Christmas may be the holiday best-known for giving and receiving gifts, but just a few weeks ago I experienced an unexpected gift on Thanksgiving. A gift that will live in my heart forever.
Before I tell you what the gift was, I have to tell you a little bit about my family. Families are usually the people who have known you the longest, and yet sometimes you feel like they don’t really know you at all. Misplaced loyalties, unspoken expectations, and strong personalities can often lead to hurt feelings, tense moments, and even estrangement. Families can be complicated, and mine is no exception.
My family tree is a little more like a juniper bush – dense and wide spread. Due to divorces and re-marriages, I have many I consider family that are not blood related. I have two moms who raised me at different stages of my childhood and a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins. I also grew up knowing and loving three grandmothers and two grandfathers. When I was a little girl I spent a good bit of time with my grandparents during holidays and summers.
I remember a lot of family dinners at my Grandma and Pappy’s house (my dad’s parents). Their house was the central hub for my dad’s three siblings and all their kids to gather. It was always loud…there was usually a football game being watched in the basement, aunts chattering in the living room, and kids playing on the floor or running in the yard. My Pappy was always trying to pull a coin out of someone’s ear and my uncles were relentlessly teasing someone — usually my aunt, me or my sister. It was a bit chaotic and not always happy, but it was family. It brought us together and my Grandma was the central force in that.
When I was 13 things changed. My Pappy died. For several years we all continued to gather at my Grandma’s house, but things weren’t quite the same. A few years went by, some family moved out of state, I went off to college, my dad and step-mom got divorced and suddenly there weren’t big family gatherings at Grandma’s anymore. Or at least they were a lot less frequent and smaller.
During the next few years I didn’t see my Grandma very often. And when I did I usually got a bit of a guilt trip for the lack of frequency of those visits. If there was an Olympic sport in handing out guilt trips, my Grandma could take home the gold. I laugh now, but back then I didn’t.
The honest truth is it was not always easy to visit with her. I wasn’t sure what to talk about. I took everything she said very personally, which often led to hurt feelings. I was wrapped up in my world as a young wife and professional and I felt like she just didn’t understand my life. Of course I didn’t really make much of an attempt to understand hers, either.
Things changed a little bit when I had my kids. They were, and still are, her only great-grandchildren and she really treasured that. I wouldn’t say that the frequency of visits improved much or we became closer, but at least now when we visited we had the kids to focus on as our common ground.
During my early 20’s and 30’s I lost both of my grandparents from my mom’s side, whom I had been close to. We also lost my uncle Bill, my dad’s brother, who was just 50 when he died. It was incredibly painful to watch my Grandma go through the loss of a child. I remember her saying to me after the funeral that parents aren’t supposed to out-live their children. As a mother of three I couldn’t begin to imagine what that was like for her. But it was then that I started to see her in a different light. I saw her not just as my Grandma, but as a woman. A woman whose greatest joy in life had been being a wife and mother. She had lost her husband and then a child. I suddenly saw how strong she was and even began to understand that the “guilt trips” came from a place of genuine longing to be with her family.
Late last year my step-Grandma passed away and I found myself with only one living grandparent, and a lot of regrets for time not spent with the ones I had lost.
In March we celebrated my Grandma’s 90th birthday. I took on the project of putting together a photo book of her life and it was a special gift for me to go through these old photos of her as a girl, young bride, and mother…to take a look at the journey of her life. Being my only living grandparent, I silently vowed I would spend more time visiting and calling…
…then two months ago I got a call that my Grandma was sick and in the hospital. The details didn’t sound promising. After a few days in the hospital they moved her to a rehab facility. She didn’t do well there. She couldn’t rest, she ended up with bronchitis and almost developed pneumonia. After several weeks of her being there and some conversations with my aunt I agreed we needed to get her out and offered for her to come stay with us. I wasn’t sure how long she would need me, but made arrangements with work so I could be home with her.
Grandma was only with us for one week, the week of Thanksgiving, but that time was a gift I will not soon forget. It was a week of sitting around the table drinking tea and talking, watching her play checkers with her great-grandson, and shopping together for new clothes. It was time spent napping in a recliner while a Hallmark movie played in the background, eating too much food, and reminiscing about times past. I got to hear about her first job cleaning outhouses at the public school, and how she saved that money to buy a yearbook and go to her senior party.
There were lots of hugs and kind words shared. And for just one brief week, Grandma let herself be taken care of by someone else, in the way she’d taken care of her family for so many years.
In 39 years of being grandmother and granddaughter, I don’t think anything we’ve experienced made me feel as close to her as that week did. And I’m sure that’s partly due to my age and a bit of perspective…things look a little different in middle age than they did in my 20’s.
I’m learning to let go of old hurts and unspoken expectations, to lower my walls and get rid of fear. I’m learning to focus on what really matters and family is at the heart of that.
I hope in ten years we’ll be celebrating Grandma’s 100th birthday and there will be many, many visits and phone calls in between. But the truth is, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
If you have kept family at a distance, or let old hurts linger, causing separation; if you are waiting for tomorrow or next week to pick up the phone and tell someone you love them or go visit that relative…I just want to ask you this one question: what if tomorrow never comes?
Don’t wait. Let go of your fears and your pride and do it today. Even if it’s hard and messy, it will still be worth it. And you might just be surprised at the results.
Let’s all give ourselves that most precious, beautiful gift.
The gift of time.