Lovella June felt betrayed; she railed, accused my grandfather of cutting off her breast to get back at her for her adultery.
I know very little about my grandmother; she passed away when I was young. Lovella June had a temper; she smoked; and she drank. One story that’s recycled is the time June’s sister and husband, my grandfather, had to lock her in a camper. She’d been drinking all night, fought with my grandfather—really fought, bloodied his face, and threatened to set the whole goddamned place on fire. They threw her in the camper and locked the doors. My grandfather said his goodbyes to her family and put his children in the car while my grandmother screamed and beat on the camper windows. “He hauled her ass from Texas to Illinois in that camper,” my mother remembers.
My grandmother once lifted a car off my grandfather. On Easter Sunday in 1972, the family car blew a tire on the way to church. My grandfather jacked up the car in a suit on the side of the road while my grandmother and her two children waited in the car. My grandfather slid his legs under the car to pull the tire; the jack slipped; and the car rocked and fell on his legs. He screamed at my grandmother to help him. She was somehow able to lift the car up enough for him to pull himself out. The accident left my grandfather paralyzed from the waist down, an injury that would always make him feel less of a man.
My grandfather’s accident left him impotent, and my grandmother felt empty. Before the accident, she’d had a complete hysterectomy; she was 25. Afterwards, she had to take hormones, and she always complained that she never felt like a woman again. In the twilight of the Sexual Revolution, my grandparents struggled with their gender and sexual identities. Family and friends, I imagine, flooded them with sentiments like, “I can’t imagine,” “that’s awful,” and “I don’t know how you do it.” My grandfather felt he lost his identity of a man because everyone reminded him of his disability, their picture of him. I’m certain no one talked to him about sexuality and disability. He found brotherhood drinking at the Legion, and she found her sexuality between the sheets with other men.
Their lives were crushed in Eldorado, the city of gold. In the fall of 1978, June found a lump in her arm. Concerned, she spoke with a doctor. He, too, expressed concern about the lump in her lymph nodes, so he scheduled a biopsy. She, my grandfather, and their children—who were teenagers by now, discussed the biopsy. Jaded from her hysterectomy, June complained that she’d already lost her uterus and ovaries. She wouldn’t lose her breasts, too.
As June checked into admissions for the biopsy, she felt pride for her work in the hospital. She was surrounded daily by its color and sound, and she felt a sense of control as she waited. She was called back, and as she walked past the nurse’s station, she struggled. Compassion from people she knew—people she lived and work with—robbed her of her power. Instead of their usual detachment, their faces showed compassion. Walking down the hall, her emotional resolve battled against their worry.
The doctor rushed out of the operating room to speak with my grandfather. When he removed the lump, he found that it was connected to a larger mass that spread close to my grandmother’s breast. The mass looked cancerous, and he feared that my grandmother wouldn’t have long to live if the cancer reached the breast. Once it hit the breast, he predicted, it would spread through the body. She wouldn’t have long to live. The doctor offered a glimmer of hope, though. If my grandfather would consent to the mastectomy, then my grandmother might live a full year. My grandfather knew his wife didn’t want her breast removed, and he knew that she struggled with her femininity after her hysterectomy. My grandmother, meanwhile, lay on an operating table while two men decided her fate.
She lived six years after the surgery, but she never forgave my grandfather. June became more isolated from her husband and family, and she always told my mother she never felt like a woman. Lovella June died in the same hospital where the mastectomy was performed when she was 44 years old. One year later, my mother was admitted to the same hospital, in the same room where her mother died, for her own hysterectomy. Decades later, my sister and I struggle with the same decisions about hysterectomy surgeries, and my grandmother’s story remains the locus of fear and femininity.