Considering the space in this issue I’ve devoted solely to our grandmothers, it may surprise you to know that I did not actually know either of mine very well, or for very long. I never met either of my grandfathers, and I was young when both my grandmas died, ages six and eleven respectively. It was my mother’s mother who died first—my Grandmanita. I tripped over her name, Anita, as I finished blurting out “Grandma!” and slapped the two together. My dad’s mother, I called my Grandmama. I don’t remember why.
And, unbeknown to each other, they both began to sign their cards to me with these names: glittery, holiday Hallmark greetings with swirls of cursive Grandmanita’s and Grandmama’s filled my sock drawer—or my mother’s, for safer keeping—beside the boxes of my long, wolfish baby teeth. This is the best time to know your grandparents—when you are still losing baby teeth.
I pulled out my last stubborn baby tooth many years overdue (a metaphor suitable for my entire adolescence), already a morbidly strange teenager, while seated across from my uncle, my stand-in grandfather. I laid the tooth on the table, grinning. He stared at me. One small prize of losing grandparents while you are still supposed to be losing baby teeth is they are at least spared from watching you become that weird teenager, or from the risk of dying while they can sense that you are just on the verge of removing your head from your ass but won’t get on with it. And you—you are spared from ever disappointing them, because they died when you were so small, dumb, and perfect.
But this isn’t always the case. This is one facet, one fractal, of possibility. I think that, in my Grandmanita’s life, I entered at one of those times the light hit just so and cast easy, prismatic rays on the wall. Other times, for her, were murkier, cloudier, not so simple—for all of us. We mostly expect our grandmas, I think, to be warm, kind, generous—maybe because we expect the same from our mothers. But what if they are not? What if the colors are a little off? What if the picture is all wrong?
This year, I’ve felt defensive about my Grandmanita and my memories of her. The picture I had of her did not match one my cousin tried to impose onto mine. He recalled a mean, distant woman, noting the cactuses she kept as if they were evidence, thorny extensions of her cool impossibility. Yet neither of us really saw her—not entirely.
That you will never really understand how your mother had a whole life before you is magnified by grandmothers. Who was she before you? Who was she before your mother? And who is she besides? These are the questions we carry. This is what we have gathered in response: our stories, our old photographs, essays, poems—and still more questions.
I do not look much like Anita Serrano, my Granamanita. We both look like my mom, but in different ways—ways that are not communicated between photographs of just the two of us side by side. There is something missing. Of course, we have also led extraordinarily different lives. In either test, my mother bridges the gap, crosses the river between us.
I didn’t know her better than my father’s mother, yet I have spent more time talking, writing, and wondering about Anita. I guess I have respectfully left my father’s mother to rest without ringing ears in the afterlife. There is really only one reason for this imbalance, and it has nothing to do with how much I liked them—I liked them both very much, and they liked me. Though my father is extraordinarily gentle and easy to talk to, it is just not as common in our present culture for sons to become the keepers of their mothers’ stories in the ways that daughters do.
As I was growing up, things of my grandmother’s were given to me by my mother: jewelry mostly, and a crystal sun-catcher, a painting she had done of white and blue flowers, her paintbrushes, and the pot she kept them in. I do not remember what happened to the sun-catcher, and can only imagine how my young, rough hands treated those paintbrushes. But her painting is the first thing I hang up in any new apartment. I wear one of her rings every day—a silver band inscribed MEXICO on the inside, where she bought it, where her family is from. I am always carrying around one of her tiny watches to take in for some new repair. I find myself packing her gold saint necklace in my carry-on bag even though I am neither Catholic nor particularly afraid of flying—the same pendant my great aunt, her sister, has and wears. And though my brother is getting married this year and I have no such prospects, even my grandmother’s diamond ring waits for me—should I decide either to get married or that I am simply fabulous enough to begin wearing a diamond for no other reason.
You do not receive artifacts like these without also receiving stories. In fact, I think they are at least in part the vehicles for the stories, that your mother decides to sit you down and hold up bracelets to your wrists because she would like to talk to you about her mother. So you listen, without fully realizing that you are next in line to become the keeper of these stories and, someday, your mother’s, too.
My mother’s mother was an extraordinarily elegant woman in the way she carried and presented herself—but most of all, I think, in her determination and strength. She survived breast cancer in her early thirties and an abusive husband throughout her marriage. She lived with chronic pain from rheumatoid arthritis and radiation damage, but always took care of herself in the nearly twenty years she lived alone after her husband’s passing.
Another reason I have spent more time thinking about Anita is because I have spent time with her sister, Ruth. Ruth had been living in New Mexico with her second husband while I knew my grandmother, so I did not know them at the same time. She must have been at Anita’s funeral, and perhaps I remember a shadow of a familiar woman speaking to me in a familiar way, but I don’t think I really came out of my own head much, still trying to fully grasp what we were doing and why we were there. A peace lily appeared in our home not too long after that, which I became quietly fascinated by. I loved to gently tap the pollen out like falling snow. Ruth gave that to my mother, I learned later, and the two of them started to meet for breakfast about once a month. I began to join them on Saturdays when I wasn’t too busy being a lazy teenager—but by college I had gotten it through my skull what an ephemeral gift this all was, and showed up whenever I was in town.
First, when I showed up at breakfast, Ruth mostly studied me while my mother carried us gently through conversation. Ruth didn’t talk as much in front of me because she was trying to figure out who I was. And across the table, so was I—trying to understand how this person looked so much like my grandmother, had so many of her mannerisms—worrying, eating slowly, ending stories with “So there!”—yet wasn’t her at all. But I started doing what I tend to do in any company: say stupid little things in the pauses to put people at ease with me and each other. (The youngest child in any family is the humorist, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “always a jokemaker, because a joke is the only way he can enter into an adult conversation.”) I found she was almost as easy to amuse as my grandmother, and I don’t think I ever had more fun as a kid than when I was amusing people—especially my grandmother.
In time, she fully relaxed around me and let me in on the stories of her own life, often orbiting or alluding to the figure of my grandmother. This led to a kind of ritual debriefing in the car with my mother on the way home. “I think we both came looking for her,” my mom said once of their tradition.
The sisters had been fighting, I learned. My mother isn’t even totally sure why. By the end of it all, perhaps neither sister remembered why anymore, but neither knew quite how to stop it, how to cross the river.
