This article was first published in Guts — Canadian Feminist Magazine. Michael and Gary’s experience living with Michael’s grandmother has inspired a web series entitled We Three Queens written by Michael and directed by Tom Cable Rees.
We three queens of (dis)orient are…
… living together in a small, turn-of-the-century brick house on a busy Toronto thoroughfare nicknamed Sufferin’. As Queen D often reminds me, Dufferin used to be a quiet boulevard of tall trees and wide lawns. Today, it’s a noisy urban artery home to a mixed population of immigrants, upstarts, queers, and blue collars.
Who is Queen D? She’s the first queen and my ninety-one-year-old grandmother: an eighty-nine-pound fountain of sharp-witted sarcasm, ex-seamstress, and bowling champ. Who am I? I’m Michael: a thirty-one year old writer, actor, and propagator of indoor foliage (I have around eighty plants on the go at all times). The third queen is Gary. Gary is my boyfriend and a twenty-eight-year-old academic, verbal-boxer, and co-parent to Darcy, Poc, and Mariette (our wolfish canine, fat black cat, and aloof himalayan).
Beyond being my granny, or as I call her Nanny, D is the Lady of Sufferin’ street, the presiding princess of the palace, the countess of our modest estate, and the queen of her own two cats: Sashi and Marmy, a spritely tabby and an arthritic ginger. That makes four cats, three queens, one dog, and a fuck-load of plants all living under one roof.
We live in an unconventional situation. This project is an opportunity to reflect on a living setup that has a lot of our friends scratching their heads. It is an exploration of our queer and feminist take on home and maternalism. It is a collaborative reflection on death, life, love, and care within the context of an intergenerational house. We, Michael and Gary—two out of three queens—have done our best to incorporate Queen D’s voice into our musings, but we acknowledge that even our best efforts at adequate representation will fall short. Our living arrangement is complicated, so we’ve decided to forego discussing the specifics of this project with D, ultimately, to protect her feelings and her pride. We wonder whether this choice is problematic; we’re sure D has many opinions about living with us, too. We know this because sometimes we overhear as we pass by her phone conversations with friends. It appears that she finds us just as hilarious as we find her. After a funny quip about the plant and animal menagerie we have wrought, or about our lack of real careers, D always follows up her critical observations with a confirmation that this set up is, overall, good; this is usually in the form of her assuring us that our dog is “really, not a bad animal” and that “in time she’ll come around.” D believes she is doing her poor grandsons a favour, while we believe we are taking care of her. We are mutually affirmed in our care responsibilities and our belief that in time our home will “come around.” We three queens possess just enough saviour-complex to keep each of us here.
Gary, on living in the Queens’ palace
Queen D is not my blood kin. There are pros and cons to this fact. I may not be heir to her throne, but my guest status protects me from getting my head chopped off. I jest, but I do feel that my place in the palace is secure. D and I are best friends. She shows me rare and valuable attentive love in the form of wisdom, compassion, concern, and criticism. I think the ways in which we mutually benefit from our living arrangement help to ensure we remain loyal, both to the palace and to each other.
The Queens’ palace, although fabulous, is not that unique. Our living arrangement is part of a cultural shift. Take, for example, the Dutch non-profit Humanitas, which promotes intergenerational living. At the Humanitas retirement home in Deventer, Netherlands, students are allotted free housing in exchange for not being assholes to their senior neighbours. This particular program requires students to fulfill a thirty-hour-a-month quota of chill time with their wisdom-wrinkled housemates. Judson Manor, a senior living community in Cleveland, Ohio, has a partnership with the Cleveland Institute of Music that facilitates the exchange of free student rent for monthly performances. An intergenerational program that was developed in Barcelona in the late 1990s has spread to more than twenty cities across Spain, according to The International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. Given that youth are struggling to find room, board, and decent work in these hard economic times, I suspect these initiatives will only grow in popularity. Moving into the palace has definitely garnered us some financial relief.
