Celebrating My Gay Grandfather, a Grump from a Time Before Pride
My Italian grandfather Frank insisted we all call him “Honey.” Yet, despite the sweet name, Honey was the meanest person I’ve ever known.
No one was sparred Honey’s malicious behavior. My father, Peter, spent much of his childhood attending church with his dad, where Honey would pass gas repeatedly and, rather than take responsibility, would point his finger at my disgraced father and whisper (loudly), “Peeda, you shood be ASHAMED of ya-self!”
Honey not only caused drama within his family, but he also created a scene whenever he left the house. He was routinely rude to waiters to the point that it was embarrassing to be in public with him. When Honey got really mad, he’d resort to biting limbs (mostly others, but occasionally his own).
While driving, his aggressiveness only increased. Instead of assessing oncoming traffic, Honey would honk his horn to alert other drivers that he was turning into the lane he wished, whether there was space or enough time for oncoming cars to stop. No matter how gridlocked the traffic, Honey believed that repeatedly honking his horn would part the sea of stationary automobiles, allowing him, perhaps like Moses, to fulfill his mission to Walgreens. When arriving at his destination, Honey would often park on the sidewalk since who has the patience to look for an actual parking space?
His erratic driving caused frequent accidents. Although he miraculously avoided jail time (and getting his ass kicked), Honey was sued regularly by other drivers. Whenever his car was being repaired, no one wanted to lend Honey a vehicle, fearing that he’d return it with the same explanation: Some asshole hit HIM.
Even when Honey wasn’t driving, he’d cause traffic jams. My uncle was once in a big backup on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, and when he finally caught up to the cause, he realized his father, Honey, was taking up two lanes on a bike, swinging his purse at anyone who tried to pass.
In addition to carrying a purse, there was another thing separating my grandfather from most mad men or bad boys: Honey loved nothing more than to style my grandmother’s hair and design women’s wardrobes. In other words, Honey wore the pink pants in the family.
He also created glittering, flamboyant environments on par with the likes of Liberace. It was there, in his home, where Honey’s lighter side was reflected.
His furniture shined in glowing gold leaf, color and texture adorned every wall, and the decor ranged from the extravagant to the hilariously gaudy, including a life-size statue of Jesus that overlooked an indoor marble jacuzzi filled with several golden swan-faucets spewing water.
As it turned out, the only thing that wasn’t gay about my grandfather was his disposition. Honey was raised in an old-world religious household and remained repressed, (and therefore miserable) until the day he died. His underlying angry inferno gave new meaning to the term ‘flaming.’
Honey’s horror show started at birth when he was born with a hemangioma, an abnormal buildup of blood vessels that looked like a small pink birthmark on his cheek. In the Sicilian village where Honey’s mother, Mawmaw, was born, this was considered a “mark of the devil.”
When Honey was a child, Mawmaw brought him to the doctor with a bag of cash and said, “Fix him.” Honey was then subjected to primitive radiation treatments to remove his mark, which caused skin cancer and blinded him in one eye.
Unfortunately, Mawmaw’s abuse and shaming of her son didn’t stop there. Night after night Mawmaw would tuck her children in bed and kiss them all—except for Honey.
Honey was brutally bullied throughout his childhood and when he and his Black nanny walked home from school, children would repeatedly tease by yelling, “Look! It’s chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry-face!”
As an adult, Honey became obsessed with transforming himself from someone marked by The Beast to that of a beautiful creature. He made many secret visits to the plastic surgeon—everything from face-lifts to hair plugs to extensive reconstructive surgery. Honey always hoped to heal the damage done to his face…and the scars in his heart.
This, too, he kept a secret. If someone asked about Honey’s post-surgery facial bruises and stitches, he would claim he’d been “mugged.” Eventually, Honey lost an eye from a botched operation that forced him to wear an eye patch (along with too much powder and a platinum toupee).
As fate would have it, I was also born with a hemangioma on my nose.
Thankfully, no one believed that I was marked by Satan’s stamp, but my condition required extensive surgery when I was six weeks old. Honey, who was notoriously stingy, offered to pay for the surgery—one of his few unselfish acts.
Later in life, Honey left my poor grandmother, moved to the French Quarter, and shacked up with a live-in priest. After my dad died, I was in a deep state of grief and Honey said something so hurtful about his own son that I stopped talking to him.
I spent many years being angry with Honey, mainly because he said and did horrible things to the people I loved. I actually felt relief after hearing of his passing. When I expressed guilt for feeling this way, I learned I wasn’t alone when one of his own children unapologetically sang, “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”
It took a long time, but I finally feel compassion for Honey. While there’s no excuse for his behavior, I realize how much pain he must’ve suffered to have caused such pain all around him. I now believe his gesture to pay for my surgery was to give me a chance at the love he didn’t have.
From the get-go, he was treated like a flawed person by his own mother, who was steeped in old-school Sicilian superstitions and was taught that his sexuality was a sin. He hated himself for simply being… him. Who knows, had he been raised by a woman (or during a time) that supported his authentic self and sexuality, he may have been a fabulous hairdresser or interior-design diva. Unfortunately, Honey was a tragic product of the past and died lonely and still hurting.
So, here’s to Honey. And all the people who have struggled with feeling flawed and rejected. You are beautiful, JUST as you are. Be proud, be free. Honey would want it that way.
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