I Didn’t Grow Up With My Grandparents

“Language is a vibration we speak and then act out of. Anytime you say, “That’s just the way I am,” you are fighting for your limitations and matching that vibration.” – Niambi Jaha-Echols What Color is Your Soul?

        There are three crucial elements that can brighten any child’s home, extended family, and community experiences. Those elements are 1) sleepovers with your cousins 2) preferential treatment from your grandparents and 3) ice cream. I had many ice cream moments with my mom, dad, and sister. It’s an inexpensive thrill. The sleepovers came when I was a little older. But the preferential treatment from my grandparents that was characterized by quality time, laughter, gifts, money and shields from parental discipline was not a part of my childhood. I am certain that my life would have been different because of it. In many ways, I felt like something was always missing something because I didn’t grow up with my grandparents. At 32-year-old, staring at the horizon of 33, I recognize that the physical entry point and embrace grandparents represent is what I missed. It also affected my ability to speak for many years. That is in Spanish. While I’m Black on both sides, my grandparents come from different nations. My paternal grandparents emigrated from Honduras. My maternal grandparents migrated from Mississippi. Many times I imagined how much more confident I would be if the confidence of being embraced by grandparents, especially the Spanish-speaking ones for when I began learning Spanish as a teenager, would have changed my experience. Three weeks before writing this post, I recognized that I had to make a choice to let go of what never was so I can become all the goodness I am divinely and genetically coded to be. At some point we all make the same choice of letting go. There is so much security in letting go. For what is in us is far superior to anything we could look back for and hope to obtain.

         I remember being in a parking lot with my mom and a few of my cousins, her nephews, some years ago as they reminisced about our grandmother. The memories they shared were foreign to me – so much so that she sounded like more of their grandmother instead of mine too. In short, my maternal grandmother, the one of which they spoke so fondly, did not favor my sister and me because my mother was not one of favorite children. Therefore, I recall her caring for us twice when my mother was at work. It was a very sweet time. She did what felt like grandmothers did for their granddaughters: gently comb their hair and tell them how pretty they look; slice fruit and place it on small saucers; sit them on their laps and tell stories. Because it was only twice we spent that quality of time with her and the other times she did not acknowledge my sister and me in our visits to her home, it feels like a distant dream. I watched my mother’s facial expression and body language as my cousins recalled their visits with her mother. She shared on the way home that she felt sad and upset because my sister and I had a different experience.

         My paternal grandmother was much more affectionate. But she too was distant – geographically speaking. My sister and I met her for the first time after years of phone conversations and packages sent between the Bronx and San Francisco Bay Area. She was immediately drawn to us and lit up her being with smiles from her heart to ours. I didn’t know what standing on the sidewalk next to a grandmother felt like until I was 12-years-old. I remember feeling a deep sense of connection that at that time I could not articulate but identify. In reminder, she was from Trujillo, Honduras. Yet, she stood as a woman of stature in front of those high-rise brick buildings. A long-time resident. Her thick Spanish accent enlaced with her soft voice greeted a young man as he walked by. My grandmother was warm and firm. He looked at her with respect and returned the greeting. The young man also looked at her as though he had forgotten to speak and was surprised by her commanding reminder. In that moment, I felt like I had a claim to significance.

         There is something about the authoritative presence of grandparents. The simple act of standing beside them can feel like a bestowal of ancestral dignity. Nevertheless, the 4 times I spent with my grandmothers before the age 18 (2 times with each) and the one time with my paternal grandfather with some brief hellos to my maternal grandfather created holes in my heart. It added to my narrative of not belonging. It also fueled feelings of isolation.

          I was working in the Early Education Enrollment Placement Center a few weeks ago as a support to Spanish-speaking families. (This is part of my work as a Family Support Specialist.) A brief encounter reminded me of my need to speak, to be sure, and to honor all my grandparents even in the faint fondness of knowing them. A father walked into the office to inquire about an application he had submitted for his child. He was Black and a Native Spanish-speaker. I almost said nothing to him. I would have simply smiled and wondered where he was from. But instead of doing that, I asked him in Spanish where he was from. He was answered, “Central America.” After further questioning, he revealed he was from a town in Honduras, not far from my grandparents’ town. For all I knew, we could be distant relatives meeting in San Francisco. Coworkers of mine in the office marveled at my accent and fluency. They also said they didn’t know I spoke Spanish. I jokingly said that sometimes even I forget. What I know to be true for me now is that I will miss out on making new connections – especially neurological ones – if I focus on the connections I did not make growing up. That day, I decided to let go of the insecurity of having not been consistently physically embraced by my grandparents to embrace the meta-physicality of the “more than” I imagine they desired to give me but didn’t know how or didn’t have the opportunity to give.

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