The social renegade in me supports the bridging of generational divides featured in our current living situation. Western settler cultures have nasty habits regarding the politics of care. Its affiliated labour, typically regarded as burdensome, is often outsourced from the family to (under)paid employees. Cultural aversions to aging and disability; a fast-paced, competitive-capitalist work ethic; and a paranoid obsession with youth, beauty, health, sex, innocence, freedom, energy, potential, and time collaborate to devalue and disconnect the elderly from their families, societies, and lives. Calling the Queens’ palace “home” is radical. Refuting destructive aspects of our culture by choosing to be here, as small an act as it may be, feels empowering.
Admittedly, I am not so sure I could sustain a similar living arrangement with my own grandmother. Michael and his soft masculinity teach me new lessons every day. He is, in fact, the trailblazer in our dynamic, propelling us forward along these off-beaten tracks of kinship. We are here and this is queer!
Although our living situation is countercultural, it’s not easy. Roommates, royalty or not, are often difficult and seldom innocent. A ninety-one-year-old human has the unique capacity to think they know best and, most often, be right. And while her advice can be helpful, it’s not always invited. Moreover, D is fiercely opinionated on the way things should be done in her home. The survival of her house, her daughter, her cats, and herself fuels her queeney self-righteousness; the “I must be doing something right” mantra seems to motor D along. But trying to carve out your own identity alongside someone whose identity is so established can be a bit of a buzzkill. And let’s be real: roommates can be cockblocks at the best of time. Nothing reroutes the blood from my penis faster than hearing a ninety-one-year-old woman fart in the adjacent room. The problem is not the grotesque or aging body; D is gorgeous. The problem is the close proximity of another complex human being to our already complicated partnered existence. Ultimately, and despite any frictions, promoting communal living across any purported divide—intergenerational, international, interspecies—rejects the neoliberal-individualist ethos, whose strong tide and glimmering waters can easily pull us in but will do little to keep us afloat.
When we first entered the palace, we naively thought we were there to help with menial chores and general domestic upkeep. Our initial approach was cold in its pragmatism. We tried to understand what D needed, when and how we could be of assistance, without always hearing her answer. Despite six months of doing what we perceived she expected of us—taking out the trash, vacuuming the house, cleaning the kitty litter, changing light bulbs, bringing the cats to the vet, taking her highness on her ritualistic tours of the grocery store—D didn’t seem happy to have us around.
We wanted D to continue living in the palace exactly as she had been. But, after about six months of doing precisely that, our relationship with her felt strained. In the mornings I avoided eye contact with D and the resulting drawn-out conversations full of regal complaints and tedious requests. Tensions mounted, our space and privacy (a patch of basement) thinned, and D blamed us for everything. Despite having been retroactively vindicated of many an accusation, and regardless of our helping work, the energy in the palace was not rosy.
It was just short of our first full year here that we realized how in our attempt to master helping D we had shut her out. I had become more focused on chores than on loving D. We do help a great deal, and D has voiced feeling more secure with us around, but her dynasty could continue without us. If she wants her front porch shovelled, she can call the handyman down the street (which she does if we’re not out there fast enough!). What I suspect D wants from us, and what I doubt she will ever vocalize, is to be received; recognized as still a part of it. I think, therefore, the most valuable thing we can do for D is validate her stories, observations, and experiences by witnessing them. When she sees someone on television older than she is, her eyes cackle and she voices some smart aleck comment like: “maybe the old bat’s got some years left in her after all!” D has voraciously and proudly outlived much of her world in the form of family, friends, and cats. I bet the best care that we can provide is in the form of a seat at her kitchen table, across from the throne, listening to the marvelous thens and theres of the Queen’s lush yesteryears while she pours herself another glass of wine.
