My Complicated Relationship with My Grandmothers

Its hard being two generations apart. The world really changes generationally.

I grew up being told that its fine, even wonderful, to be gay. My grandparents, if they were told anything, were probably taught it was shameful, if not worse.

I was growing up in a time when we were pretty sure racism was mostly over, my grandparents were adults before the civil rights act was passed.

In our culture grandparents are these near mythical quality beings who swoop into our lives bringing unconditional love, treats, gifts, and the best cooking you’ve ever had. I certainly had some of that.

My Dad was the first of his six bothers to have a child. That child was me, and I was born female. My grandmother (who I called Grandma) was over the moon. She adored me. She had always hoped in having many children she would have both boys and girls. For whatever reason she didn’t get any girls, so I was her first.

Her and my parents seemed bent on doing every girly stereotype with me. In many of my earliest pictures I am wearing frilly pink dresses. The problem was as soon as I had any say in it I was adamant that I didn’t like them and didn’t want them. Luckily for my Grandma, I did love my long hair as a young child and loved having her give me braids and pigtails. But it wasn’t too long until I cut off my long hair too.

When I was young I had sensory issues. I didn’t know it then, I don’t think anyone knew it then. But I remember how clothes would hurt. I don’t mean irritate, I mean hurt. Dresses were scratchy to the point of pain, stiff pants were no better. I refused to wear much besides sweat pants and pajamas at a young age. I only wore one brand of socks until I was a teen! I refused (and still do) underwire bras. I refused almost everything that is stereo typically girly in favor of sports jerseys (later skate t-shirts), soft pants, and short hair.

This was so hard for my grandmother who loved me so much. And I loved her. After my Father (her son) passed away we were even closer. I spent a lot of time with her and Papa. They were some of the only consistent childcare my single mother could rely on. I seriously loved and still love them. I was incredibly close to my grandmother despite our constant battles over my appearance and habits.

She made amazing food and let us eat ice cream every night after dinner. Neapolitan. Mixing all the flavors together and watching the late night news while Papa fell asleep on the couch was a regular occurrence in my childhood. I would go lay down on the couch after finishing my ice cream and fall asleep. She would wake me up and make me go brush my teeth and go to bed. I miss her a lot.

My other grandmother (my mother’s mother). Was burnt out by the time I was born. Her husband has passed away long before I was born and I never knew him. She had eight children, three who still lived at home with varying special needs, and several grandchildren. She ran a businesses. I didn’t spend much time with her. I did love playing in her massive home on her massive property though. I have far more memories about the house and pool than anything else. Every Christmas Eve and 4th of July was another chance to play in that crazy old, huge, dark house.

This grandmother, who I wasn’t allowed to call grandma, or her name, only her nickname, was always busy when I was around. I remember her being stressed out and well dressed, always with a cigarette in her hand and often telling someone to do something. I don’t remember any conversations or tender moments. I do remember that she would give us twenty dollars plus our age in cash every christmas. That was a nice score.

Her house was always packed with people for every party. Our family alone was massive, then add friends, in-laws, and other people and things got crazy. The adults seemed happiest when the kids left them alone so thats what we did. We went off and did kid stuff like exploring every nook and cranny of the house, watching TV, making prank phone calls, using the vents as a “secret” way to communicate while we “spied” on the adults (spying was extremely frowned upon on my dad’s side, my mom’s family didn’t seem to mind much).

I remember my last memory of her before she died she was yelling at me not to play with the muddy farm dog. I loved dogs, probably more than people at that age. It hurt and I was sad. Why wouldn’t I pet that dog? All dogs needed kids to pet them right?

The one real point of connection I had with her was video games. She had an NES and played the crap out of it. She knew Super Mario Bros. 3 inside and out. She could complete the game fully, or speed run it (any%) in about 10 minutes. I was blown away by that. I loved video games (almost as much as dogs) and she was amazing at them. I think her obsession with Mario helped legitimize video games for my own mother and her siblings allowing my cousins and I a massive amount of freedom to play the games we liked.

When my mother’s mother died there was a lot of turmoil in the family. What would become of her farm, her three sons, her stuff (so much stuff), her animals? It was a rough time in my life (I think 12 is a bit rough for everyone). We spent a lot of time at her house, with a lot of sad people. I felt guilty that I wasn’t sad enough. I was still grieving the loss of my father, and didn’t particularly miss my grandmother.

I remember the huge garage sale where we sold her stuff particularly well. A lot of that stuff came home with us, including her desk, which eventually became my desk. I later found a list under a drawer in that desk that she had written. It was my own little secret connection to her. I didn’t find it until I was in my late teens, and by that point I was grieving what could have been. I wished I had been given the opportunity to know her better.

My father’s mother lived much longer. She was at my wedding, though she didn’t live long enough to meet any of her great-grandchildren. She had leukemia and a heart attack while I was in college. My school was right down the street from her house and the two hospitals she would spend her last months in. I would visit her and Papa three times a week or more. Watching her suffer was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone though. We grew even closer in that time, even though she couldn’t speak. Her and I were quite close for over two decades, even though she could never fully understand why I was the way I was and was often upset with me for taking risks, getting dirty, and not dressing up.

I felt like I was blessed growing up to be so close to my father’s parents when I lost him so young. It didn’t bother me too much that I wasn’t close to my mother’s mother and never met her father, becuase I had one set of grandparents who were at every single event. Every school play, every band concert, any time my mother was sick; Grandma and Papa were there. Presence can overcome a plethora of cultural and generational differences, and presence helped me to become very close to them.

Being two generations separated from each other is hard. Our world changes fast and our grandchildren’s world may not feel like our own. I don’t hold my grandparents differing cultural understanding against them. I love them in spite of it.

I can see the same struggle in my parents and in-laws with their grandchildren. But love and presence is overcoming that gap. I hope my own love and understanding can grow to overcome the generational gap I will have with my own grandchildren.


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