By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—
To some extent it’s always been the aim of my writing, as well as my activism, to personalize transgender people, to take “transgender people” from just an idea, a “phenomenon” you have heard about, and make us real to you. I’ve aimed to paint a picture of us as not simply something you’ve heard about, but as just folks, individuals who aside from being transgender have people we love and foods we hate and work troubles and worries about the future and concerns about the government and relationship problems and happy times when we celebrate a little too much. People, in short, just like you. Just like you, we have families we love and people in those families who teach us how to be in the world, who inspire us to be who we are. For me, one of those people was my Nana, Arline Carragher.
My parents divorced when I was quite young and I would stay with one of them during the week and the other on the weekends. One of the results of this was that with two single, working parents, I spent a lot of time being taken care of by my respective grandparents. Though none of my family was actually from Cape Cod, my parents moved there when I was an infant and both sets of grandparents “retired” to different parts of The Cape around the same time. Effectively, I was raised by not just my parents, but also very much by my grandparents. Believe me, there’s a lot of stories, but this one is about my Mom’s mum, who we called Nana.
Nana was an only child, like I was. Though she was a good, Irish Catholic matriarch who had raised five children of her own, she and I had that experience in common, which no one else in the family really understood. I’d come to her house after school while my Mom was still at work. I’d watch TV in the den with her or we’d play board games. Sometimes, if I was staying late, she and my Grandpa Joe would teach me card games (Nana loved to gamble!) while they drank Black Russians (her favorite drink). Though my Grandpa Joe had retired from the Textile Industry, my Nana was always busy in her own careers. She was a realtor for much of my childhood.
I remember her bringing me along when she worked and being so impressed by her office and by all the people she knew. It seemed to me like she knew everyone and everyone loved her. She could talk so easily to everyone. It must have been the old Irish gift for gab! I suspect much of the socialite I am today, I owe to her inspiration. However, with all the people she knew, her family was what mattered most. Family was the most important thing in the world. Though we all might fight sometimes with our big Irish tempers, we loved each other with equal intensity. [pullquote]At one point, as we sat in the viewing area, she noticed a woman glancing back, giving me dirty looks. When Nana saw this, she leaned forward, looked the woman directly in the eye and told her, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”[/pullquote]
One of the ways she took care of us was to make sure we always had enough to eat. I can’t say she was a great cook, though she instilled in me a deep and abiding love of mashed potatoes. I learned early on that “Are you hungry?” was not so much a question as a command and it would be easiest to simply give in quickly.
Though the family Catholicism was not much forced on me, I was baptized, but that’s as far as my parents saw fit to make me do. I have happy memories of it. I knew our parish was Saint Francis Xavier and that was the church the Kennedys attended, which as an Irish-American kid from Cape Cod, impressed me greatly. As a young actor, I always loved the show the Catholic Church put on, the ceremony of it and the stories. I knew also that it was my Nana’s faith and I would always associate her with the things that were good about the Catholic faith. Years later, I even had the chance to attend Latin Vespers Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica in The Vatican. I sent my Nana a postcard, and though I was never Confirmed, never took First Communion, I think that sealed the deal for me with Nana. Even after I transitioned, I was the one who got blessed by The Pope. I was all good.
In more recent years, I was privileged to get to know my Nana as an adult, to know more about the strong, independent woman she had been, the mother who had to live through the deaths of two sons, a daughter and her husband. Before that though, she was the girl who had a crush on the hot football player in her high school shorthand class, a young Jack Kerouac. She was the Navy WAVE who was a single woman in Brooklyn during WWII, working in the leave office. She was the woman who spent wild nights on the town with handsome sailors, who after the war, settled down to raise a family back in Lowell, Mass. with an Air Force Radio Man she met at a Dale Carnegie Public Speaking course. She was a woman of many facets, a loving wife and mother who nonetheless never let the spark of adventure die in her.
When I transitioned, she never wavered. She never treated me differently or loved me less. She had questions, but adapted quickly, using my new name more often than not. When Pope Benedict decided for Christmas a few years ago to denounce transgender people as “abominations,” I gladly accompanied her to church, where she proudly introduced her granddaughter Lorelei to everyone.
Most powerfully, I remember going to a family funeral around the same time. It was a more distant family member I did not know, but it was family, so we were there. I held my head high sitting next to Nana, trying to ignore the usual stares and comments. My Nana was not so quiet. At one point, as we sat in the viewing area, she noticed a woman glancing back, giving me dirty looks. When Nana saw this, she leaned forward, looked the woman directly in the eye and told her, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
Arline Grace Clare Carragher, my Nana, passed away on June 29, 2013. God, I will miss her. I only hope I can be as amazing a woman as she was. It’s certainly what I try to be. I love you Nana!
*Lorelei Erisis is an activist, adventurer and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.