Mike, on death, life and loving your elder
Living with someone in their nineties can feel a lot like living closer to the centre of time’s whirlpool. Though macabre, it is very possible that one morning either Gary or I will wake to find D not awake. Worse yet, we could find her in the aftermath of a fatal accident: a slip, a fall, or some other mundane but potentially fatal catastrophe. On the flip side, D could find one of us succumbed to the kind of foolishness her years would never permit: a candle left burning late, a walk home through a “rough” neighbourhood, a tired drive into bad weather. She worries about us and we worry about her. In many ways, the possibility of our premature demises probably holds more disastrous psychological potential for my grandmother than the inevitability of hers does for us.
The specter of someone else’s death is a reminder of one’s own mortality. Lacking adequate belief-systems for death, WASP-y cultures treat mortality as contagious. We relinquish the elderly to glass tanks in the sky, where they can be attended to by professionals and visited only when one feels particularly invulnerable—as Gary discussed. To some degree, living with D undermines a security we would otherwise be afforded by youth: the security of taught bodies, distracting sex, abstracted senses of self, and the comfort of objects. Intergenerational living can provide a hard perspective. D only needs to take one apathetic look at something we treasure (say, a charming new bed-side table pulled-off the curb) and we remember that we only have our bodies and not forever—nothing else really matters. Despite her wisdom and subsequent pessimism, the Queen is full of vitality.
Busy and vibrant, if tiny and birdlike, D spends much of her time “closing-up shop”: going through old files, discarding irrelevant documents, earmarking important receipts, and throwing out old furniture (much of which we recover and scurry back up into the attic). A large part of what invigorates my Nanny is the very practice of winding down. She seems to have gone boldly into a phase of retraction: growing smaller, with more refined needs and fewer personal objects required to meet these needs—as though this phase of her life is nothing more than a challenge to be tackled. Item by item, she is detaching herself from the materials that once sustained her. We joke that one day we might come home to find her throwing out her own bed. Or, perhaps she’ll remove a scarf and disappear into the kitchen wallpaper: a final deconstruction, ta-da! [pullquote]“I called that poor girl every nasty word under the sun except the F-word. I never use the F-word.”[/pullquote]
Despite scaling-back in practical ways, D plans to live on. “Focus on life, not death,” she repeats to herself, a mantra offered to her by her physician. And so, she jumps on a mini-trampoline, her hair bobbing up and down as though it were all one piece, and spins on a metallic-blue exercise bike. She reads Vitamin Bible for the 21st Century, a book from the ’90s, like a novel and spends twenty minutes every now and then in front of a sunlamp, wearing tanning goggles. She is opinionated, stubborn, stylish, and not in the practice of suffering fools. God help the young grocery store employee who accidentally knocked her off her feet while pushing a flat of coke. (As D explains, “I called that poor girl every nasty word under the sun except the F-word. I never use the F-word.” To be fair, the Queen suffered a string of potentially awful accidents around that time, one of which put her out of commission for several months. Still, two days after screaming at the grocery store employee, she made her way back to apologize: an impressive gesture of character, in my opinion.)
One morning in April of 2014, I came marching in with a gnarly ten-foot dracaena tree, prepared to position it in a corner of the palace living room; I had rescued the tree from a cold February sidewalk the year earlier. Gary and I had been moving our stuff into D’s house over the previous couple of days but this was the final moment, in which some of our quirkiest possessions would make their debut. Nanny and I had spoken about this tree prior to its arrival. She had recalled it from a dinner we had hosted at our previous apartment. “I know what tree you’re talking about, and I don’t like it,” she had said, scornfully.
What do you mean, you don’t like it? How can you dislike a tree?
This was so typical of my grandmother; she was digging her heels in just to keep control. But can you blame her? She’d spent the last fifteen years living alone after my grandfather died. When she asked Gary and I to move in with her, I don’t think she envisioned us as three-dimensional living bodies, occupying the space that was formally hers. Of course, from D’s perspective, we are intimate intruders. She wants us here but not for the practical help. We’re here for the company. In a way, our job is to bond with her. The more we race by her, only stopping when practical help is needed, the more we are estranged. The more we spend quality time with her, on the other hand, the more our worlds mesh and my giant dracaena seems less like a foreign object in her living room.