From my mother, I get the sense that Anita made her peace with Ruth long before she died, and would have been glad to reconcile. I suspect Ruth made peace with my grandmother only after her death, that breakfast with my mother was the conduit. I suspect she makes her peace again and again.
I think my own private way of looking for my grandmother began quietly with that peace lily. I don’t know if Ruth gave my mother a plant because Anita loved and kept plants, or because that’s just what people do. My mother and I always gardened in the summers, but that peace lily was the only plant inside our house. I liked it, liked it being there, even liked the way it stripped the wood of the table it sat on.
I’ve always been drawn to plants. Yet only in the last few years did I even know the extent of my grandmother’s own green thumb. I’ve kept cactuses since I was a kid—I flew my first one home in a plane from Arizona, in a box that read LIVE CACTUS PLANT. But it was my cousin who first told me my grandmother kept cactuses, too. I think my mother told me about my grandmother’s avocado trees when I was young, when we tried to encourage a pit to take root in a dish of water on the windowsill. I’ve been trying to get avocados pits to realize their evolutionary destinies ever since. Last summer, I fell in love with and brought home the runt of a little rubber plant litter, and then my mother told me in reply that Anita kept them, too. Wait a minute, I said, and asked her to name as many plants as she could remember, to map out the botanical terrain.
The list of my grandmother’s horticultural endeavors includes: cactuses, avocado trees, rubber plants, spider plants, jade, and African violets. This list serves as my guidebook.
I have found that the better I take care of myself, the better I can take care of my plants. When I neglect myself—don’t tidy my apartment, don’t cook for myself, don’t get enough sleep or wash my face before bed—my afflicted plants take notice and droop to remind me that I have neglected them, too. When I am rested, fed, and watered, my plants are cared for, too. The most forgiving aspect of a plant’s nature is that it is accustomed to cycles of retreat along with the good care you work to keep. You need only return—but return, you must. When I can keep my grandma’s legacy thriving under my care, I think to myself, I’ll have made it.
The day after Easter, I bought an African violet for ninety-nine cents. It bloomed a second time when my mother came to visit, and is beginning to bloom a third time as I write this.
I wonder what small joy the plants brought my grandmother, what compelled her to keep them. I have lived a very different life than both my grandmother and mother, so I cannot compare notes and say that my lessons are the same she found in her plants, if any. Yet I suspect the plants, hers and mine, soothe something somehow common to both of us. So there.
—Missy J. Kennedy
Grandma J. was the family artist until I came along. Then, it seemed, I was the family artist’s apprentice, and it was right and proper that I would follow after her and wear the crown. I wondered how I, too, would become someone who created beautiful things, all the time, every week, for no reason but that it pleased her. I had no trouble with the definition of the term; an artist was simply what she was.
She studied painting but her talents, in my eyes, were endless. She pursued whatever interested her, which amazed me—the rules of ordinary people seemed not to apply to her. She painted, made collage and decoupage, sketched from life and from her imagination. She volunteered at an art center, where there were classes and exhibition spaces for a little community of artists of varying degrees of success and seriousness. She took classes in new techniques and experimented with new art mediums until she was in her 80s.
I felt at home in her home. A modest, comfortable single level home in what is now a very expensive California suburb, but then seemed very quiet and ordinary. It was decorated with a hodgepodge of old furniture acquired from decades of family, antiques that fascinated me, dozens of photographs spanning the entire family tree, and evidence of all her travels around the world and her hundreds of artistic experiments. There was a small kiln in her house and a big one in her garage. There were plastic tubes filled with colorful beads on every table. Paintings in a bold, abstract style with five-inch-wide brush strokes in electric colors. Paintings in delicate watercolor. Explosions of oil-painted flowers. A delicate pencil drawing. A finely detailed etching. Ceramic pots and vases displaying hand-formed, porcelain calla lilies. Clay faces and silver jewelry hanging from corners or framed in shadowboxes and displayed on the wall.
Down the hall from the entryway, past the guest bedroom, was The Studio. This little room was my favorite. There was a bookshelf and a tiny wooden writing desk, both of which groaned with papers, letters, drawings and notes, and years’ worth of Metalsmith and Bead & Button and Ceramics magazines, which I liked to pull down and page through while I sat on the floor and she sat in her little metal stool and twisted wire with pliers, or threaded beads on needles, or sketched at her workbench, the site of countless experiments and the home of her small kiln (for ceramic bead making) and her soldering iron (for creating metal jewelry and tiny sculptures from bits and scraps).
When I was young, I became obsessed with fashion and with female beauty. It became my entrance to creating. I learned to draw with Elle, W, and Vogue in my lap, and I tried to recreate the ethereal model thinness, the goddess-like elegance, and outrageous, fantasy garments I found in those pages. I drew hundreds of women, all icy stares and sharp shoulders, sweeping ball gowns, high heels in every color, feathery capes and enormous hair and hats. I drew faces: women with giant eyes and shimmering lips, costume makeup and elaborate jewels, the glittering light in them denoted with big asterisks.
Grandma always accepted gifts of my sketches with gratitude and gave me gentle instruction about how to indicate shadow, how to better proportion a face or limb. These suggestions never landed in my mind or heart as criticisms; they were always well-intentioned and sought-after assistance from the master, and I took them to heart. I studied books about illustration and fashion design, and sent her my best sketches in the mail. Later, when I would visit her in the summers, I’d find some of those drawings framed, set out on the credenza, or hanging on the wall.
The keeper of my tiny flame, she nurtured the part of me that is creative, and was careful never to suffocate it with expectation or harsh critique, or boredom, or an expressed desire that I be better than I was. We were soul mates, she and I, before adulthood stripped me of wonder. Eventually, I changed, and instead of simply enjoying her talents I tried to convince her, on our phone chats, that she should set up a website, create a portfolio, charge money for her artwork. I meant this as a compliment! In my twenties, laboring so hard under mistaken impressions, I couldn’t understand why she resisted me. Wasn’t the objective to get rich? Be discovered? Before it was too late?
Eventually, she grew old and she died, leaving me to figure out the answer on my own. Without her, it seems that I am the artist in the family. I’m trying to live up to the task.
