My role model for being a man was my grandmother Margaret. Because we lived in different cities, because she was traveling the world when I was born, we didn’t meet until I was four years old. When we met in Dallas, I inherently knew she would play an important role in my life.
“You’ve got the P.M.A.,” she said. “It’s definitely from my side of the family.”
P.M.A? It was my first acronym.
“Positive mental attitude,” she explained. Then she poured half a glass of grape Kool-Aid to prove her point. “Is it half empty or half full?
I told her the glass was half full.
Grandma nodded as if to say, Told ya. But her words to me were, “Your P.M.A. will make you a very special man.”
I had no intention of being a very special man quite yet. I was still looking forward to turning five, moving into a new house in the Daniel Webster Elementary School zone, and setting up my new bedroom. I had a lot on my plate. I didn’t want to worry about being a very special man until I grew body hair, which I knew was years away. Body hair had been my sole definition of being a man, and since I had an older brother by two years and forty-six days, I felt certain I would have at least a two-year warning before manhood came calling.
My definition of manhood came crashing down when I saw a man walk out of the showers without a towel in the YMCA locker room. He was positively a man as far as age was concerned, but he was completely hairless. He looked like a man trapped in a boy’s body. I brought it up with Grandma at our very next long distance call. She confirmed that there were some ethnicities of men who never grew body hair.
Good to know, I thought, and I changed my definition of what it meant to be a man. Observing my father and his male friends, I established a new definition: Providing for your family. I confirmed my new definition with my dad, and he responded, “Providing for your family is a beautiful thing.” Even so, I was relieved it would be years away.
In my final year at Cal. State University at Northridge, Grandma and I were living even further apart than before, but our long distance phone calls continued. Whenever she telephoned, she started the conversation with the same greeting: “How’s your P.M.A.?”
“Better than ever,” I said, and then I updated her on my recent studies and opportunities in theater. Theater was all I thought about, all I ate, slept, and breathed.
“Did you know Columbia offers an MFA in directing?”
Having lived in L.A. for four years, I thought to myself, Columbia Studios?
“An undergraduate degree is so common these days. A graduate degree will help you stand out. I’ll pay your first semester while you gather student loans, and you’ll save a bundle living with me.”
“It’s right across the street. Education is the lightest load you’ll ever have to carry.”
“That’s gotta be…too expensive. No?”
“You didn’t know? I’m a woman of wealth.” She blew me a big kiss long distance and we said our goodbyes. She left me with much to consider.
My grandmother was far from being a “woman of wealth.” She divorced my grandfather when my dad was fourteen years old, and she was too proud to ask for a penny of child support. My grandfather was too proud to offer it. At a time when divorce was frowned upon, especially for an Irish Catholic, Grandma worked hard as a single parent in New York City. Grandmother Margaret was the relative who had struggled the most to make ends meet, and—with one phone call—she was inviting me to live with her, to pay my fall semester at an Ivy League university, and to provide for me? What a man!
Overwhelmed by her generosity, I said, Yes. I made an application to Columbia and was accepted.
Living in New York City fit like a glove, and so did living with Grandma Margaret. As I struggled to figure out my life, my career, my sexuality, and being a man, Grandma not only made me feel at home with myself, but also literally gave me a home. My biggest dilemma was how I was to become a man when it became clear I wouldn’t be getting married, having kids, and providing for a family. It was 1983, 28 years before gay marriage became legal in New York. My definition of being a man had to evolve once again.
Whether I was assisting, volunteering, directing for little money, playwriting, or stage-managing, I had always said Yes to whatever opportunities crossed my path. I saved my rejection letters so no one could ever accuse me of being an overnight success. When friends started acquiring vacation homes, co-ops in doorman buildings, and conquering Broadway and Hollywood, such success became my new definition of being a man. But as my stack of rejection letters continued to grow, my sense of success dwindled. My P.M.A. had become a daily struggle to uphold. I started having more of an N.M.A. than a P.M.A.
