Bréjean finds a folder of her deceased grandmother’s poetry tucked away in a closet and learns that she has a lot more in common with her “prim and proper” grandmother than she thought.
Written, produced, and sound designed by Lori Mortimer.
Story editing by Galen Beebe.
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Birds Sound Effect by BurghRecords
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[00:00:00] LORI: Mementos sometimes what you really keep is on the inside.
BRÉJEAN: I feel like I’m very different from my grandmother. But am I?
She had such an image that she kept up. She was very prim and proper. You know, she had perfectly coiffed hair, and she had to have her face on, and she had to have her jewelry on.
And my grandfather was buttoned down shirts, ties, jackets when you went to visit him. They were not to be seen even in private or in public when they were not wearing those, you know, what felt like uniforms of the, um, prim and properness of it all.
In her home, you know, there was the matching bedroom set, and then in the dining room, the table and the, the armoire and the buffet, and the chairs, like everything was all about how it looked.
It was a little three bedroom ranch. All the rooms were kind of small. But what really struck you when you went to see her was when you walked into the living room, with the green and gold furniture – ’cause that was her color scheme – right over the fireplace, was a giant picture of my grandmother. Posed, sitting there, stately, lording over this home.
And that was just showing that she was really, she was the one in control of that home.
And all the while she had this wild side of her that she couldn’t talk about or share.
LORI: Welcome back to Mementos. I’m Lori Mortimer, the host and producer of the show. If you’re listening for the first time, thank you. It’s great to have you here.
This week, we have our first grandma episode! My guest, Bréjean, is going to tell us about a memento that’s helped her see her grandmother in an entirely new light.
Just a heads up that there’s some content in this episode that’s not suitable for kids.
Bréjean lives in the U.S. with her wife their cats. They’re also the parents to two adult unschooled children who have long been out of the house.
Her story starts in 2012, after her mother passed away.
BRÉJEAN: And when that happened, I went to her house to go through her belongings. And there was like a little linen closet in the hallway.
Now, this house belonged to her parents. And when her parents died, she moved into the house. So a lot of the belongings in the house were from my grandparents, Ruth and Sal.
So I went through the belongings, and I went through that closet, and way on the top shelf, underneath some towels, was a brown envelope.
And it said my grandmother’s name on it. And it said “poetry.” And sure enough, I saw what my mother had told me many, many years ago when I was a little, that my grandmother was a poet.
LORI: Even though Bréjean knew her grandmother was a poet, she’d never seen any of the poetry and they never talked about it.
The poems had been stored carefully and neatly, in chronological order, in an envelope and with a label that matched the way Bréjean’s grandfather stored all the important papers in that house.
Her early writings when she was little were all to do with nature. And they were very, um, sort of faith based. It was a lot of mention of God in her poetry, but a lot of mention of the beauty of nature, which really spoke to me because I’m pagan. So I found my spirituality in nature, and I found that really interesting that my grandmother, as a young girl, felt the same way.
BRÉJEAN: February 8th, 1933, Ruth, age 12. A poem called “A Tree.”
Have you ever seen anything
As lovely as a tree?
Anything more useful
Or more beautiful to see?
They are messengers of God,
Who sent them from above
To help us and remind us
Of the good God and his love
And so we should not forget
When we look up and see
The power and beauty of the Lord
All revealed in a tree
Isn’t that wonderful? And I love that because as a pagan, one of our holidays is called Mabon, and Mabon is when we hug trees. So we go out, and everyone finds a tree in the yard and communes with it and hugs it. And I can just picture my grandmother writing this poem, sitting in her yard, looking up at the trees. And she was inspired to write a poem about them.
And I just felt such a connection. ’Cause I could see myself having written exactly the same poem at her age.
The mention of God, I would have expressed that differently, but the wonder and the sacredness and the spirituality was the same for me as it was for her. And in that way, I just felt like, Hey, I knew you.
I knew you when you were little. I was you when you were little and I was little, and that is a really wonderful thing for me.
It’s almost like genetics. It’s almost like we all have that in our genes, in my family. And my children do, too. Like, they’re very connected to nature. So those are the ways in which we keep those connections going through our ancestors. And we don’t even know that were doing it. I didn’t even know that my grandmother had these interests. And there they were this whole time in an envelope in the top of her closet.
There were so many years where there was no writings of hers at all. So clearly she was raising her family. She was doing all of that stuff. And then she, uh, entered the workforce later on in life. And then she rediscovered her, her love of writing.
LORI: In the envelope, Bréjean found poems that very much sounded like the adult version of young Ruth, with reflections on nature and family.
BRÉJEAN: And then, and then I found 18 pages of an erotic poem that my grandmother wrote.
Hello, grandma. [Laughter.]
LORI: Hello, indeed. I will say that what Bréjean refers to as an erotic poem is truly porn.
The poem is written in the first person. And the protagonist is an 18-year-old girl out in the workforce for the first time.
“Diary of a French Steno”
I am a young stenographer. My age is just 18.
And I will frankly tell you of the things I’ve heard and seen.
The men have always called me a very pretty girl.
They say my form is perfect. My mother named me Pearl.
And then on we go.
LORI: Each stanza tells a story about how Pearl pinched, pulled, groped. Constantly sexually harassed at a series of jobs.