Born Ellen Chun in Honolulu, an only child. Her mother came to Hawaii from China with a family as an indentured servant. Popo worked as a secretary at an elementary school. My grandfather passed away young, leaving her to raise five children, ages 2 to 14. She took over the business my grandfather started, an electronics and appliance store. Eventually she sold the business and retired. She went camping at the age of 80, toured the mainland (I wish I had my own copy of that picture of her and her senior group friends throwing snowballs in the Rockies), made quilts for her grandchildren, crocheted lots of sweaters and ponchos for me and my sister because we might be cold over on the East Coast, and made regular trips to Vegas until she was in her mid-90s. If she won big, the grandchildren got bigger Christmas checks that year. According to Popo, I use chopsticks wrong to the point of ancestral embarrassment. She also said it would be too hard to teach the grandchildren Chinese or to play mahjong. My cousins and I think she liked talking about us with her friends.
When I was 4 and the only grandchild (this is an essential plot point in my mind), my parents left me with Popo in Honolulu while they traveled in Asia. Apparently I used to go wake her up in the morning and tell her my “exact” age—4 years and 8 months and 12 days old—and ask if I could have a birthday cake to celebrate. Popo would assign one of my aunts to bake me a cake. I never wanted to leave her house ever. Family lore has it that I was always asking for cake. But I think Popo just liked spoiling her granddaughter.
While patting her cheeks, Popo said, “Being a little bit fat keeps the wrinkles away.” (Which is actually true.)
She once told my cousin David, “You know, you don’t have to be married to have children.” She really wanted great-grandchildren.
One time after a family dinner: we’re all sitting around digesting and talking. She’s watching her after-dinner favorite, Wheel of Fortune. During a commercial, she turns to us grandchildren and announces, “There are two kinds of men in this world. Rascals and boring ones. The rascals keep you young.” Then she goes back to her program, leaving us sitting there momentarily gobsmacked. She had to be around 85 at the time. On reflection, my cousins and I agree there are an awful lot of rascal men in our family tree.
Popo would not hang on the phone for long. I think she remembered the days of expensive trunk calls and always kept the conversation to her usual series of questions. “Do you have a job?” “Do they pay you?” “Do you have roommates?” “Is it cold there?” When she was done, she would say “Okay, you better go now.” And then I’d tell her I loved her, and she’d reply, “I know.”
She was a cultural appreciator, yet I might later classify her as a cultural appropriator. Her kitchen was a romanticized but mostly modern Italy; her dining room ancient Rome. The living room was the Wild West, adorned with howling wolves, animal skulls and furs, terra cotta furniture, and kokopelli wind chimes. When you made it to her bedroom, you were transported to ancient Asia, with traditional dressers, fans, and figurines from Chinatown.
She didn’t look like most grandmas. She struggled with her weight, but never minded that her trendy clothes were tight—that they were too “young” by her grandkids’ standards. Her hair was a crown of short, gravity-defying, perfectly curved and hair-sprayed spikes that changed color from month to month. It varied from burgundy to silver to black to auburn. How she felt comfortable resting on a pillow, I’ll never know. I can’t see turquoise jewelry without imagining how it would look against her tanned skin. Turquoise and catastrophic, chest-rattling coughs are the things I associate with her the most.
I’m scared of what grief has done to my mother. It’s been 5 years and she’s a totally different person. Mom broke down when I graduated with my master’s; her thoughts always drift to you when she’s feeling exceptionally proud. She wishes you could be here to see our accomplishments—be here to see her accomplishments as our mom. I don’t know how to react to the moments of emotional overload; I’m all at once sympathetic, afraid, uncomfortable, and, regrettably, embarrassed. I’m not a perfect child, just like I was not a perfect granddaughter. I’m sorry.
Sometimes the sight of saturated green grass on a hot day will give me flashbacks to summers spent in your yard. I’ll always picture that damn Crazy Daisy sprinkler in the middle. Ashley and I would run through the water on the side of your townhouse, a slender space that somehow felt wild and secret.
Your love and support were no match for my teenage impatience and short temper. I was angry that you were slowing us down when you came to help me move into my freshman dorm. We left you on a bench outside of the cafeteria because I was going to be late for orientation. I didn’t know the cancer was already destroying you.
I’m sorry we didn’t catch the cancer sooner.
The truth is that I’m much better at making family of my friends than I am at making friends of my family. I’ve been betrayed by family enough to make me distrust relationships expected of me. I rebel against them. I withdraw from them. I resurface when I remember that not everyone deserves that treatment. That a disagreement doesn’t have to ruin things forever. That a mother and her daughter and her daughter share a unique history of genes and oppression and resilience. That I am the recipient of sacrifices, and expressing gratitude is not only morally right but a kindness with infinite benefits. And that family isn’t always just happenstance, but a commitment we make again and again, the result of choices we’ve made every day for years, the weird inside jokes and memories no one else will ever know or care about. And where there is kindness, there is a chance to start over.
I never knew what to do with all the mail you sent me. Who sends greeting cards for Easter and Halloween? There was never even money inside—and the interiors were nearly as blank as they had been on the grocery store shelves. Hallmark truly has a way with words, but I didn’t have the patience to care. Words meant nothing to me unless they were written in pen. I’d tear the brightly colored envelope, glance at the design of the card, then peer inside to find a heap of holiday-appropriate confetti falling onto my feet. Beneath the remaining plastic jack-o-lanterns or shiny 2008! cut-outs, I would find a simple, “Love you, Grandma xoxoxo.” The signature was always beautiful and strong and practiced at the bottom, as if you’d been Grandma your whole life.
If I thought your mostly-blank holiday cards were weird, you must surely understand how much more confusing it was when you gave me the gift of stationery. At least one gift-giving holiday a year, you gave me packs of dollar-store cards with various designs. One set had a different bird painted on each card, realistic and poised; another had sketches of women with impossibly long legs wearing supposed high-end Paris fashion. I stashed them away for years, figuring they might come in handy one day, but not sure when.
One of the first gifts I remember receiving is from you: a framed set of Bugs Bunny stamps. For a long time, that frame sat on top of my hand-me-down dresser—a beautiful relic painted and repainted to match the many places it had lived. I never understood that gift, nor do I really claim to now. But I still have it anyway.
In the last week of October during my second year of college, I checked my mailbox like usual. My small locker, one among hundreds, was empty. Nearby, someone extracted an orange envelope from their box, and grief washed over me, sudden and powerful. I was helpless against the tide.
I have quite an impressive stationery collection these days. I have five pen pals. I wish you were one of them.
