THE BLOG
10/23/2014 04:37 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Lesbians, Finger Exercises, and Her Piano

Video camera in hand, Donna Deitch of Desert Hearts fame asked my outspoken 95-year-old grandmother, "Granny, did you ever think of being with a woman?"

"No, I didn't know about such things," Granny replied. "I just knew I didn't like sex. My poor husband, he didn't understand."

I had no doubt Donna would enjoy this "interview." Granny was an exceptionally bright and articulate woman who spoke of wanting to be free in a time and place where that wasn't possible. "There is nothing better than freedom," she taught me.

She knew the difference. She found out at 16, when her life drastically changed. Granny, the young Meeda, fell in love with a man who worked for her father in her native Singapore. After a big wedding with white doves let loose into the sky, she was packed off to Baghdad. Her new husband's family needed him.

She imagined that Iraq, the land her grandparents were from, would be an adventure. Her new husband, Efraim, thought his family would eventually accept this "outsider" with her modern ways. No one realized it would be a nightmare for everyone.

Her personality was not an asset in her new home. She shocked and clashed with the very traditional Iraqi Jewish family she'd married into.

"I had no idea what Baghdad was," she said as we sat in Donna's lovely Craftsman home in Venice Beach, still trying to come to terms with her impossible trajectory. There we were in Los Angeles, with Granny facing four lesbians determined to get her story videotaped. She loved her lesbians, and we loved her.

"Granny, did you ever think you were a lesbian?" Donna asked, attempting to keep Granny on topic. It's easy to get lost in Granny's Baghdad, with its alleys full of stories within the stories of her 20 years there.

"I never knew anything about lesbians or things like that," Granny answered.

Donna reframed the question: "If you could have, would you have been with a woman?"

"Yes, I think so."

I remember Granny's reaction when she saw me with my first (butch) female lover. "You are with women now, aren't you?" she asked.

"Yes."

"Don't tell your mother! She'll blame me!"

I laughed.

Back to the present. "So, Granny," Donna persevered, "you never thought of being with a woman?"

"No," Granny replied. "But there was this one time. There was this woman at a party in Baghdad. I had a friend. We liked each other very much. She and her husband were Muslims from Syria. They were very friendly with me. They were modern and spoke English. I loved speaking English and getting away from the family. I felt very free with them."

"So what happened with this woman?" Donna asked, reeling Granny back in.

"One of the guests -- I met her before at their house -- asked me, 'Meeda, do you do finger exercises?'" Granny recalled that the woman had a "sort of a smirk on her face, and her friend, a woman she always came with, told her, 'Be quiet. She doesn't know about such things.'"

"You didn't know what they were talking about?" Donna prodded.

"I was trying to understand what kind of 'finger exercises' they were talking about. I thought it was for the piano!"

The piano. How she loved her piano, shipped all the way from Singapore to Iraq. Before we could get back to the story about the lesbian couple, Granny was talking about how upsetting it had been to find herself forbidden to play music for months every time a relative died and the family went into mourning.

"Prayers! Prayers! Why was it always at our house?!" she complained. "And do you know how many relatives that family had? It never stopped!"

"What about the finger exercises?" Donna continued.

"I was naïve. I realized later she must have thought I was a lesbian: I was never with my husband. Efraim was mad at me for socializing outside the family. What was I supposed to do? Sit at home with the family who hated me?"

"Granny, Granny, what about this woman?" Donna said, returning to the lesbian question. "Were you attracted to her?"

"No, I don't think so. Later my friend told me, 'You know, she is a lesbian. She likes you.' Then I began to understand what she was asking! Finger exercises!" Laughing out loud, she shook her head. "I thought it was for the piano!"

"So you never were with a woman, Granny?" Donna was running out of tape. We had gone down the many narrow alleys of Granny's life in Baghdad before and after the finger exercises.

"No, but it doesn't matter. I gave up on sex. I refused my husband once we had the children."

For Granny, as open and spirited as she may have been, whether she was attracted to women or not, acting on it was hardly a possibility. She already seriously challenged the status quo, bringing threats upon the family.

She explained that by the time she was out of Baghdad and in Los Angeles via India and Japan, she "was finished with sex." And then she added, "What for? Bingo is much more fun anyway!"