Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Grown-up relationship with grandparents

Grandparents are special people. Not perfect, mind you. Just special.

Courtesy Goamick/Flickr

Everyone’s families are different, but those who have relationships with their parents’ parents know the uniqueness of it. A grandparent can be a caregiver, a refuge, a link to the past, a strange smell, a loving hug or maybe just a check on your birthday. I don’t know which grandparent in my life said it, but somebody once said, “When you have children you know a new unconditional love, and you think you’ve felt all forms of love. Then, you have grandchildren.” And that’s what a grandparent-grandchild relationship often is. A strange, new kind of love.

My grandmother on my mother’s side, Betty Buchanan, died last month. She had cancer of the everywhere and had been sick for a long time, but it still came as a shock to our family. Maybe it was less of a surprise and more of a shock to the familial system that had relied on her for so many years. Everyone in our family depended on her in one way or another, both emotionally and logistically. And now that’s she’s gone, I find myself going over my relationship with her in my head, trying to make sense of the deep, ripping sadness I feel.

The day after she died, the minister from my grandparents’ church came to their house to discuss services. My grandfather, mother and aunt told stories about my grandmother’s life, trying to paint a picture of her personality so the minister could better write a eulogy. When my turn came to speak, I couldn’t think of anything to say. My memories of her were not in anecdote form, and I struggled to think of any incident that would shed light on my time spent with her. In that moment, I felt like I had nothing.

For many of us, the bulk of the relationship we have with our grandparents exists in the duration of our childhoods. My child understanding of my grandparents was the same as my understanding of my parents: beings that existed in relation to me, but not full people with lives of their own. The teenage revelation that adult relatives have three dimensions, none of which depend on my existence, creates opportunity for relationships to change and grow. As we need our elders less for basic necessities, we see them less and less as parents and more and more as people. But with grandparents, that transition is often cut short, if it occurs at all.

My adult relationship with my grandmother began not long before she died. In fact, most of my recent memories of her exist in the space just before my adulthood. I remember her harshly scolding me for my nose ring before hugging me and promising she would learn to accept it. The last time I visited her before she died I put a good deal of effort into hiding my new tattoo. This was because once, after suspiciously eyeing a Hot Topic sales girl, she made me promise never to get inked. I was caught off guard by her request, so I promised instead of admitting I’d wanted tattoos since I was 10. During that same last trip she complimented me for losing weight, something I did not feel comfortable being complimented on. It was these moments that first jumped to mind when people asked me for my memories about her. I felt guilty that this was how I automatically remember her.

But then I began to go back to the earlier stuff, the kid stuff. It’s mostly still images, sounds and smells. The sailboat my grandparents used to own, the floral wall paper in their old house. She was a choral director and I can still hear her choir performing. Most of all I have her smell. It’s a near impossible thing to describe, but it’s somewhere between chicken and mushrooms with fresh rolls and mothballs. And somehow, that smell encapsulates her love for me, and for my whole family. It represents the home she kept, the care she put into cooking and organizing and making sure there were always cinnamon buns in the house when we visited. It evokes soft hands, and Christmas trees, and Chesapeake Bay, where we all went sailing. In that smell I can still hear her voice, complete with a slight southern drawl.

And yet, I know there is so much more to her than my view of her as a grandmother, and it is that wealth of knowledge and experience that I mourn the most. I had just begun to hear more stories of her youth, from all the time that existed before me. I had just begun to see her as Betty, and she was full of a life I wanted to know and understand. Universe permitting, I will have long, complex, grownup relationships with both my parents. But with my grandmother I just had a brief window. And I will treasure that time all my life, just as I will treasure her husband, my grandfather, my last living grandparent, for everything he has to give me.

It is an odd thing, the love I feel for my grandmother. It’s very different from the love I feel for anyone else in my family. It is as if I only knew her for a small amount of time, even though I loved her my whole life. I saw her several times a year, but she wasn’t a daily fixture in my life. And it wasn’t as if every moment with her was positive. But I see her now as my history, the anchor of my family, and my mother’s mother. I will remember her in smells and sounds, but also through the memories of the rest of my family. I will remember her for the new kind of love only a grandparent can give. There’s something really special about that.

Victoria Knobloch is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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