When I applied to earn a second masters degree, this time in Playwriting, part of the prospect of attending Boston University was to teach an undergraduate class in Creative Writing. From the very first day of teaching, my connection with the students sparked a sense of purpose and my P.M.A. was restored.
By that time, Margaret was 95 years old and living in a nursing home only 14 blocks from her old apartment, which I had had the great fortune of taking over. After years of our long talks into the night, we never ran out of conversation. When I asked her which chapter in her life she’d most like to revisit—it was very Emily of me from Our Town—I expected her to choose her chorus girl years when she was a dancer with the Virginia Girls’ Kick Line, rivaled only by the Radio City Rockettes. Or the time when she rubbed elbows with Gypsy Rose Lee, Claudette Colbert, and Orson Welles. Or the year she traveled the world, or worked in a hospital in Iran, or supervised an officers’ club in Vietnam. Her life had been a cross between Auntie Mame and Mother Courage. I never tired of her stories.
She considered my question, but then said, “I’ll stay put.”
I assumed she hadn’t understood the question, so I repeated it. But her response was the same.
“I like it here just fine.”
How was it possible? “At the Jewish Home and Hospital on 106th Street? This is where you’d rather be?”
“Living here is like living in a hotel with room service every single day. I don’t have to cook, clean, or tip. What’s not to love?”
Was this her P.M.A. talking? I hoped and prayed I’d feel the same way when I was her age.
Then she shocked me straight through my core with her next comment. “I’ve been a burden on you long enough.”
“Burden?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “Thank God you’ve lived this long,” I said, “so you’ll get to see your investment pay off.” More than once, I had felt guilty after all the money, time, and support she had invested in me. I promised her more than once, “I’m bound to be a success any month now.”
This time, she said, “Define success.”
It didn’t take me long. “Broadway, Tony Awards, publishing, speaker engagements, royalties, cabs, plenty of money . . .”
She said, “If that’s success, then I must be a loser.”
She was the personification of success to me. I reminded her, “Look how many lives you’ve touched: audiences, students, friends, family, and extended family. Look how many people you’ve made laugh, felt loved, and to whom you gave of yourself. Look how you light up the room with your P.M.A., how hard you have worked, how you’ve persevered—Do you realize how many people are happy to share your company? You’re one of the biggest success stories I know.”
Grandma pointed to the Kleenex box. I passed it to her, and she plucked out a tissue and wiped her eyes. After a moment, she said, “Hold yourself to the same. It can’t be one definition for me and another for you.”
My mind flashed through my entire life. My motto of patience and perseverance was wearing thin toward a satisfying career in theater. Not only had I not felt successful, but sometimes I had felt sorry for myself, as if no one had earned success more than me, or had worked harder, or had been more dedicated and had paid more dues. I felt a weight lifting from my shoulders.
“Awards, Broadway, money, you don’t really need that,” Grandma said. “All of that stuff isn’t success, it’s only the icing on the cake. And icing is pure sugar. It’s not that good for you. You shouldn’t have too much.”
I walked the fourteen blocks home late that night, swiftly, light on my feet, feeling inches taller, my heart so full of my grandmother. It was full of all that she had given me, especially the gift of this feeling. For the first time in my life, I finally felt like a man.
Gregory Fletcher Besides being the author of two published essays (University of Nebraska-Lincoln Gender Programs and Diverse Voices Quarterly) and a short story in the upcoming anthology Night Bazaar (Northampton House Press), Fletcher has primarily focused on writing plays, eleven of which have been produced Off-Off Broadway, and nine of which are published together in Shorts and Briefs, a collection of short plays and brief principles of playwriting, (Northampton House Press). Awards include the Mark Twain Prize for Comic Playwriting and the National Ten-Minute Play Award from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. He earned an MFA in Directing from Columbia University, and an MA in Playwriting from Boston University. Visit his website: www.gregoryfletcher.com.