And every time she defended herself from these assaults, she lost her job. Eventually, Pearl has had enough. And she decides at her next interview, she’s gonna take control of the situation.
At last, I have decided to take things as they came,
And if I lost another job, I’d have myself to blame.
And then she proceeded to have this really sexual relationship with the man that’s her boss.
Like, she was victimized by these men until she turned it around and said, alright, I’m gonna use this. I’m gonna, I’m gonna look at my sexuality as a power that I’m gonna take charge of this, you know, relationship. Kind of like, if this is gonna to happen to me anyway, I’m gonna own it.
And I’m gonna take control of it.
LORI: The last half of the poem describes Pearl and her boss getting it on, over and over.
BRÉJEAN: She goes on and on and on and on. With words for body parts that I never knew.
I would never have believed that my grandmother would have written that. Especially just sort of her outward appearance being so perfect all the time. And she had this secret side of herself at a time where, certainly women could not be exploring their sexuality.
LORI: After the long poem, the envelope contained a short story. And that revealed another connection between Bréjean and her grandmother.
BRÉJEAN: It was queer writing. You know, my grandmother wrote about, uh, experiences with other women, which I found fascinating because I’m a lesbian and both my children are queer.
LORI: It’s the story of a high school girl named Jan who’s exploring her sexuality with other teens.
BRÉJEAN: Jan had a very explicit encounter with, with her sister named Helen. But the way that she wrote it was very much … it was like a sexual fantasy between two women. And I don’t think that the incestual piece of that was the point. I think the point was — at least that’s my takeaway now — as I’m looking at this thinking that somebody who was repressed because of her religion or her upbringing or society or whatever was happening around her, like this was a way that she could talk about having a lesbian, um, experience with somebody, in — I don’t know if I would use the word safe — but in a way that she would understand.
[00:11:59] LORI: In the envelope, along with the short story, Bréjean found an adult porn magazine from the same era.
She sees a connection between the fantasy world of Ruth’s story and the material world of the magazine.
BRÉJEAN: I really think that my grandmother was bisexual.
I feel like that magazine was my grandmother’s way of being able to access images of women, naked women, who are having sex with each other, even though there were men involved. Coupled with this porn that she wrote, that was her way of being able to experience something that she wasn’t able to really experience. Like this fantasy or this desire to be with other women.
I mean, you could look at that magazine and think, well, maybe it was Grandpa’s magazine, but it wasn’t Grandpa’s magazine. It was with Grandma’s poetry.
Everything was all about appearances for her. So if she really thought it would tarnish her reputation to be out in any way as bisexual, she would have thought that that was the worst thing that could happen.
So how torturous that would have been for her to, to live in a, in a prison, a prison of many bars, of many definitions. So it makes sense that she would keep everybody at an arm’s length, that she would play her cards close to her chest, that she would be, you know, unapproachable, that she would not be able to open up warmly.
When I came across her porn writing I felt like I was almost, um, violating her privacy.
But then when I thought about it, it was, it was saved. That envelope had survived through her life. And then after she passed, my grandfather kept it.
And then when he passed, my mother moved into that house.
And it’s interesting because my mom was pretty conservative in a lot of ways. And she must have had some kind of pride in my grandmother’s writings because my mom knew everything that was in that house. And she, she knew what was in that closet.
And I think that’s interesting that it was in the closet. Literally.
It felt like it was meant for us — and by us I mean my family — to know this side of Ruth.
And we had such a good time reading it all with both of my kids sitting around the kitchen table that day. We still talk about it. We talk about grandma’s porn.
I think that my grandmother would have been at least proud that someone found her writing, and that’s where I struggle with what to do with it from this point on.
I wrestle with the concept of coming out versus not coming out. And certainly, she chose not to. But it’s important, especially in the queer community, for us to know our history.
Do I publish it so that other queer people can see a part of our history in the writings of a woman who could not speak out loud who she was?
So I’m torn about what to do with it, but I think so much about my grandmother and about what life was like for her and what would have been different for her had she been able to be out. But I think that’s the case for many queer people. I mean, myself included.
I didn’t come out until I was 40. Um, so I think the parallels are kind of interesting because she would have written that queer porn around that same age.
I’ll never know if she wants it published, if she wants it shared with the rest of the world. Or whether just it’s enough for her that her family knows.
I just think that she would have been happy to have it in my hands.
And I think about, like, sometimes we keep mementos because something will remind us of someone.
But in this case, I’m keeping something that is an item of discovery.
About her, about my family, and about my, my heritage, which I think is amazingly beautiful and important and certainly is a gift to me.
LORI: I am always so grateful to my guests for trusting me, a new podcaster, with their stories, and that’s especially true with this episode. Thank you, Bréjean, for trusting me with this story.
This episode was written, sound designed and produced by me, Lori Mortimer. And Galen Beebe was the story editor.
The music is from Blue Dot Sessions and Looperman.
And you all for listening. Keeping with the theme of grandmothers, there is something you can do for me. What would be really helpful for me is if you thought of yourself as my grandmother and you just started bragging about the show everywhere you go. Just whip out your phone like it’s a wallet full of snapshots, and show your friends and family how to subscribe. Thank you in advance for being obnoxious on my behalf.
My next episode will be out in a few weeks. My goal is to have something ready for you before Thanksgiving so that you have something to listen to if you’re traveling.
Thanks again. See you soon.