One of my earliest memories is my dad pulling me in a pink sled up our dirt road to visit his parents on a cold, cold winter night in northern Minnesota. I’m sure it’s an amalgam of a dozen or a hundred different nights. For most of the first five years of my life, we lived about half a mile away, and after that we lived right on the homestead. Next door. I could see my grandparents’ house from our kitchen window. During the winter my dad snow-blowed a path directly from our door to theirs.
The path ran along the south end of our garden, past the end of Grandma’s row of pink peonies, underneath the big tree the family gathered beneath during the Fourth of July, and up to the cement steps. We used the same path even during the summer, a place where the grass was worn a little bit thinner than the rest of the yard.
My grandma’s name was Esther Peterson. She grew up throughout the Great Depression and raised six children, three during WWII while my grandfather served, and three more after he came home. I’m the youngest of the grandchildren, and my dad is the youngest of her children. I like to think that made me special to her, but even if she was too classy to actually pick favorites, I was definitely the grandchild who spent the most time with her for the 19 years I lived at home.
She’s in most of my memories from childhood—the time I got stung by bees while my dad was working on our lawnmower (she applied a baking soda paste with, I’m sure, great serenity that was as much for me as for my father), the time I stepped on a sewing needle while I was home alone (she came right over because she couldn’t understand what I was saying on the phone, but she knew that something was wrong), the mornings my dad carried me next door before I was old enough to stay home alone and she plied me with cheese on everything (cheese and Ortega hot sauce for snacks, green beans with cheese for meals). She’s in most of my memories from my teen years. Somewhere back in Minnesota I have a picture of the two of us by my first car, and of her standing with me in the yard before I went off to prom.
The Minnesota state photograph always hung above the phone on Grandma’s wall near the front door. “Grace” is an old man with white hair and a beard bowing his head over a loaf of bread and a bowl, presumably saying grace before he ate. In a strange way, this exemplifies what I remember most about her: unwavering, unyielding grace and serenity.
In late June 2013, Dad called me and told me that he thought Grandma was probably not going to be around much longer and that the family was coming to the house to say their goodbyes. I emailed my manager to tell told her I needed to go home. Within a few days, I was already driving back to the homestead.
By the time I got there, she was in and out of consciousness, but most of the family was there. We sat under the tree in the yard when we weren’t in with her. Even when she was conscious, she wasn’t always lucid. But she had one of her last times of lucidity not long after I arrived, and I got to be there with her. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she let us know that she was happy and that she was ready to go.
She died a few days later on May 2, 2013. In June 2015, we sold the house to an old neighbor who had lived in the Cities, Minneapolis–St. Paul, and was coming back to the neighborhood to retire. They moved it two miles up the road, and we filled the lot where her house had been with lawn seed, wildflowers, and a plot of roses.
I still look out the kitchen window in the house in Minnesota to see if the lights are on at Grandma’s, even though the house is long gone.
If nothing else, I think I’ve inherited some of the way she looked at life. I don’t remember much about the day my mom died, but I remember going next door with my dad at some stupidly early hour of the morning, and I remember Grandma looking at me and saying, “These things happen.”
I’m what Grandma would have called headstrong. I have too much of my mom’s side of the family in me to be as serene and grace-filled as Grandma, and I’ll never be as quiet and calm as she was when she said it, but she’s right. These things happen, and whatever it is, it all works out in the end.
My grandma, phew, she’s indescribable. She’s blunt and realistic about the world. She uses her words as fire, whether it be to warm your soul or set you aflame. She will always tell you what you need to hear, not what you want. She’s not afraid to make you cry because, “The world doesn’t owe us any favors.”
But she loves deeply. Her hard exterior was softened (to her dismay) by my hopeless romantic of a grandfather. She loved him more than she cares to admit, more than we ever thought she could. I, her only granddaughter, am her other kryptonite.
Don’t let that fool you, though—she’s still hard on me, too. She pushes me to be the best person that I can be, she reminds me that women can rule this Earth, and that I’m stronger on my own than with a thousand followers. Some people say that you are more like your father or mother. Not me, I’m my grandmother. And I am proud.
My grandma keeps her home and heart open to the whole family and beyond. When I was younger, she cooked dinner every week for the family. She would sometimes even invite the neighbors to join us. She welcomes guests with a smile and plenty of food. I think that type of kindness is invaluable. It’s that love of newcomers, and of stuffing their faces with food, that I will carry with me. It shaped who I am today. Thanks, Grandma.
When my grandma met my now-girlfriend, Grandma asked what she did. There was a slightly awkward moment over Shabbat dinner, because the answer was, “Counselor in an abortion clinic.” Grandma said “Good,” and thanked her.
—Meli, via Twitter
A list of things I have been thinking about my grandmothers over the past couple of years:
Every time I video-call one of them, by the end of the call she always tells me, jokingly-ish, to come back at the end of the year even though I’ve explained to her multiple times that ideally I should not. I believe no one other than her loves me as deeply nor wants more fiercely for my career to never take off.
From my other grandmother, I learned the immeasurable benefits of having a skill that allows you to make practical, sometimes beautiful, things with your hands. I learned that todo pasa por el suelo; she was referring to frictionless silks, but it can be extrapolated to anything, really.
Two years ago I tried to write a story based on my grandma’s life growing up. I could not. Or more specifically, I did, but it was unreadable. The language was so sweet, the lens so childishly hopeful. I wanted to give her the tranquil childhood she didn’t have. I cannot.
It’s become a habit of mine, when I talk to my grandmothers, to fixate on their mannerisms. I take mental notes on the way their hands move, the words and phrases they fall back on. I try to catch what it is they notice and comment on about other people. And then I try to find those things in my grandfather, my parents, myself. I try to construct a backwards taxonomy of my family’s beingness. This has proved more fruitful than my previous endeavor.
My abuela and I don’t speak the same verbal language. She knows very little English, and though I can string a few phrases together in Spanish, nothing can carry meaningful conversations. There are many things we can’t understand about one another because of this barrier, but who we fundamentally are is not one of them.
My mom and I used to visit my abuela at least twice a year, and during my time with her I gained habits that have become a part of who I am most comfortable being. There are small, everyday things: my obsession with TV shows, my demand for only authentic Mexican food, my need to buy something just because it’s on sale, and then return it because of shopper’s remorse. But then there are the big things, the things that have always made me feel more authentic: the strength to speak up for myself, the courage to trust myself and my choices, the bravery to be unapologetically myself.
