Of Maine and Two Marriages: Lessons from a Grandmother I Never Knew

My grandmother was born in Portland, Maine, the daughter of Italian immigrants. She grew up in a Roman Catholic parish there that ministered to the immigrants and their families. The church was the center of my grandmother’s community, and a foundation of the family.

As a young woman she met a soldier stationed in Portland. He was from a family with deep New England roots and Protestant faith. They fell in love, and my grandparents were married in 1936.

Not long after the marriage my grandmother went to speak with the priest at her parish. He condemned her marriage, and her husband’s faith. He told her that her marriage was not real. And then he gave her an ultimatum: unless you raise your children in the Catholic Church, you will go to hell.

That story rippled down through the generations. My mother and her siblings were not raised in the Catholic Church, and neither was I. It took me years to understand exactly what that told me about my grandmother. The fact that a young, Italian-American girl in the 1930’s stood up to an authority figure whom she had been taught held the very keys to heaven and hell tells me all that I need to know about her, and about the courage one must sometimes have to stand up for love.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Maine and marriage this year. I’ve been thinking about it because for the first time in American history, marriage equality for same-sex couples might be won in a state by a popular vote.
I have married same-sex couples who reside in Maine, but who have to leave the state on their wedding day in order to have their marriage legally acknowledged. I have seen how the lack of legal recognition of their marriage impacts everything from their taxes to their parental rights to their children. Their life is made unduly harder by the biases of others. And, unlike in the case of my grandparents, it extends beyond church walls and brings judgement and injustice into their very homes.

I believe religious institutions have every right to make their own decisions about whom they will marry. But I don’t believe religious institutions have the right to impose them on others; particularly when we are talking about civil, and not religious, marriage. I also believe that more and more religious institutions will start to see people doing exactly what my grandmother did: walking out the church doors because they trust love, their own or their friends’, more than threats and judgements.

Earlier this year my partner and I went to Portland and stood in front of the parish where my grandmother grew up. I was excited to be in a place that had formed her childhood. And then I remembered this story. I realized that the conversation with her priest that had so shaped her life, and my mother’s, and my own, had likely been in this place. And I felt sad and angry for all the pain that condemnation of her love had caused her.

I never met my grandmother. She died of cancer seven years before I was born, with a rosary under her pillow. She said the prayers of her faith every night. But my grandmother never returned to the religious institution of her youth. She lost her church, but she didn’t lose her faith. I find that kind of faith remarkable. I wish that I had known her.

I wish too that I had been able to send her an invitation to my own wedding this fall, just two weeks after the vote will be taken in Maine. My mother assures me she would have come, and she would have loved it.

I imagine that if she were there, voting results in hand, we would either celebrate the prophetic stand of her home state for love. Or we would mourn that they weren’t quite there yet. I hope it would be the former, but if it were the latter I imagine I’d know what she would tell me: choose your love. Don’t choose the judgement. And don’t let anyone tell you this marriage is not real.

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