(Photo courtesy Sally Kohn, illustration by Nancy Gonzalez/TueNight)
My grandfather’s name was Sam. He was my father’s father and spent his adult life first as a traveling salesman and then running a grocery store in Omaha, Nebraska, where my grandfather and his family were among the small crop of Jews in town. In my mind, this is what made my grandfather extra Jewish — the sense of belonging to a tiny tribe wandering within a wide desert of Christianity. Whatever the reason, when my grandparents found out I was dating a woman their first question was, “Is she Jewish?”
Sam had a tradition of giving a $2 bill to every one of his children and grandchildren. Spouses included. The idea was to keep the $2 bill in your wallet in case of emergencies. And then if you ever needed to spend it, you would write a letter to Sam explaining the reason why you had to use the bill and he would issue you a new one. I remember stories about one cousin using her $2 bill at a tollbooth on the turnpike, another using it to buy candy. Emergencies, of course, being relative things.
My grandfather wasn’t always the nicest of people, but I like to remember him fondly. This story helps.
When I was dating my first girlfriend, who was indeed Jewish, my grandfather had to decide whether to give her a $2 bill. I only found this out recently, when my Uncle Gene told me the story of the drawn-out internal debate Sam had over the issue. After all, not only was I gay, but my girlfriend and I weren’t married — an added wrinkle in the usual plot. But we had been together for five or six years, she’d come with me to family affairs and indeed had met my grandparents. And we lived together. We were, in the early-2000 edition of gayness, about as couple-y as a couple could be. In fact, the $2 bill was perhaps the final ceremonial move.
Sam apparently placed multiple, fraught calls to my Uncle Gene turning over the question in his head. About 50 calls, my uncle tells me, which given my genetic propensity for long-windedness doesn’t seem implausible. My uncle didn’t tell me too many details, and, frankly, I didn’t ask him to. I don’t really want to know if any of the conversations ventured from uncertain curiosity into unbridled hatred. In the absence of specifics, I can continue to imagine/hope they didn’t. My grandfather wasn’t always the nicest of people, but I like to remember him fondly. This story helps.
After all of the back and forth, my grandfather finally decided to give my girlfriend a $2 bill. “If Sally loves her, then we’re going to love her too,” Sam said, as my Uncle Gene retells it. And several years later, when my current partner and I went to visit my grandparents nearer to the end of their lives, Sam gave her a $2 bill, too. She still has it, tucked safely in the back pouch of her wallet for an emergency.
As for my own $2 bill, I used it a few years ago to tip an attendant in the women’s restroom at Balthazar in New York City. I tried carefully to convey how utterly precious that particular $2 bill was as I handed it to her. I wonder if she understood. I wonder if she kept it or spent it. Either way, I was glad to give it to her. But my grandfather died before I was able to write to him to get another.
My grandfather also died before the swell of marriage equality in America and last week’s landmark Supreme Court ruling, a ruling that no doubt will make a massive difference in the material and symbolic lives of gay couples nationwide and will hopefully help pave the way for more families to embrace their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender loved ones. But I think about my grandfather Sam, who didn’t need the sanctity of marriage to understand love. Were he alive today, perhaps Sam would join the chorus of all my other relatives pressuring my partner and I to finally get married. But in a way, after the love and acceptance he showed with that $2 bill, the rest would be just small change.