My abuela and I share our own language. One of small laughs, knowing smirks, loving hugs, and watchful eyes that catch in silence what the noise of talking often covers. Our language may not be spoken, it may not be understood by an outsider, but it’s there. And it’s beautifully transcendent.
My grandfather died when I was twelve. I watched as he took his last breath and my grandmother simultaneously took her first. The first breath of a life without the most important person in her life; the first breath after years of worrying about his health, his pain, his wellbeing; the first breath into a life of solitude. As I walked out of the hospital that day, ten years ago, the priest who had given my grandpa his last rites took me aside and told me I had to take care of my grandma now—it was up to me to see her through the difficult times.
Did I mention I was twelve and that I had just watched my hero die? How was I supposed to take care of my grandma when who I was had just disappeared into the vents of that third-floor hospital room? How could I take care of anyone when I wasn’t even sure how to take care of myself?
Despite my doubts, I took what that priest said seriously, thinking that if I wasn’t strong, my grandma would fall apart and it would be all my fault. And thus began my anxiety. As I grew into a different person, one who constantly sought the thrill of adrenaline if only to keep from feeling anything else, I also grew quietly anxious. I was afraid of ruining my family’s lives by not being strong enough, so I stayed away. I stopped frequently visiting my grandma the day I noticed my family rearranging the kitchen and the living room. And the weekly card games I used to play with her ceased to exist the day I noticed my grandpa’s things being packed away and sent to Goodwill. I was angry at everyone’s sudden need to cleanse when I had only barely begun to mourn. I couldn’t be strong. I couldn’t take care of my grandma. What business did I have to even be around her?
Our relationship changed forever the day my grandpa died. We became strangers to each other, never really knowing what to say or how to act. Unfortunately, ten years later, not much has changed. Which is why finding out she has cancer, for which she refuses to receive chemo, has knocked the breath I’ve been struggling to control for the past ten years right out of me.
I don’t talk about my feelings. I haven’t since that unusually warm December day when my life changed. I’m afraid of feeling too much, of being told to stop crying, to be strong, to be somehow better than the only person I’ve ever been. And, in this instance, I’m afraid of realizing that, despite my warning, I failed my grandma anyway. I wasn’t strong enough for her, sure. But I also wasn’t there.
I let my gut-wrenching fear consume every fiber of my being until it convinced me I would never be the granddaughter she needed. In trying so desperately to keep anyone from getting hurt, I ruined a relationship that I should have been fostering. I ruined a decade’s worth of chances to create memories I could think back on with a smile when our time together comes to an end. When my grandma takes her last breath, joining her husband wherever the hell we end up when we die, I’ll be struggling to take my first in a life without her. And who will there be to take care of me then?
When I was five years old, I was peeing in my grandma’s bathroom. Within arm’s reach of the toilet was a drawer in dire need of my exploration. Following the completion of my primary objective in the bathroom, I washed my hands and began to rummage through my grandmother’s belongings. In the top drawer of her bathroom counter, I stumbled across a large set of teeth.
I was shocked by this because I previously had no idea that my grandmother utilized dentures. It is important to note that at this time in my life, my understanding of dentures followed the cartoon depiction of dentures: as huge sets of teeth that somehow fit perfectly inside of a mouth that was clearly too small.
After discovering these supposed dentures, I then carried the set of teeth out to my grandma and said, “Grandma, I had no idea you used dentures!” My grandma laughed kindly and responded, “Honey, that set of teeth is twice the size of my head. I’m a dental hygienist. This is what I use to show people how to brush their teeth.”
I love the way my grandma loves. She makes everyone in her life feel like the most important person in the room. When I see the way that my grandma interacts with anyone, whether it be a lifelong friend or a server in a restaurant or a random passerby on the street, I am inspired by the way that she invests in just making people feel special.
My grandma is a ham. She loves attention and she isn’t afraid to demand it. When my grandmother knows she has something important to say, she’ll tap loudly on her glass of gin-on-the-rocks with a spoon yelling, “HELLO, EXCUSE ME, OVER HERE!” until she drowns out the other voices with her persistence.
My grandma is loud, funny, and inappropriate under a deceivingly sophisticated exterior. While you will never find a hair on her head that isn’t in place or a pair of socks on her feet that don’t match her shoes, my grandma has been known to either laugh at dirty jokes shared over a formal dinner or share the dirty jokes herself. My grandma knows that she is important, that she has value, and that she has contributions that are worth sharing. My grandma knows this about herself in such an honest way that makes other people know it, too.
My grandma’s confidence has inspired the same in me. She has lived her whole life knowing that she is funny and kind. She has lived her whole life knowing that she deserves attention and love. My grandma has brought me up instilling confidence in me of my value as a contributing member of society. She has taught me to be respectful but to also command respect in a way that is both gentle and self-assured. My grandma loves herself. My grandma taught me how to love me.
My grandmother loves to make art and so do I. She makes art just for herself and she hangs it up all over her house. My grandmother’s oil pastel drawings are on the wall of almost every single room and she can remember drawing every single one. My grandma taught me that it is okay if I am the only one who likes my art because I make it for me. She taught me that art is about creating something that is beautiful or meaningful to at least one person, even if that one person is me.
One of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me was taking me for a walk in the dark. It was the last lingering hours of my twenty-third birthday, and my grandmother had passed away that evening. A close friend of my grandmother’s, Anja, came over to the house. Over the years I had seen her briefly, but I did not know her well. She suggested we go for a walk to get away from all that was happening. At first I resisted, but I soon accepted her offer.
It was a cool summer night in Bennington, Vermont. Our walk started in passing by the waterfall that was down the road from my grandmother’s home. A few steps ahead came the quaint town consisting of a small restaurant, convenience store, and library. I became more aware that this place had shifted in meaning now. We kept walking until there were no streetlights and we were walking in total darkness. I knew where we were then, but it felt unfamiliar. Nervous about the lack of light, I wondered if it was safe to be walking like this in utter darkness. Anja reassured me that she walked this way at night before. Taking this as a sign, I put my complete trust in her. Listening to our footsteps walking across the graveled pathway, my eyes were able to adjust. The absence of light numbed some of the pain, and Anja and I shared our memories of the remarkable woman we both knew.
