How Grandparents Shape Our Lives More Than We Realize
As I stood in the back of the room at my grandma’s memorial listening to people as they passed the microphone and shared stories of her, I wished I could go up there and say something. Both my crippling fear of public speaking and my emotions wouldn’t let me. When I got into the car afterward, though, I thought more: If I could have gone up there, what would I have said?
There was the summer we cleaned houses together, the time she let me drive her car just after I got my permit, the time my parents went out of town and sent her over to make sure we didn’t throw a party, the time she taught me how to make pie. Which one of those stories would be interesting to tell? It was then that I realized our relationship wasn’t about one poignant moment. It was all of those moments, and every hug in between, that helped to shape who I am and how I parent my own children.
My parents recently celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary, but they both are children of divorce. Each one of my grandparents got remarried, which meant I grew up with a total of eight grandparents. Having lost six of those eight grandparents now that I’m in my mid-30s, I’ve begun to understand that, while our parents play a pivotal role in who we are, so do our grandparents.
Whether you have eight or even just one grandparent, it’s likely that relationship is special. Here are just a few ways they shape us that we often don’t realize until they are gone.
They Are There
All of my grandparents taught me something, showed me affection and kept me and my brothers for sleepovers under their roof. But my mom’s mom was the one who babysat us when my mom went back to work, naturally making her the one who we saw the most as we grew up.
I don’t remember the details of those days, but I’ve heard the stories over and over. My favorite being the time she taught my twin brother and I to play hide-and-seek, and every single time she’d pretend she didn’t know where we were, we’d come out screaming, “Here I am, grandma!”
Fast forward 20 years when she traveled to my college graduation and watched me walk across that stage. She shaped who I am because she was always there.
They Give the Best Hugs
There was nothing better than a hug from my grandma. When my first son was a couple of weeks old, I drove the two hours from my house to hers just so she could hold him for an afternoon. I did that so she could meet him as a newborn, but as a new mom, I also selfishly needed a hug from her. She quietly sat back and watched as I struggled to feed him, burp him and change him. When I packed everything up and went to get back into the car, she thanked me for bringing him to meet her, told me I was doing a great job and gave me the very best hug.
The last time I saw her, my husband and I took our two- and four-year-old boys to visit her at her house, this time driving seven hours to get there (since we’ve moved). Again, I wanted her to spend time with my kids, even if just for an afternoon. When we left, she thanked me for bringing them to see her, told me I was doing a great job and gave me the very best hug.
They Are Trustworthy
My grandma had six children — three boys and three girls. When I was pregnant, I got cholestasis (a liver disease that causes intense itching) — something that she and my mother both had. I was uncomfortable and worried, and I got a phone call from my grandma telling me I could handle it. That if she could do it, so could I.
When I found out I was having a second boy, she also called to tell me that “boys are easier, anyway.” Her years of parenting experience made me instantly trust her. When she died, she left a legacy of 16 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
They Have Experience
My grandma was born in Washington, spent most of her childhood in Arizona and then spent the last 60 years of her life in California. Over the years, she was a caterer, florist, card dealer, house cleaner, caretaker and many other things.
The hands she held me with when I was born already had 48 years of experience on them. Grandparents already know so much by the time they become grandparents that in order to teach, they simply have to be themselves.
They Are Strong
My grandma stayed in a bad marriage for longer than she should have. She raised her kids without a reliable partner. She worked long days and long nights to provide for her family. This wasn’t a woman I knew; it’s only a woman I’ve heard about.
That’s the thing about grandparents: Oftentimes, they had much different lives before their grandchildren were born. By the time I knew my grandma, she was nurturing, kind and confident. She had made it past the hard times and figured out how to turn her life around. In this way, she showed me how to be strong — without having to say anything.
They Know the Definition of Caretaking
As a young girl, my grandma’s mom was ill. She spent childhood days at her mother’s bedside with her sisters, all of them wondering if that day would be the last day they’d see their mother. She carried that experience throughout her life as she cared for her children, and later, her second husband.
One of my grandma’s daughters had down syndrome. As she aged, she developed dementia, and my grandma insisted on keeping her in her home to take care of her. She did the same for her husband as he developed Alzheimer’s.
They Know How to Stand Their Ground
Everyone told my grandma to put my aunt and my grandpa into nursing homes. No one wanted her to take on the responsibility of caring for another at her age. But she didn’t care what other people had to say. She loved them both deeply and wanted to be the one to take care of them.
It didn’t matter to her if other people were upset by her choices. She had conviction and stood up for what she wanted. Up until the very last week of her life, she was fighting for what she wanted. She fought nurses and she fought against her failing mind.
They Love Unconditionally
As a parent, I now know about unconditional love. But the bond between a grandchild and grandparent is truly something extraordinary. Just like parents, from day one, a grandparent loves their grandchild. But grandparents aren’t entrenched in the daily grind of parenting. They have the luxury of only seeing their grandchildren when they want to see them. So, they are genuinely interested and engaged, and will do everything in their power to ensure that their grandchildren are happy.
On the day of my high school graduation, I refused to take photos with any of my family. I had straightened my very curly hair, and the combination of heat, sweat and my square hat had ensured that only the front pieces of my hair curled back up and the rest remained a frizzy mess. As a teenager, this was my nightmare. When we got back to our house, everyone was annoyed with me — except my grandma. She pulled me aside, told me I was beautiful and assured me that no one cared about my hair but that I would certainly care if I didn’t take any photos on my graduation day.
I don’t yet know what this kind of love feels like, but gauging from the way my parents treat my children, I imagine that grandparents feel unconditional love times a million.
They Are Supportive
It’s difficult to quantify the things that happen in life because you have been supported. I come from a very loving, supportive family that has always believed in me and given me the space to make my own choices. My grandma is just one person that stood by me and let me do things my way while she held my hand, followed behind me or sat in the audience.
One week before my wedding day, my grandma had a heart attack. I assumed that meant she wouldn’t be there, but I was wrong. She needed a wheelchair, but she showed up, with a smile on her face, to support me and my husband. If something was important to me, she made it important to her, too.
They Are More Open-Minded Than You Think
My mom is still best friends with a woman who she met on the street she grew up on. That’s because my grandma took it upon herself to be everyone’s mother. She welcomed her kids’ friends in her home, gave them a place to be and sometimes a place to live.
She always welcomed everyone with an open mind and an open heart — something I’ve learned isn’t a skill but rather an indicator of who a person is inside. She saw the world, and the people in it, in such a way that I admire and strive to mimic.
They Are True to Themselves
As a parent of two young children, I sometimes struggle to find myself. It’s part of this stage of life. When you’re inundated with big things like your child’s developmental milestones and little things like bringing enough snacks to the park to avoid a tantrum, there’s not much time to work on yourself. In this way, grandparents are immediately intriguing because they’ve already done what you’re doing, and they’ve become their true selves again.
My grandma had a beautiful rose garden, she’s the only person I know that actually liked candy corn, and her chicken salad always tasted better than mine (even if I used her recipe). She liked to read, shop and spend time with her family. She wore a turquoise wedding ring and preferred bare feet.
And now I wonder, who will I be in my 80s? When things are simplified and my children are grown, how will my grandchildren see me?
They Raised Our Parents
My mom is everything good that I’ve said about my grandma and then some. The relationship she had with her mom was one to be desired. Even through complications, they were there for each other. They communicated, were honest, showed support and respected one another.
All of those things are true for the relationship between my mom and me. And I like to think that my grandma has a lot to do with that because, without her, I wouldn’t have my mom — a woman also shaped by her mother.