I wrote a post a couple of months back about rarely sincerely smiling in old photographs of myself. Not even as a baby, really. But the exceptions to that rule, before I was in middle school, are almost exclusively photos of me with my grandparents. They made me feel calm and safe and heard and seen and understood. So they made me genuinely happy enough to smile without being posed or prompted.
This is a photo of Very Small Me with my grandmother at the zoo. I’m happy. Happy enough to see in a photograph of another old faded photograph. I was with my Gramma at the zoo with a Coke Icee. Life doesn’t really get much better than being at the zoo, holding hands with someone you know for sure loves you the most, and drinking a Coke Icee, even when you’re not only three. The day J proposed to me, we went to the zoo. And held hands. I didn’t have the Coke Icee, but I had a new engagement ring, and I’m pretty sure I walked around the same kind of happy all day, because…well…same thing, mostly.
I have some old photographs of me on display at our home, featuring me, this approximate size, happy, with my grandparents on their front porch. That’s the house that felt like home to me when I was small. It’s the house I grew up in, even though I didn’t technically live there. It’s the house I felt the most loved in.
My dad’s sister moved back into town a few years ago after decades of living far away, and her life partner came with her. He’d never been to our house before, and only met my grandparents a few times many, many years ago. They passed when I was 11 and 14, respectively, and now I’m 40, so he didn’t really know them or much family history. So when my aunt noticed him checking out those old photos of me with Gramma and Grampa on their front porch, she said, ‘Oh that’s Jen when she was about…three? Right? Mom and Dad practically raised her.’
That’s true. I’d always felt like that. I spent most of my waking hours with my grandparents, not my parents. I felt like my grandparents did all the heavy lifting when it came to parenting me and informing the person I became…the good parts of me, anyway. I’m a lot like my dad, not especially because I got more of his dominant genes or because I modeled his behavior, but because we were basically raised by the same parents.
My mom seemed wholly offended by what my aunt said, but to me, it was comforting to hear someone else saw my childhood the same way I did.
Last weekend, I went to continue helping my mom and my future sister-in-law with wedding…things…and my aunt happened to also be there, and I don’t know how my dog dying came up, but it did. My mom was talking about how The Boy seemed to be handling it fairly well for the first real loss he’d experienced in life (and it was a daily, significant loss for him…just like I was with my dog daily for 13 years…The Boy was with her *every single day of his LIFE*.) And then Mom began talking about how my first real loss was my Gramma. I was 11 too. She said, ‘Remember how D was singing Amazing Grace at the funeral?’ and I said, ‘No.’ And she said, ‘But you remember everything.’ And I said, ‘You didn’t let me go to Gramma W’s funeral. I had to go stay with Gramma A (her mother…who was not a terribly kind, understanding woman).’
My Aunt: That’s right. Jen wasn’t there.
My Future Sister-in-Law <to my mom>: Why didn’t you let her go? 😦
Mom <to me>: Well, we took you to the visitation at the funeral home and you wanted nothing to do with the viewing or talking to people or…
Me: Well, Mom. I was extremely sad and not feeling extra social. Of course I didn’t want to spend a bunch of time looking at Gramma in a casket. I was 11 and I had just lost the person who loved me the most.
Mom: You think Gramma W loved you more than me and your dad?
My Aunt <trying very hard to be diplomatic, because of the previous incident>: Just as much. They loved you just as much as your mom and dad.
I didn’t say anything else, because I didn’t want to have a dramatic confrontation with my mom. And I’m sure she feels like she loved/s me more than anything in the world. So maybe her love for me in objective measurements, was equal to my grandparents’…my grandmother’s for me. But my Gramma definitely loved me better than my mom did. She did. She made me feel more accepted and whole and good. She and my grampa made me feel secure and provided for and calm. Maybe my dad, in his quiet, disconnected and distant way, loved me as much as or maybe even more than his parents did…but they definitely made me feel more loved than my mom did. And that’s what counts, right? I mean you can love a person as much as humanly possible, but if they can’t feel it…if it’s not the kind of love they need or are equipped to receive, then…?
My Gramma taught me how to love. She taught me to learn the people you love…learn what kind of understanding and support they need…learn how they receive love…and THAT’S what you give. I try to love all of the people I love the way my grandmother loved me. I try to give them the kind of support and understanding they need in the easiest way for them to receive it. I hope I can make all the people I love feel my love for them without doubts, the way my grandmother made me feel. Losing her was the hardest loss I’ve ever taken in my life, and I shudder to think of the only losses that could potentially be worse. Unfortunately, when I was 11, the only person I had in my life who could have helped me get over my Gramma W dying was my Gramma W.
I’m really trying to be this person. I’m trying to be who The Boy needs NOW. I hope I’m making my grandparents…especially my grandmother…proud of me and the kind of person I’ve become. Because they were a big part of it. They aren’t just faces in old photographs with me. They’re the reason I smiled, and they’re who taught me how to love.