My grandmother Lilo possessed a youthful spirit that made one feel as though she would live forever. She was a German Jewish refugee who came to the States in 1939. Situations that one would normally consider frightening, my grandmother considered just a new experience. Taking cue from the early murmurings of war, Lilo left Berlin to study violin in London. In 1939, she boarded a freighter for the States. Knowing there were mines in the water did not deter her from treating the trip like an adventure. One day, she decided to take a bath on the ship, because she wanted to feel the bathwater move like the sea. When she arrived in Ellis Island, a single incorrect date on her papers detained her for a day and a half. The issue was resolved, but the day after she was released, she contracted the measles. Had she been detained a day later, she might have been sent back to Germany.
Having to start anew, she worked various jobs. At the start, none of them were in music. Eventually, she found a rewarding career as a professional violinist and teacher. She had hundreds of students who not only studied violin, but piano, viola, and German with her. In her 60s, she went back to high school and earned her GED. She then went on to Bennington College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree at the age of 69. Her last concert was at the age of 90. She was able to stand and play the violin for the entire concert. She also continued to teach until she was 98.
My grandmother’s parents were not able to escape Germany, and did not survive the war. I think this partly contributed to her making something of all life had to offer her. Whenever she talked of them, it was as though they were sitting in the same room.
The waterfall came back into view again, making my journey with Anja a complete circle. From there, we encircled the same area a second and third time, sharing more memories along the way. Anja and I helped each other that night to begin to cope with losing someone we both loved. The simplicity of going for a walk allowed for the start of grieving that was more natural and forgiving. I often think about that night I shared with Anja. It also allowed me to see with a new clarity the woman my grandmother was. It has been a few years now since her passing, and I am starting to let her continue to teach me again. In my own creative endeavors and attitude towards life, I look to her for inspiration. I am thankful for that walk in the dark. It gave me more than I ever could have imagined.
April 14, 2017: I don’t even remember the last time my grandmother called me. It was probably when I was in high school. So when she called me asking how she “hurt me” to make me distant from her, I was surprised. I was less surprised when she proceeded to not listen to anything I said. I’ve never cried during a phone call before. I just hope she doesn’t call me out of the blue again because this felt like an ambush. It’s hard to verbalize to someone why they make you feel less important to them as they are literally telling you that your male cousins are better than you because they go see her more often. It’s great that my cousin goes and sees her several times a month. I’m glad that they have that relationship. I live a thousand miles away and I won’t be stopping by her house once a week. But thanks for the Catholic Guilt Trip™ I guess.
I’d talk to you more if for a moment
I thought you’d hear what I was saying
I’m tired of screaming myself hoarse
June 10, 2017: Mom and Grandma had their last therapy session this Wednesday. They tackled how, if my grandmother wants a relationship with me, she’ll have to be more flexible and stop blaming my mother. The therapist suggested emailing me. My grandmother wants to call. But I’m not emotionally ready for another phone conversation with her. We don’t know where the boundaries are, or where the other person stands, or what the limits are. That’s leaving a lot of me exposed and vulnerable. It’s not the best mode of communication for us, especially with how fragile our relationship is. I guess we’ll see how much effort my grandmother puts into trying to rebuild our relationship. I’m willing to put in what she does. She told the therapist that she doesn’t see why she should have to initiate contact with any of her children or grandchildren. I suppose we’re supposed to do it, because that’s obviously how relationships work. God, it’s been a couple of days and I’m still so mad about it. And it sucks because I know that I’m going to have to be the one to be the bigger person. It’s so hard to justify to myself why I should even bother engaging. There’s no real way to win. If I try to repair our relationship, I’m going to end up hurt, frustrated and upset. If I don’t, I’m just the bitchy, inflexible granddaughter who doesn’t care enough about her grandmother. I don’t like this narrative.
It’s like you don’t know
what to say to me anymore
So all you say is “I love you”
And hope that’s enough to satisfy
But who ever told you love
wasn’t supposed to hurt?
Because love has always been
messy and hard and imperfect
And growing up
shouldn’t mean growing cold
So maybe start trying to love me
Instead of just saying you do
My grandma and I used to be close; you know, the kind of close when you’re five and your grandmother is your babysitter. My mother always used to say that my father’s mother never knew how to deal with children, but as we aged she got more comfortable with us. She then went on to say that her mother had the opposite problem: she adored us as small children but as soon as we grew into our own opinions and personalities she struggled. It’s just hard to stay close to someone who hates women, people of color, or anyone who isn’t a white, Christian, heterosexual male. It’s just disheartening when it’s coming from a woman who married a man who is half Native American, has three grandsons who are half black, two granddaughters who are Korean, and a couple of grandkids who fall under the queer umbrella.
June 12, 2017: Text conversation.
grandma: I’d rather talk to you on the phone, but here goes. [Reiterates phone call from one month prior]. There is no way I ever want to hurt you. Now as far as counseling went, I feel it just put a big bandage on a problem that needs more than that. I do feel she did the best she could. She asked if your mom wanted to come back for more and she said she would think about it. I don’t think she will go so if it is going to get solved it is up to us. Here is the big question: Why don’t you, your mom, and your sister just drop in to see me. Your mom says she can’t do that. Maybe when you or your sister are home you could help by saying, Let’s go visit Grandma. Maybe she just needs a little push the first time. Or do you need a push, too? Love you, miss seeing you.
me: Love and miss you too.
June 16, 2017: Text conversation.
grandma: Show me.
me: Could ask you the same thing.
She doesn’t want to admit that she’s wrong. Then she’d have to change.
I am standing in the receiving line of my father’s funeral in mismatched socks, having already abandoned my heels in the face of a seemingly endless stream of people, when I truly think about my paternal grandmother for the first time in years. An older woman is telling my mother how she explained the word “recalcitrant” to her husband when they read it in the obituary I wrote: “I said, ‘It means Swasey-ish.”
Since a woman keeping her own last name is controversial even today, that my grandmother Hannah took her husband’s surname, Oman, is no surprise. But the legend of the Swasey stubbornness—her family’s—is one that even I know. I fit more comfortably into the age range of her great-grandchildren than her other grandchildren. Given how often my father griped about my bullheadedness, claiming I had come by it entirely on my own, this comment allowed me to smile, despite everything, acknowledging that Hannah was—no, is—an undeniable part of my family’s heritage.
