s a good thing my grandmother hadn’t been wearing her glasses when she saw that photo, and an even better thing Jess hadn’t let her keep it.
In it, I’m smiling, tripping on acid, standing in front of a wall of merchandise. Several friends were there, all hanging out waiting for me to close the store so we could go dancing.
I don’t remember why Jess took that photo, but I do remember the one video cover whose details you could make out clearly just next to my face.
As I said, it was an adult video store, a porn shop, and just next to me is a picture of a woman, her eyes bright and her lips parted in a broad open smile as she is about to shove a very, very large black cock in her mouth.