When I walked into my Granny Ruth's house on Christmas Day, with my extended (and extensive) maternal family of aunts and uncles and cousins awaiting the start of the annual Southern Indiana holiday buffet, it was just moments before my grandmother rushed up to ask my about my picture with the president.
Short version: 2009 was the first year I got an invite to the White House holiday party for the Washington press corps -- surely a sign of at least some change in Washington -- and as part of it, my husband and I had our picture taken with President and Mrs. Obama. I would say that for old Washington press hounds this isn't a big deal, but they seemed just as eager and starry-eyed as anyone while waiting in line for six seconds with the Obamas. It was, I'll admit, a big deal for Cavin and me.
It was a big deal for Granny Ruth, as well. She had a print-out of the photo pinned to her bulletin board and exhibited the exuberant, buoyant pride that only grandparents can provide. At 42 and fairly comfortable with my accomplishments in life thus far, I still find comfort and validation in that. I don't think it makes me a super traditionalist to say that it's important to me to make my family proud -- even if it's something as ultimately minor as posing for a picture with a president.
The next day Cavin and I, along with my sister, drove to Western Kentucky to visit Granny Bugg. After a trip to the local Chinese buffet restaurant -- a notably new feature after the days of my youth when dining out pretty much revolved around Hardee's, Taco John's and Burger Queen -- and an extended game of dominoes, I mentioned to Granny that Cavin and I had had our photo taken with the president. Her face darkened and her small frame contracted tensely in her wheelchair as she leveled her gaze at me and said, "That's nothing I can be proud of."
We Buggs are good at conversation stoppers.
I don't write this to disparage either my granny, whom I love dearly -- even if at 97-years-old she's rather un-proud of the course my life has taken -- or my family, the name of which I carry with more pride than I believe many of them suspect. I say it because it's important to know how far we have yet to go -- despite the fact that she can break bread with my husband, even include him in our annual gift of Christmas money, we will always be outside the family. Tolerated, even loved, but never wholly included.
Some bridges for Granny Bugg are a little too far.
I consider myself blessed to be a middle-aged man with two living grandmothers -- not only does it speak to my genetic chances for longevity, it gives me a far stronger and more vibrant connection to my family history. One grandmother, born in the second decade of the last century, maintains a southern politeness that never quite accepts the challenges of a world that's radically changed. Another grandmother, the wife of World War II soldier and mother of seven children raised in rural semi-privation, at 85 finds herself cheerfully participating in the gay Buddhist wedding of her first grandchild.
It's that last I strive to remember: That when we find ourselves stuck in the hidebound prejudices of the past, things and people do change. Even if some of the people we love don't change in quite the ways we would hope.