I met my grandmother when she was 53. It’s a good age to meet a grandma. She was an ally of mine from the very beginning. And always when I most needed it. The conditions surrounding my birth were somewhat stressful, my father had just been sentenced to 17 years in prison two weeks before my arrival. It was not a total surprise, the trial had been long and very public and spanned my mother’s whole pregnancy with me.
That whole thing is a long story for a different time, but suffice to say that my father knew that he would be going away, and everything would be changing for my family. He asked my grandparents if they would help take care of us while he was gone. They said yes.
I was supposed to be born at home, but during the labor there was an issue and the midwife said we had to go to the hospital. I was almost born in the ambulance. The hospital was a horror show, my mother was there for less than 24 hours before she called my grandmother on the phone to come and bust us out. She came right away.
My grandparents loved me a lot. I mean, everyone knows that and it kind of goes without saying. What I really mean to say is, my grandparents loved me more than usual. They went above and beyond the call of duty for me. I know that this was a special gift, and I have always known it. You see, I also loved my grandparents — a lot. More than usual.
The first years of my life we lived with them. My mom and two older sisters and I. It was a bit of an adjustment for everyone, except me. I was unaware of how dramatically everyone’s life had been altered. The decade previous my mother had spent living in religious community, first in Jamaica, then in Miami. When my father was sent to prison (for large scale ganja smuggling) my mother left the church. She was 2 weeks away from giving birth to me, and the other brothers in the church told her that she had to go back to Jamaica. She went back to her family instead, estranged and hugely pregnant.
You learn early on that your family has the power to break your heart, but they are also the one’s most ready, willing and able to love and forgive you when you need it most. The lessons of love we learn in this life are primarily homeschooled. My grandmother was the first person I consciously recognized as my teacher.
She taught me so many important things. She taught me how to tie a shoe (I have a vivid memory of practicing again and again on an old shoe of grandpa’s). She taught me how to read before I started Kindergarten. She wanted to make sure I started school ahead of the game and also to ensure that I wasn’t retarded (as she told me many times she feared I would be due to all the pot smoking; luckily, I proved to be a gifted child early on). She taught me how to bake cookies, use the Dewey decimal system, chew with my mouth closed and use table manners, properly wash dishes and read a map.
She was a master seamstress, one Summer she endeavored to teach me how to sew, and we made an entire wardrobe for a doll of mine. I think I was too young because I didn’t really retain anything I learned about about sewing, except that my Grandma loved it and could make absolutely anything with her old Singer machine.
The first lesson I ever got about how to heal from a broken heart came from her too. When I was six, my father got out of prison. This meant that we would move to Miami to start a new chapter as a family, but had to leave Lakeland and my grandparents. I was not happy about it. Our last night in town, I asked her if she would sleep on my pillow, so that her scent would be all over it. I remember her laughing hard at that request, and my serious insistence that she do it. She did.
It was hard for me to even fathom being apart from one another, but I was comforted by the fact that it was decided that I would spend every Summer with my grandparents in Minnesota at their lake cabin in Park Rapids. The first Summer they bought the cabin, was the first Summer I went North with them. I was 6. It was amazing. I would do it every year until I was 13.
We were a happy traveling trio. Aside from my frequent motion sickness the trip up was always a great adventure. They expanded my world view and gave me a sense of my whole family, I got to meet and know all of my mother’s four siblings and their families and all my grandma’s four siblings and their families — the entire maternal clan really, and there was one, I had a clan, and I actually got to be a part of it. I was always too young and innocent to realize how great a service they were doing me when it was happening, but my expression of gratitude was in the sheer joy of being with them, and the feeling was mutual between the three of us.
When I think about my experiences at the cabin every Summer I feel a perfect nostalgia that is so acute I know it will be a memory of mine that extends beyond this space/time and my life on Earth. When I am in Grandma’s position, I will be remembering those days we spent together. It’s because of the love tether, where and when it roots in leaves a mark, and it is real and transcendent at the same time. Like light. Love. They are often equated as being one in the same thing.
That first Summer I had to go home and leave my grandma, was the first time I ever experienced true heartbreak. I was so overwhelmed with grief I was unable to eat, for days. My mother was beside herself with upset about it. I remember sitting at the kitchen table head down sobbing, my mother worried and asking what on earth was the matter with me, and me saying “I just miss grandma so much”.
I knew even at that tender young age, that I was hurting my mother’s feelings because I was so grief stricken (and surely grandma wouldn’t like to hear about how upset I was), but I was so seized by it there was no choice for me in the matter. Finally, my mother startled me out of it, telling me that if I couldn’t handle coming back home that maybe I wouldn’t be able to go away next summer. That thought, of a future time with Grandma being revoked, gave me enough of a sense of fear and purpose to straighten up and fly right so to speak, take a bite of cantaloupe and say yes to life. We would reunite one day. My ability to cherish my love for her helped me recover from the grief of our separation. It’s been a pattern I remember and still use to this day when I need to.
The way you and your mother love each other is almost invisible. This is true the younger you are. It’s like breathing or blinking, automatic both ways. Yes your very life depends upon it, but you don’t need to think about it, unless you are meditating or something.
The love between grandparents and grandchildren is more clear, pure and unencumbered. They are two people at a stage of life where their relative degrees of being present in the moment match up beautifully. When my grandmother met me she was primed to fall in love. I made it easy for her to forgive my mother and heal the wounds they had suffered through their long relationship and loving of one another.
I was a fresh page, another chance, a baby bridge, built from pure love coming straight from the void, just in the nick of time, an answer to prayer. This is how I was embraced and accepted by my grandparents. This is the type of love that helped incubate me into this world.
This is the kind of gift one can hardly ever even recall receiving because it’s so formative, until they are at a point in life where they have the wisdom and distance to reflect on what was most essential and true in life, until they are at a place where they are taking their turn of being the one’s giving it, the type of love that nourishes children, builds families and saves the day.
My Grandma Phyllis did many wonderful things in her 90 years on Earth, but one of the things she wanted to do, but never did was publish the children’s stories she had written. I have her original manuscripts, they are typewritten on yellowing paper and they are actually really good. I promised her that I would transcribe and publish them for her, at the very least so that all her grandchildren and great grandchildren would be able to have access to them.
I do intend to publish all of them as a collection and share them with everyone, but I would like to include a link to one now, The Legend of Little Yellow Flower, because it is my favorite, because it is appropriate and because I amazed every time I read it by how it makes me cry.
Thank you Grandma for everything. I will love you forever.