This week, MJ’s grandmother passed away. After what seemed a steady decline and a move into a therapy center, she suddenly sprang back to life and returned to her own home. So while this was an expected event, the timing seemed off.
I only met her one time. It was last year on Mother’s Day, which coincided with her birthday. Her living room was filled with flowers from friends, family, and adoring neighbors. She seemed to have a story about every single person who called to wish her a happy birthday. It was nice to imagine that while MJ and I weren’t the most attentive to her, she had a circle of people in her life that cared for her. She seemed like the sort of woman I imagine anyone’s grandmother to be – at times a little bit difficult, but full of sweet memories, a bottomless vault of unheard stories. She had saved a plastic bag from years ago, from a day when MJ delivered her newspaper (not a normal occurrence) and wrote a message on the bag. I thought it was the cutest thing on the planet.
At the burial, I was surprised to find myself wiping away tears for a woman I hardly knew. We spent a grand total of a few hours together in the same room, but somehow I was stricken with the sense of loss. A relationship that I would never get to have, memories I would never get to form – with her as well as with my own grandmother. And for a few moments, I allowed myself to mourn the loss of these women who have touched my life so briefly, and yet somehow, so deeply.
I grew up with only one living grandparent in my life, seeing her only about one time a year. She lived in California, and we’d make a point to visit her and my dad’s side of the family during our summer break. Because of the long spans of time between visits, she cherished the time with my dad (her only son), and they would spend hours catching up in Spanish, which we as kids did not speak or understand. I really can’t recall a single conversation with her in detail, but more general specifics. She called me Yackie, and always asked me if I had a boyfriend, even when I was 8 and the thought of boys liking me was absurd. She made the most delicious food on the planet – even the way she made Malt-o-Meal was incredible and impossible to duplicate. None of her meals came with a recipe and I will never taste the flavors of her kitchen ever again.
My grandmother was silly and dramatic – or at least that’s how I interpreted her. Since I couldn’t understand most of what she said, I took my cues from her wild arm movements and passionate manner of speaking, often followed by fits of laughter. She loved her novellas, believed in ghosts, and took her teeth out and put them into a cup while she was sleeping. She had a picture of a pig on the toilet in her bathroom, a life sized stuffed doll of a chef (I think she made it herself) sitting on an otherwise unused exercise bicycle in the guest room, and those plastic finger hooks that held her kitchen towels. She painted their nails red.
As we got older, we became more entrenched in our own lives across the country. Summers became more about lounging poolside, making knotted bracelets with friends, and less about visiting our family that we didn’t really ever know that well. Since all of our California cousins grew up together in close proximity, they had actual relationships with each other, but we were the strange ones landing only every so often, to shyly enter the play circle. I regret that we grew apart, but at the time, as a child growing into a teenager, the avoidance of those awkward interactions was more preferable to developing lasting relationships with my blood relatives. I still don’t know them well and I’m sorry about it. I doubt I will see any of them at my wedding next month and I’m sorry about it. If they come, one day won’t be enough to change the fact that for the last 29 years I have been a stranger. It’s not really my fault but still somehow I’m still sorry about it.
I remember as a kid thinking that the ideal grandmother wore glasses and an apron and made apple pies and lived somewhere close by where we could see her all the time. I remember having this total misconception that all white grandmothers were like in television commercials, and that that was the only kind of grandmother that was worth having. I don’t really know how this thought got into my head, but I guess it was based on the feeling that I was missing out on something important. But even with that knowledge, I never did anything to change the situation. I never reached out to her, and she stopped reaching out to me when I was around 12.
My grandmother died in 2013 – the day before her 84th birthday – after several years of troubled health, slow and steady decline followed by a rapid nose dive. Her funeral was the first time I saw that side of my family in over ten years. They had all grown into people that I did not recognize, and once again did not know how to communicate with. I felt like an impostor crying at the eulogy, imagining everyone judged me for my long absence from my grandmother’s life. While I thought of her often, I know that wasn’t enough. In high school, I won an award for a poem I wrote about her, and never shared the news – or the poem – with her. It just never occurred to me. We weren’t raised to think that way, and I now know how much I’ve missed out on.
Being present at family events with MJ makes me realize how much I’ve missed out on with my own family, as well as in my role as a new member of his. I accidentally introduce myself to people I’ve met before, and forget names and associations. He has a giant network of aunts, uncles, and cousins, and we spend almost no time with any of them. I think about the fact that if we have children someday, they will be younger than all of their cousins, and be left out of the growing up together. I think about the fact that we live so far away from my parents and siblings, and the possibility of us ever being together again as a tight knit group is unlikely.
As I wiped away my secret tears in the cemetery, I cried from the sadness of these realizations. From knowing that family is something that is so important to me, but somehow so impossible. I think about the ways that I can change that, and it seems like any other challenge I’m currently facing – huge, daunting, and not entirely up to me.