Grandma and Papa, I Want to Be Like You

I’ve been thinking a lot about my maternal grandparents lately. They both passed away within six weeks of one another over eleven years ago so there’s no logical reason they’ve been on my mind. Instead, something in my heart has been seeking an adult connection with them. I was barely out of my adolescence when they died and in many ways, I was still very much a child, mostly because I was just in the early years of my recovery from anorexia.

I became what I consider psychologically quite sick with the disease when I was ten, and the serious restrictive years lasted nearly eight years. During this time, my whole adolescence passed, but in most ways, the disease’s expansive wrath over my mindset consumed my thoughts and attention in a way that really stunted my emotional, behavioral, and physical growth. In all honesty, it’s as if my development and maturity in all sectors of a person stalled out when I stopped eating and became sick.

This unfortunate phenomenon isn’t what I care to focus on here, and I’ve previously elaborated on how I’ve had so much catching up to do in terms of emotional maturation as an adult that I failed to achieve as at an age-appropriate adolescent and younger adult. Ultimately, the point of this digression was to illuminate why my mother’s parents never got to know me as an “adult,” even if my chronological age was 19 or so. I often wonder what they’d think of me now, and if they’d be proud or approve of who I’ve become.

More often, I find myself wishing I knew more about their lives and had the ability to form a more grown up relationship with them. I seem to be desiring a way to feel connected with them, like I want to discover ways that I am like each of them. I have memories of times with them and some knowledge of what their hobbies were (golf, bridge, reading, watching All My Children, desserts for grandma, and bowling, computers, and engineering for papa), but only as much older adults. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about their early lives and interests as adults before the age of seventy or so, and definitely not at all enough about their characters.

As grandparents, I know that Papa was brilliant, stoic, and a man of very few words, and Grandma was a warm, impatient, and could never hear me. The difficult practice of even trying to summon these descriptors further shows me how little I knew them and how inadequate my bank of knowledge about them feels. Particularly as I’m trying to identify in what ways I am like them or what we share so that I can feel bonded to them, I need to broaden my catalog of their characteristics and personality traits so I can optimize my chances of having some area of overlap, some common ground. As it stands now, I don’t feel like I share anything with them, and that leaves me craving a sense of connectedness and belonging.

Watching the David Lettermen’s Netflix show where he interviewed Senator John Lewis about the Civil Rights Movement and the March on Selma also sparked my recent interest in learning more about their lives. One of my regrets is that I never asked my grandparents enough about their personal lives and experiences throughout such a changing landscape and culture of our country (and world) in the 80 or so years they lived. Their lives spanned from the Great Depression, through the World Wars (Papa fought in WWII as a foot soldier), through the Civil Right Movement and so many other major historical events and eras, so they had very real experiences through things I’ve only ever read about or seen portrayed on film.

I must admit that history has always been my least favorite subject, and the nonfiction category I’ve never gravitated towards in my own free time. History classes were always the least engaging to me, and felt much more of a reluctant homework responsibility than a class that left me devouring as much extra material as I could to satisfy my voraciously inquisitive mind. For some reason, it’s always been difficult for me to picture historical things or life in “the olden days.” It’s not that I don’t like learning about the past, but it feels as unimaginable as fantasy (a genre I absolutely loathe). Because I couldn’t form concrete pictures or ideas in my mind of whatever historical topic I was learning about, the information never stayed long enough in my brain with any lasting permanence. I could remember dates and major events long enough to find success (with hard work) in required social studies classes, but I’ve retained virtually nothing. It always felt too foreign to leave an imprint, and I didn’t understand yet enough about how my brain worked to find a learning strategy or modality that would work better for my neurology.

I regret this all now because although I used to think I just “hated” history, I think a much more accurate descriptor would have been that I struggled to understand the material much more than in my other classes, which was new and uncomfortable for me, so it felt unappealing. Science, math, language arts, and many of the other humanities came to me much more intuitively, so the unaccustomed significant struggle to grasp historical information was met with the low self-esteem mindset that I “sucked at it and would never get it.” I took every science elective course my high school offered, as many as I could in college, and by constraint, shakily skated through my one history requirement in college by taking an online course as my final class before graduation, when I was already living in New York City. I needed to have no other coursework on my docket to juggle simultaneously and the crutch of having more flexible and lenient assessments via the online format to even pass that requirement, that’s how difficult it was for me.

Of course, I regret this all now because I’ve discovered that I’m actually fascinated by history. Perhaps the specific topics that interest me are quite different than the major highlights addressed in most courses, but my genuine desire to learn and grow my understanding is so palpable now.

I find myself constantly wondering about the way life was in certain times, about the details surrounding notable historical events that I should really know much more about, and trying to conjure up an mental image of things that I previously felt I’d “never be able to imagine.” The more I learn about how my brain works and my metacognition in general, the better I can personally tailor the ways in which I approach learning anything to be more successful and comfortable for me. This ranges from learning about controlling my emotions, to how to fix a simple plumbing issue, to how the steam engine evolved from mining purposes to its use for train locomotion. I’m slowly starting to dedicate my free time to educate myself on some of the historical topics I find most interesting, but I can’t help but wish I had the self-understanding and arsenal of learning strategies I’ve discovered now back when I was in school.

Equally useful, and even more intriguing and meaningful, would have been real-life discussion with my grandparents (and parents, to some degree) who actually lived through at least some of the periods and events I wonder about.

In my social skills group, one question I’ve found I’m constantly obsessed with asking partners is “what does it look like outside your window?” Essentially, I’m really curious about what different people’s lives, especially in different places (as they are in this group) is like. Likewise, in terms of the context of history as a subject, I’m most interested in what daily life was like for different echelons and types of people during different eras. “What did it look like out their window” could be expanded to mean, “what was your day-to-day life like?”, “what did you feel like?”, “what were your fears, challenges, and joys?”, and “what were the biggest differences to life today?” With all of the injustice, inequality, and isms and phobias (racism, classism, xenophobia, etc. (this list could unfortunately go on and on)) present in today’s social, political, and cultural climate, I’m so readily aware that even on the same day in the same tiny town, two people who differ in some way can have vastly, different lives, experiences, and views out their metaphorical windows. Logically, it holds that this was the case in any other time period and geographical location throughout history. Still, it would be fascinating to gather as many perspectives as possible to try and assemble an appreciation. These types of inequalities and differences have existed throughout time, I’m sure, but I’d like to hear about how things have changed and in what ways they are the same.

My mom has been patient and generous lately in terms of answering some of the questions I pose about her life and the lives of her parents. I feel like I’ve only read the first sentence in the thickest book ever created in terms of what I want to know. The good news is that it’s never too late to learn. College and high school might be long over and my maternal grandparents may not be around, but I can still work to educate myself and find connections to the people and events I want to better understand. Truthfully, the reason I so strongly want to find a connection with my grandparents is that I never really saw anything about myself in them. I never felt like I carried any of their traits. This left me feeling even weirder and more isolated and disconnected than I already did. I now far better understand that there are usually some similarities between even seemingly dissimilar people. With this greater open-mindedness, I want to find my links with them so I can better feel their love and presence with me, like invisible teammates pulling for me every day.

(I don’t even own a picture of my grandparents, so I included one of the night sky. Perhaps, in some way, they are still with me.)

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