Prior to living together, D was my kindly old granny, though not the kindly old granny that might come to mind, holding out a pan of muffins: D is her own woman and is prone to “bad humour,” as she puts it. It is easy to love the idea of a grandmother but something quite different to get to know your grandmother, intimately. What if you discover that you don’t actually like this person very much? Luckily, through the challenges we have faced, I have probably come to love D more genuinely. And she has probably come to love me more genuinely, though it has been a challenge for her too.
I was always the mediator in my family: the easygoing, dependable, thoughtful one. I don’t think the Queen realized that I am also moody, emotional, reactive, and unable to sit still. “You’re moving too quickly,” she always tells me. “You’re trying to do too much.” At first, this frustrated me. I’m trying to make my life happen! Aren’t you the one always asking me whether I’ve found a full-time job yet? But I came to realize that Nanny was right. It doesn’t matter what I think I’m trying to accomplish, it takes the presence of a ninety-one-year-old woman, for whom going to the bathroom requires scheduling, to see that I (and probably most of us youngsters) live a life of nonstop distraction. Our sense of importance is derived from the multiplicity of narratives we run at once: career development, bodily improvements, socioeconomic ladder climbing. I have no time to just sit and be (lest the world pass me by!).
Sometimes it takes all the patience I have to park my butt at the Queen’s kitchen table and just sit, looking at her, listening to her, not thinking about the next thing I have to do. In this way, D is very much a mother figure to me; her mere presence helps to put my frazzled brain in check. She cares, and her care preserves my well-being. It also helps me gain greater insights into what I will care about when I’m ninety-one. The Queen’s wisdom has kept her alive a long time; I should be so lucky to last as long as she has.
Who cares? On masculinity, men and maternal care
We three are all mothers. D is a mother to one daughter, and a grandmother to us. Michael and I are childless, but we concur with many maternal theorists’ conceptualization of male mothers. We abide by the definition of “mother” that is often promoted throughout motherhood studies: anyone who satisfies the preservation, growth, and social acceptability of children. These three demands of maternal practice are durable remnants of Sara Ruddick’s foundational theorizing from the 1980s. [pullquote]Living with D has sharpened our caring capabilities and knowledges.[/pullquote]
Although Michael and I do not mother biological children of our own, we care for many. These feminist, queer, and maternal allegiances are foundations of our personalities. We both care for children—Gary as a manny (male nanny) and Michael as the director of an after-school program. We both care for D, we both care for each other, and we both care for the many non-humans in our lives. We have worked hard to develop masculinities founded upon a maternal, feminist, and queer care ethic, in opposition to masculine ideals of dominance, independence, aggression, and apathy. We prefer to cultivate rather than to destroy, to care, rather than defend against. We believe our maternal identifications can exist free of essentialized notions of gender and sex. We maintain “mother” as a feminist acknowledgement that women have been and still are doing most of the care work. Male mothers help to queer essentialized notions of care and help perpetuate care, growth, and sensitivity more generally throughout society—across gender, living arrangements, and careers.
Living with D has sharpened our caring capabilities and knowledges. Philanthropic monthly visits to one’s grandmother are not what we have reflected on here: rather, we have learned that being present and willing to discuss world politics at one in the morning with D while she eats her late night cereal is a more effective kind of nurturing care. We have learned that care in intergenerational relationships can be best fostered through friendship. Forming a genuine and passionate relationship with D has put our living dynamic into perspective; we are here first and foremost to love, and taking out the garbage comes with that territory.
We three queens provide each other with the relational, sensitive, and compassionate care that all living things should be afforded—inherent to their beating hearts. We are, depending on the day or the lens, mothers and sons and grandmothers and fags and bitches and caregivers and seniors and gardeners and students and lovers and feminists and quaens (look that one up!) and queens. We care about each other and for each other. It’s fun and weird, but ultimately sustaining. Here, at the palace, we all receive the royal treatment.