All the Conversations I Never Got to Have with my Grandmother
By the time I gained the ability to speak, my grandmother had lost hers
If there's one person no longer alive who I'd like to sit and have dinner with, it's my paternal grandmother. Hopefully it will be a long one, to make up for the fact that we never had a conversation at all during the time she was alive and in our presence.
People called her Ada. One of the more special things about me as a child was that I looked like her. When they saw me, everyone would say how lucky I was to have some of her beauty. As memories of her stream in slowly, I realize that I'm living my life the way I am because of how she lived hers.
.When I gained full consciousness and memory, she had lost hers. Strokes had stolen from her the ability to tell stories, to pass on wisdom and culture, to play with me - the girl child who looked so much like her.
Instead of seeing a grandmother, I saw a baby whose nearness to death caused a discomfort in me I couldn't understand. She was treated like a baby - she wore a bib when she ate and she wore diapers when I no longer needed them. She always smelled a little bit like a too clean bathroom and medicine. Relatives would sing songs and clap their hands, and she would clap along and do the things that made them feel happy and comfortable. For pictures, they would make her smile by pointing to a camera, just like they do with toddlers who can't focus. Most uncomfortable of all for me was the blankness in her eyes.
As I grew older, she became more and more mute - until she couldn't play along with the songs anymore.
Everyone has a different experience and this was my experience of her - one I've always felt so guilty about. She was a matriarch that our family put on a pedestal. To everyone else, she was this huge figure of beauty and tough love. I understood that she worked hard. My aunts and uncles called her “Mama” with such strong emphasis, you could tell they were talking about someone strong, someone who was bound to leave an impression on you. And yet, as I reaped the rewards of her strength, I never really got to hear from her herself. It’s like receiving a book with empty pages.
An exact replica of me, in a deteriorating shell. It seemed like I was looking into the future and it wasn't pretty. I was always relieved to say goodbye to her when it was time to go even though I could never tell if she understood me.
What could I learn from her? She was a myth whose story I was never really told. And now that I'm preparing to be a mother myself, I yearn to sit at her feet and learn, learn, learn.
Her 80th birthday was the biggest, fanciest party I've ever been to. It was held in two huge ballrooms in an elegant hotel that my own family could never afford to stay in even for a night. Each generation had their own choreographed dance that they'd been rehearsing for two months, to perform in front of her. And I, I had the privilege of singing to her a song that conveyed how all her children felt about her, "Wind Beneath My Wings."
I rememember looking out and seeing my aunts' and uncles' crying face, and hers blank. It might be wishful thinking but somehow, I felt in that moment, she was there, hearing it all.
And after all this time, she is the quiet wind beneath my wings, whose message it will be my lifelong journey to decipher.