My grandmothers were like the mountain ranges that have surrounded me almost my whole life: somewhat austere, seemingly everlasting, and distant, both about a four-hour drive away. My grandfathers both died before I could really know either of them, but in a household where my father was the only man in the midst of six women, it felt right, somehow, to have two such matriarchs. When I think of them now, I imagine them both sitting because by the time I came to know them, getting around, while still possible, was far from easy for either of them.
Though she was always ensconced in a navy blue recliner when she visited us, I always think of Ruby, my mother’s mother, in terms of browns and reds. Her hair, undoubtedly whitened, determinedly retained a golden hue, furthering a sort of autumnal theme. She was easily spurred to laughter, which was rather loud and high-pitched but not quite cackling, and eager to share her stories. Short and round, skin seemingly stretched almost too far, Ruby was the picture of “grandmotherly.”
Hannah’s favorite chair was a wide-armed, off-white leather La-Z Boy of sorts. She had a significant hunch in her back, but seeing it was like remembering your age: it only came to mind when you really thought about it. Her short, curly hair was a pearly silver, just like my dad’s; I’ve always lamented that I didn’t inherit the black hair necessary to get that sort of silver. What I remember best about Hannah, though, are her hands: her fingers were stiff and appeared permanently bent to different degrees, literally changed from the lifetime of labor they’d seen, but still surprisingly agile. Though her skin appeared papery, it felt warm and strong.
When Hannah died, almost exactly three years ago, my thoughts first strayed to the unending patience she demonstrated while teaching me to crochet. As a more or less functioning adult, I wonder if her near-constant reminders to count my stitches—and my consistent and indolence-driven refusal to do so—have some greater meaning that I have yet to appreciate. Still, seeing that laziness alter my first crocheted afghan into more of a lopsided parallelogram than a rectangle has only made me slightly less reluctant to count some 300-odd stitches.
I also remember her admonishment when, too enthused about my new ability to create something from almost nothing, I insisted on crocheting on Sunday: “Whatever irreverent things we do on the Sabbath will have to come out of our noses in Heaven.” A crochet hook out the nose would certainly be uncomfortable, but my young mind started to think of all the other things that would apparently be drawn out of my nostrils: my GameBoy (Would the game cartridges be removed separately?), movies, books—the list was not a short one.
Such blatant manipulation might have made me bitter, but when I recall, as a six- or seven-year old, choosing to mispronounce “destruction” repeatedly until my mother frustratedly let me go to bed rather than telling her that I just didn’t want to read The Book of Mormon anymore, I feel grateful instead. Gram O (as my sisters and I called her) never tried to make me do what she felt was right or stop me from doing whatever she deemed unwise, like my parents did; she informed me of the consequences as she saw them, but my choices and their consequences were my own. Her ability to respect me, if not necessarily my choices, means that I often chuckle about this memory, such as this past weekend when I found myself wondering, What physical representation of shopping could be extracted from my sinuses?
My mother’s family has always felt younger than my father’s, and frequent gatherings throughout the year definitely contributed to that feeling. Despite the additional time I spent with my maternal grandmother, Ruby, witnessing the changes that time and her dementia wrought in her made me a bitter, spiteful grandchild rather than a sympathetic one. As I got older, so did she, and we each changed in equally dramatic ways. The tender woman who had once so patiently and kindly tended to my inaugural bee sting with baking soda and water when I was perhaps five years old, which I had sobbingly feared would be the death of me, began to seem more and more like a scene from a book I couldn’t quite remember reading.
One day, years later, after walking the two blocks home from school, I stepped into the living room and saw her gold-white hair glinting just above the back of what had become her recliner, the brightest point in a room that the late afternoon winter sun had otherwise cast into a uniformly dull, dark blue. I don’t know if I hesitated, but before I’d even walked far enough into the room to see her face, she told me, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Since I had deliberately chosen to stay late in a futile effort to delay this interaction, I felt a twist of guilt, quickly followed by an overwhelmingly righteous indignation that I should be in any way responsible for her. I resented her presence in my house, that she made home an unfriendly place. More than that, though, I resented her helplessness and what I now understand to be her frustrated and desperate refusal to acknowledge that helplessness.
“I was hoping you’d turn on Dr. Phil for me,” she said.
I stood frozen, shaking with frustrated rage that Ruby couldn’t manage something as simple as turning on the TV, before exasperatedly doing as she’d asked. I couldn’t even look at her as I pressed the remote’s faultless buttons with far too much force.
Even as I stalked to my room, she called, “Thank you!” after me.
For all my adolescent desperation to grow up, to be respected like my significantly older sisters, I only begrudgingly took on even the most preliminary burdens of adulthood, such as helping those who could not quite help themselves—a burden that each of my sisters had been shouldering to some extent for the whole of my life: me.
I cannot say exactly how long she lived with us, several months at least and perhaps even a year, but I was immensely relieved when my parents informed us that she’d be moving to a nursing home. I’d only overheard Ruby’s seemingly endless conversations with my mother about how she missed her friends and neighbors, the majority of whom now lived in that same nursing home, but I thought that if she wanted to be there so badly, then it was past time to put her there.
Good riddance, I thought. No longer would I have to hear her ask my mother, “Now, which one was that, Barbara?” or my mother’s ever-patient reply, “That’s Can, Mom,” whenever I left a room. No longer would I have to endure the stench of her unwashed body because no matter how gently my mother suggested a bath, Ruby almost always refused, likely loathing that she couldn’t bathe on her own. No longer would I have to come home from school and worry that she’d left the stove or oven on. No longer would I have to endure the endless rewatching of The Man from Snowy River, cranked to such a volume that the TV could be heard from every corner of our not-insubstantially sized house.
I still hate that movie.
Whatever camaraderie Ruby had hoped to find at the nursing home, it wasn’t long before she was lamenting to my mother that, unlike her friends’ children, my mother wouldn’t come to visit her every day. Hardly kitty-corner from our house, the nursing home was an overall journey of seven to eight hours, and my teenage self was aghast at this not-so-subtle guilt trip.
Still, my mother drove to see her almost every other week, and I could see how much it hurt her when, after asking me if I’d like to join her, I swiftly and unequivocally refused. Though a significant portion of this refusal had to do with my childish desire to avoid Ruby entirely, I also felt indignant on my mother’s behalf in the face of this manipulation and how, or so it seemed to me then, my mother’s siblings had left this responsibility to her alone.
