University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik celebrates her son’s college graduation alongside her ex-mother-in-law.
Though I have neither superpowers nor a signature form-fitting costume, I do have something in common with comic book heroes. I have a historic nemesis. Mine is a 72-year-old Italian lady from Philadelphia.
This defender of decency, aka “Grandma Grace,” has strong opinions and she sticks by them. Mickey Mouse, Marriott hotels, Jesus and Coca-Cola are in. Barack Obama, Pepsi and Marion Winik are out. New on the blacklist, I learned during our recent New Orleans visit, is that ancient symbol of the French monarchy, the fleur-de-lis. I was admiring one in an abstract assemblage by one of the artists who hang work on the iron gates of Jackson Square.
“What a cool painting,” I said.
“I hate that floor-de-less!” she retorted in her squeaky Marge Simpson voice. “And look! It’s everywhere!”
“But it always has been,” I told her. “It’s, like, the official symbol of New Orleans.”
“Only since 2004!” she replied heatedly.
Grandma Grace and I got along for about a half-hour in the mid-90s, both stoned on grief and somewhat delusional after the death of the young man who was her son and my husband. Before that and ever since, she has found little to appreciate in my character. Perhaps I seem to her to be a nasty cross between a controlling Jewish-American Princess and a self-indulgent smartypants. Perhaps I am. Still, you might think the fact that I produced and raised her darling grandsons would redeem me.
On the contrary, she has tried to protect them from me as best she can.
In recent years, as the boys have grown up, our run-ins are fewer and farther between. The last was at Hayes’s graduation from Georgetown in 2010, for which she came down on a bus from her home in the Poconos. The ceremony went smoothly enough, but Grandma Grace does not enjoy celebrations of the chaotic, alcoholic sort my offspring and I go in for. She spent most of Hayes’s graduation party in the basement reminiscing about Catholic school with a guest who’d unwittingly admitted having attended one. When I returned her to the Greyhound terminal, she leapt from my car with her rolly bag and fled.
The stressfulness of this occasion was a chilling preview of what might go down in 2012, when Vince would graduate from Loyola in New Orleans. He would walk across the stage with his best friend since age three, Sam Shahin, whose parents have played a major supporting role in our lives. They were the family I wanted to be with — the family that likes me, for God’s sake.
The significance of this graduation was even greater because New Orleans was the city where I met the boys’ father. My encouraging my son to go to college there had been a way of strengthening our bond to a place I loved. From the moment I arrived at Mardi Gras in 1983, I had recognized this tropical mutant of a city, this mecca of Sodomites and Gomorrans, as my spiritual hometown. Among the misogynist gay guys, the drunken yet genteel Southerners, the skinny black people in kitchens, the fat white people on porches, the characters out of Tennessee Williams and Ellen Gilchrist and Anne Rice, I somehow fit right in.
Of course that was in the years before the accursed fleur-de-lis took hold.