I never met either of my grandfathers. My memories of them exist in family stories, black and white photos that hang in my parents’ house and in the facial expressions and personality traits of my extended family. I often see TV commercials of little pigtailed girls, sitting on the laps of grayed mustached men, giggling into their arms over a bowl of cereal. I wonder what that relationship must be like. A little girl, able to take in the wisdom of her grandpa’s years and be spoiled to pieces. It seems magical.
I did meet and grow up with two loving grandmothers. They were remarkable women. My mother’s mother lived to 101. My father’s mother lived to 104. Both of these independent ladies knew me from the time I was born through my early 30s. It seems selfish to feel that they should have lived longer. There’s something truly tragic that happens when your last grandparent leaves this world. When they go, an entire generation is swept away and a part of our past goes missing. The days go on, new generations are born, but the pillars of our family have disappeared. Here are 18 things you miss when the last grandparent is gone:
1. A first hand witness to the past. My Grandma Lillian arrived in the US on a boat to Ellis Island from Russia. She witnessed two world wars, the Great Depression and life before air conditioning. I can read about those things in books, but grandparents are the live link to the past.
2. Old-school dating lessons. The first time my grandfather asked my grandmother on a date, he had to call the local candy store downstairs from my grandmother’s apartment on a pay phone. A worker at the candy store answered the call and had to knock on my grandmother’s door to get her to come down and speak. There were no cell phones. No text messaging. No emailing. Dating required bold moves by confident people.
3. Tradition. My Grandma Evelyn hosted Passover seders at her home in the Bronx that could run 2-3 hours. She was a devout Orthodox Jew, keeping to a strict kosher diet. She may be one of the few Americans that never ate at McDonald’s. My upbringing was far more reformed than my grandmother and even mother’s childhood, but I always enjoyed learning the traditions and beliefs of my ancestors.
4. Cheek-pinching. Nobody can be as unabashedly affectionate as a grandparent. My grandmothers would go on and on kissing my cheeks, stroking my hair, holding my chin in their hands – for HOURS if I let them. They loved to squeeze hug me, sit me on their lap, read me books and stuff me with food as long as I’d let them.
5. Banana bread and other culinary masterpieces. The family recipes that come from grandparents can be one of the greatest ways to remember them. I miss the way my grandparents’ homes smelled when arriving for a holiday. How I was always offered tea and some sort of cake for dessert. The food that a grandparent served seemed like another family member. We usually ate the same thing for any major occasion and it was as ingrained into our family memories as our grandparents themselves.
6. Perfume and aftershave. It seems that every greeting of my grandparents was accompanied by the whiff of perfume. The thick, sweet scent was overwhelming at times, but always reminded me of them. Even today, when I walk through a big department store, the spritzes of perfume in the air make me think of my grandmothers.
7. Putting on their face. Both of my grandmothers believed in putting on make up no matter what they were doing. They regularly enjoyed trips to the “beauty parlor” to complete their look. Age did not take away their desire to look nice and I admired their vanity straight into the 100s.
8. Over-protection and paranoia. My grandmothers were constantly worried about us. They warned us about everything like “don’t get into a car with a stranger,” and “it’s not good to be tired; you should rest.” When I was 7 years old, both grandmothers were babysitting for me on a summer weekend when my parents went out of town. A close friend of mine and her mother picked me up a for a play date on a 92 degree sweltering day. They could not stop laughing when I stepped out of the house in my winter coat. My grandmothers were worried I might get cold at some point and forced me to put it on for fear I’d “catch a chill.”
9. Constant phone calls. Growing up, speaking to my grandparents on the phone was a regular activity that I enjoyed doing. After every visit with them, they always called to make sure we got home ok. I miss our long conversations about nothing at all and the way they made me feel.
10. Over-the-top compliments. Nobody loves you as fiercely and blindly as a grandparent can. You can be ugly, overweight, dumb, and mean and a grandparent only sees you as pure perfection. They’ll rave about how smart you are, your beauty, how great you look in a sweater they made you and call you the most generous human being to walk the planet.
11. Old school handwritten letters. When I went away to summer camp, I regularly received beautifully written, detailed handwritten letters from both of my grandmothers. Sometimes they included colorful stickers of animals, stamps, or sticks of gum. They would ask me questions about what I was doing, who my friends were and reiterate how much they missed me. I always received thoughtful, timely birthday cards from them as well in the mail.
12. Family-focused gatherings. With my grandmothers alive, there was always a reason to come together and have parties. Whether it was a holiday, someone’s birthday or a long weekend, my grandmothers loved having company and being with their families was cherished bonding time.
13. Over-the-top photo taking sessions. At the end of every family gathering, Grandma Lillian demanded that everyone be in a picture together. She would smush us together until our faces stuck and limbs were intercepting just to squeeze us into her frame. There was usually an 80% chance that someone’s head would be chopped off in the photo, but this never stopped her from insisting on taking photos of us in every combination mathematically possible.
14. Soft doughy skin, the embodiment of a life fully lived. There was nothing like giving and receiving a big hug from my grandmothers. I loved the way their hands and arms felt. Soft and powdery. We’d sometimes hold hands while eating dessert together and gaze into each other’s eyes. I was fascinated by what a 100+ year old person must think of the world. How she plans her day in the morning and what sort of plans she has for the future. I loved their wrinkles, their hair, their eyes and the way their faces lit up when something made them laugh. I never saw them as “old,” just “experienced.”
15. A link to your family history. I miss hearing stories about my grandmothers’ childhood and teenage years leading up to marriage. The grandfathers I never knew. My own parents as children. My aunts and uncles. Distant cousins. Even their first memories of me as a baby.
16. Lipstick marks on my face. You could always tell when I saw my grandmothers by whether or not my cheeks had pink or red lipstick imprinted on them. My sister used to think it was funny to let me walk around with these marks for hours without saying anything. Today, I miss these stains. They are little reminders of how adored I was by my grandmothers.
17. Grandparent expressions. I miss my grandmothers’ spirited Yiddish expressions when talking about the “meshugginas” in their neighborhood or the “Oh vez mear” when something she ordered from the deli was mishandled.
18. Unconditional attention and love. Most of all, I miss being able to call or have dinner with my grandparents at any time and always know that I’d be appreciated, loved and questioned (with loving intentions) without fail. There was always a loving pair of arms waiting to hug and squeeze me. A pair of made up lips to kiss my cheeks and a table full of food waiting to be pushed upon me.