Ruby lived in the nursing home for several years before she died; I only remember consenting to a visit once, likely not long before she died, and I brought only sullen silence with me.
Ruby’s funeral was the first I attended as an adult, and I deliberately chose to wear a dress printed with a wide expanse of impetuously cheerful, paint-like yellow poppies wrapped around the waist—a visual demonstration of my lack of grief. The service felt something like the challenge of a haunted house to me: if I screamed or cried, I lost. My lack of expression was meant to show precisely how unaffected I felt. My mother, my father, and my sisters genuinely mourned the woman they had known and loved, but I could only see the burden a particularly unkind passage of time had caused her to become, even though I had not borne much of that burden.
After reflecting on my experiences with Ruby for the first time in years, I don’t know I can honestly say I wish I’d loved her better, because I don’t know that I could have loved the woman she was as I was growing up. But I definitely could have been kinder, more understanding to her, and thereby, kinder and more understanding to my mother as she watched her own mother subtly and irrevocably altered, becoming someone more and more strange. Put as simply as I dare, I do regret allowing Ruby’s suffering and her attempts to cope with that to obscure her personhood in my eyes.
This introspection has reminded me that what we love and hate about the women in our lives—whether our grandmothers, mothers, or sisters—has so much to do with what we hope and fear for ourselves, whether that’s an outdated understanding of a woman’s place or the reality of aging. I can do no better by my grandmothers, may they both rest in peace, but I hope that I can better respect my mother for who she is and also who she’s not: me.
Makan. It means eat, let’s eat, it is time to eat. Come to the table and take a seat around the Lazy Susan — but not that one, which is where Ah-Ma sits, and has sat, for all our meals together.
The term is Malay. Ah-Ma calls it out whenever we are visiting her in her flat, to call us to the meal of the hour. It’s one of the relatively few words fully understood between us—me, with my horrible grasp of Hokkien, her dialect, and her, with her limited English, the language her children’s generation and their children’s generation grew up learning in school. So we communicate slowly, gently, and with many nods and many smiles, in my broken Chinese, her broken English, and the occasional word in Malay—the national language of Singapore. I couldn’t write to her if I wanted to, or even read to her, as she’s remained illiterate for the nearly nine decades of her life. When she cries out makan, and nothing else, the message is clear. Come, eat, I made this food for you, because I love you.
I never really felt sad about not being able to have full conversations with my grandma until I came to America a decade and a half ago. Until I heard friends speak about their own “Grans” and until I started watching a lot of American TV. I guess I always thought we had our own special language, this way of understanding each other through looks and gestures that came naturally, and that felt natural.
I was always content just watching her stir steaming pots in the kitchen, or soaking in the drama of her Chinese soap operas (subtitled) as we slouched side-by-side on her two twin-sized beds pushed together to form a double. Ah-Ma’s has a portrait of herself hung above it, photographed a couple of decades ago; the bed that belonged to my Ah-Kong has a picture of him, gaunt and bespectacled, from the same day. My mom used to chide Ah-Ma for that decorating scheme, which she said was like two pictures that mark her parents’ graves.
I learned about Ah-Ma’s life mostly through Mom’s occasional stories, but also from the photographs Ah-Ma keeps pressed beneath a yellowing glass pane that rests atop a big wooden desk in her room. They are mostly pictures of her 11 grandkids, but there are a few of her, young, dressed in cheongsams, with her short, curly hair elegantly coiffed.
Her hair is now white, closely cropped, and thinning. She wears a lot of light fabric. Always has, actually, as long as I can remember. Silk, linen—always two pieces that match to make a suit of sorts, although I would never have called it a suit before I moved to America. Matches it with earrings and perfume, which I always thought was too strong. But the fragrance is always just right for her, adamant, assured, unapologetic.
Her smell, of course, is much different whenever she calls out makan. The cry comes with the promise of her cooking—stir-fried luffa, hearty potato stew, black sauce chicken, minced pork with rice—and how can I not mention her laksa? That spicy noodle soup with sweet coconut milk, decorated with prawns, fishcake, puffy tofu.
Tau kwa—that’s the Chinese term for extra firm tofu. My mom once told me it’s what Ah-Ma “fondly” used to call me when I was a toddler, especially when I would get mad. Round square face, she translated, with great liberty. You are well loved, was her follow-up text. Most updates about Ah-Ma arrive through text now. We live nearly nine thousand and four hundred miles away from each other. With Skype, all our face-to-face communication is gauche—strange, even. A lot of nods, a lot of smiles. A lot of pauses. Every time we meet digitally, her body, at less than five by two inches large, looks smaller and smaller.
My mom is texting more and more these days about how Ah-Ma is falling down. She fell and bumped her head. She’s hospitalized, but lucid. She said her legs were wobbly and so she slid down to the floor. She is OK, my screen reads. She is showing all the emotions. And then—Pray for Mama to be better. Her heart is weak, and she’s been admitted to the hospital again. Her body is bloated and swelling. Yet. Her appetite is good. She ate steak. Yet. Her skin is so thin. Her skin is so raw and tender. Almost like she is a layer of skin, my mom texts. She has to see the skin specialist. Pause, new text. Looks skinless. Is it wrong that her descriptions make me think of popiah—another of Ah-Ma’s specialties—a plump roll of vegetables wrapped in a paper-thin skin of flour?
The most recent video I received from my mom was of Ah-Ma eating a biscuit as she sat up in a hospital bed. She had washed it down with a paper cup of iced Milo. In between coughs she was speaking Hokkien, but I heard her say ho jiak—affirming to my aunt, in Hokkien, tasty. I replay that video often, even though I can’t understand any of her other words.
I know that one phrase well because I’ve used it all my life to answer her. After the call to makan comes the coy question, Ho jiak bo?, which she’d always ask me, shuffling towards my chair in her slippers as I taste one of her dishes. My answer never wavered. Sometimes my tone was frustrated, because what else would I even say?
Makan. It’s a term I haven’t heard in person in about three years. To me, it’s come to mean more than a call to the table. And more than a matriarchal command to drop everything I’m doing, sit, and enjoy a homecooked meal with Ah-Ma before it gets cold, god forbid. It’s a term whose meaning I understand through looks and gestures. No words, but many nods, and many big smiles.