On Sunday, September 16, 2018, my last living grandparent died and with her went an entire limb of my family tree. I’ve been struggling with the impact of losing my grandmother, which is a mixture of grief, regret, fear of mortality, and gratitude.
My grandparents all lived long and fruitful lives, full of family and friends. I was able to hold their hands and kiss all four of them goodbye, for which I am incredibly fortunate. Still though, a sense of emptiness lingers, a feeling that a large part of me is forever gone. All that is left of my grandparents are fleeting memories, flashes of moments, and sensory remnants that I’m afraid will fade all too soon.
I was 18 years old when my Grandma Buttermore died; our family’s grief was amplified by her painful struggle with emphysema and drawn-out decline. I was a freshman in college and knowing my grandmother was home suffering exacerbated my already debilitating homesickness. My initial trips home were spent with family visiting Grandma. My first Thanksgiving break would be my grandmother’s last Thanksgiving.
Over twenty years later, Grandma Jenkins took the last breath of her 89-year life. A stable figure in my tumultuous life, Grandma seemed so permanent that her loss left a gaping hole. The death of my grandfather, slow decline of her health and mobility, and onset of dementia clearly impacted the quality of her once vibrant and beautifully simple life, so her death was more of a relief than a tragedy, but still the loss resonates.
As I fumble through the cloud of emotions, one point of clarity emerges: my grandparents played an integral and often conflicting role in my emotional development. Each one of them, imperfectly and uniquely set a foundation that helped me to navigate the world from childhood to (not quite yet) middle age. Each time I lost a grandparent, a tiny piece of my story disappeared, but like the phantom sensations felt by amputees, jolts of sensory memories remind me what I’m made of and the permanent mark they left.
I am snap peas, sweet and perfect from the garden, blackberries that stained my fingers, and the luxurious goodness of butter and jelly spread on white bread. I’m a little bit scotch with water, and a splash of beer. I sing, “You are My Sunshine” to my daughter, always accompanied by my grandfather’s clear, clean whistle. When watching the Indians’ game on my flat screen, I sometimes close my eyes and pretend the announcer’s voices are coming through the static on kitchen radio.
The crunch of leaves as I walk through the woods evokes the same tranquility as the squeak of shoes on the basketball court. Filling bellies with wholesome meals is my passion, but I am not ashamed to let Stouffers help me out when I’m pressed for time. Our home is always open to friends who fill it with laughter, love, and a lot of crazy. I’m quick to share my perspective while knowing how much more valuable a listening ear can be. I have never been afraid to stand strong against bullies, but kindness is always my default.
While many of us want to sanitize the memories of our loved ones who’ve passed, I prefer to remember my grandparents with all of their flaws intact. They were not perfect, nor was my relationship with them. Even as an adult, I vehemently disagreed with them on core issues and do not deny that as products of a less tolerant era, their words sometimes reflected this. While as their grandchild, I experienced unconditional love and overall positive interactions, my parents’ relationships with them were much rockier. No one is a perfect parent and this truth extends to my grandparents.
This is a reality I’ve sometimes forgotten when it comes to my children and their grandparents. As I decided what kind of parent I wanted to be and what kind of home I wanted my children to grow up in, I very purposefully rejected a large chunk of my childhood. I wanted to replace the emotional roller coaster rides with the calm I felt visiting my grandparents. The chaos of Mom leaving for her shift at the restaurant and packing for our nights with Dad, would be replaced by family dinners, stories at bedtime, and the stability of two parents who loved and respected each other, just like my grandparents.
I was terrified that the mistakes my parents made would transfer to my babies and that would keep them from having the stable, storybook childhood I desperately wanted to give them.
Surprise! Nine years later, my meticulously planned life didn’t work out as expected. While my children have significantly more stability than I did, motherhood and family life has been far from calm. Pete and I have created a loving two-parent home, but we bicker pretty much every day of our lives. We eat family dinners together most nights, but they often involve litigating disputes and feeling unappreciated and exhausted after rushing to cook dinner after practice. Nightly bedtime stories only occur on the rare occasion that we’re able to get homework done, dinner eaten, and teeth brushed before nine.
Not only have I made some of the same mistakes as my parents, I’ve got a long list of my very own original parenting fails.
One of those fails was my initial limiting of grandparent time for my children. Some of these limits, I still stand by, like not allowing my kids to stay in homes with smoking. However, early in my children’s lives, I was far from magnanimous about sharing my babies. My mama bear instincts led me to hold them tight. My mother once told me I was selfish and she’s partly correct. It wasn’t that I wanted them all to myself, but instead because I didn’t fully trust anyone else to have my children’s best interest in mind. I was wrong.
Now that my children are older and I’ve been humbled by my fallibility, I’ve gradually welcomed a more open relationship between my children and their grandparents. Mateo and Lucia adore their grandparents, just as I did mine. Their relationships with Grandma Patty, Papa Dave, Grandma Hilda, and Papa Paul have each blossomed uniquely, and with every visit, my children are building a treasure trove of memories that will eventually weave their lives’ fabric.
I grit my teeth and hold my tongue when they have fast food for lunch and are still in their pajamas at noon. I resist the urge to roll my eyes when my kids repeat a debunked wives tale. Staying up until 3am watching scary movies is not endangering their futures and a weekend of pampering is not going to turn them into self-entitled assholes as long as Pete and I do the hard work of parenting on our end.
Family dynamics are messy and my family is the perfect example. The tangled branches of our family tree can be frustrating to navigate, but for many of us the most pure and simple relationships we ever have are with our grandparents. Studies show that strong relationships between grandchildren and grandparents increase the well being of all involved. Most grandparents, free from the stressors of parenthood, love and accept their grandchildren unconditionally. They may tisk, tisk us every once in a while, but their homes are always open and stocked with ice cream cups, Fig Newtons, and comfort.
The generational divide may be wide, but our grandparents are our connection to the past and a humbling reminder of just exactly where we came from. Once they are gone from this earth, they leave a void and we need to decide how to fill it. Just as we sort through their belongings, we need to decide which memories to keep and pass on to our children and, if we are so lucky, grandchildren.
My children will be fortunate enough to make memories with their grandparents: fresh tortillas and RV trips, milkshakes and swims at midnight, bike rides on the Tow Path, roller skating in the backyard, and camp outs on the living room floor. And I’ll be doing my best not to get in the way.