Back in June, my maternal grandmother passed away. I’ve had plenty of time and space to mourn her loss and celebrate her life since then. My mind, however, has refused to stay in one place. It’s been wandering from one memory to another, and not just memories of my grandmother. It’s probably because, for the first time in my life, I no longer have any living grandparents.
It’s a staggering reality that can be interpreted in different ways, all of which are still sinking in for me. I could choose to feel sad about it: It’s always hard to lose a loved one you’re close to. Grandparents are no exception. They look after us when our parents aren’t around, and the time they spend with us is their way of reminding us how special we are to them. Fishing, baking cookies, taking walks in the backyard while holding hands – that’s only the beginning of a list that’s unique for everyone. Once our grandparents are gone, the emptiness we feel from losing that bond tugs at our heartstrings for a while. Coming to terms with that loss isn’t a fun part of growing up, but it’s part of our growth nonetheless.
I could also choose to look at things with a certain dread or fear. With all of my grandparents gone, my parents are now the patriarch and matriarch of my immediate family. (The same can be said about my aunts and uncles for their own families.) They took care of their own parents as they aged. In the next 10 or 20 years, the cycle will begin again. Only this time, my brother and I will have to summon our courage and take the initiative to care of our parents. Perhaps I shouldn’t even be thinking about this yet – I’m weeks shy of turning 30 years old. But with my grandmother’s passing, I have and it scares the hell out of me. But I know I must accept that role when the time comes.
Notice I said “could” for both scenarios. That’s because, even though I still wobble between sadness and fear occasionally (and who doesn’t, under these circumstances?), I’ve chosen neither as my permanent perspective. Instead, I’ve chosen gratitude.
When each of my grandparents passed on, I wrote a poem to share with my family and other relatives. Nothing elaborate or fancy; just rhyming, semi-metered verses sprinkled with tidbits of the hobbies, quirks, and attributes each grandparent was known and loved for. It broke my heart to write those poems, but the heartache was necessary. The outpouring reminded me how blessed I was to have each person in my life. However, it wasn’t until I re-read the poems on my previously deceased grandparents before writing my maternal grandmother’s piece that I discovered something else.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that everyone who enters our lives is there for a reason. From the sum of our experiences with any particular person, we can learn incredible lessons. That concept threads itself through each poem I’ve written for my grandparents. I had never intended the pieces to turn out that way (it’s hard to write cleverly when you’re grieving); the theme most likely “wrote itself” in. Now, when I hold the final copies of each poem in front of me, I see the examples my grandparents have set for me as clearly as their faces in photographs. And I’m more thankful for those four people today than I had ever been before.
Another belief I hold dear is that grateful hearts should share their love and gratitude with the rest of the world. So, I’d like to share with you the most important lessons I learned from each of my grandparents.
From My Paternal Grandfather: You’re Never Too Old to Connect with Your Inner Child
Anyone who knew my father’s father personally knew he was a bit of a clown. He loved being silly with kids; and the younger the children were, the more playful Pepérè was. He’d tickle your ribs or belly, or pretend to grab your nose and then make a fist with his thumb sticking out between his other fingers and declare, “I got it!” He also enjoyed telling jokes. One of his long-time favorites was “Juneau the capital of Alaska?” (a play on “Do you know the capital of Alaska?”). Pepérè remained the family comic even during the final years of his life. That may be typical of most grandfathers… but in hindsight I believe that by playing and jesting with the youngest members of his ever-growing family, Pepérè found a way to stay in touch with his inner child. He maintained that bond until his death, which speaks volumes about the strength and importance of our relationship with our innermost selves.
From My Paternal Grandmother: Do Everything in Life as an Act of Love
What grandmother doesn’t embody love? I could have easily listed this lesson with my maternal grandmother, but I chose it for my father’s mother because we became very close after her husband passed away. A mother of eight (5 girls, 3 boys) and a grandmother to 13, Memérè ensured her life revolved around love. She rarely missed a graduation, birthday party, or dance recital; and she always made sure she had goodies available for visitors. (She always baked brownies before my family came to visit on Saturday evenings, just because she knew my brother and I loved that dessert.) Memérè’s acts of love extended beyond the family, too, with the mittens she’d knit for her church’s annual fair. However, I’ll always remember Memérè for one particularly subtle act of love. On the day of Pepérè’s funeral, just after we had given Memérè a copy of Pepérè’s poem, she slipped her hand into mine. It’s one of the most powerful shows of thanks I’d ever received, and the reason why I do my best to remind the people who matter to me that, well, they matter to me.
From My Maternal Grandfather: Treasure the Simple Things
After he retired, my mother’s father chose to live the kind of life he truly wanted: one of simplicity. So, Grampa and Grammie moved from suburban Massachusetts to rural coastal Maine, where Grampa focused on his true passion of farming. It wasn’t a huge operation – just a small chicken coup, a pigpen, and a vegetable garden – but it suited Grampa just fine. He enjoyed taking care of his animals, and treasured the time he spent with the family dog as well as his grandchildren. He was also sensitive of the times when both worlds collided, like when the pigs “suddenly disappeared” in the fall. But, Grampa always knew what to tell us youngsters to avoid hurting us with the truth: “They ran away!” If I close my eyes and imagine Grampa, I always see him sitting in his chair on the front lawn, watching cars pass by and waving to anyone he recognized. A mental picture as relaxed and content as the man himself was when he was alive.
From My Maternal Grandmother: Face Every Struggle With Courage
My mother’s mother spent the last 18 months of her life enduring one health scare after another. She had suffered from numerous ailments for years, and the combined impact had finally begun to take its toll. I’d rather not reveal all the specifics… but there came a point last year when Grammie needed to make a drastic decision to ward off a life-threatening infection. The option she chose to prolong her life shocked me and my family, but she had clearly made that choice with the attitude of “This is what I have to do to save my own life.” Grammie then adapted to the resulting changes amazingly smoothly. Some days were better than others, of course, but for the most part she adjusted to what happened better than those of us who witnessed it. The courage and inner strength she showed during that time has taught me to face every obstacle that comes my way with the same determination and grace.
What lessons have you learned from your grandparents or other loved ones who have passed on? Feel free to share by posting your comments below.