Last winter, a student stood in the hallway outside a classroom crying with a phone to her ear. I watched from a distance until she finished the conversation, then approached and asked if she needed help.
“My grandma was just rushed to the hospital,” she sobbed.
Wiping her eyes, she added, “She is the closest person in world to me.”
It struck me at that moment how important grandparents are in the lives of so many young people, and how exploring those relationships would be a good project for my students.
Logan is embraced by Carrie, a fellow photojournalism student, after her presentation. Logan’s grandfather died while she was working on her project.
Marisa’s mother and grandmother are moved with emotion during her presentation
So this semester – wanting to do one last meaningful project before officially retiring from full-time teaching – I remembered that scene and shaped an assignment which would honor grandparents. It would also encourage students to get to know their grandparents, whether living or passed.
I was blessed to grow up with two sets of grandparents; many did not. A dear Jewish friend and colleague said she never knew her grandparents, nor did any of her friends, because a generation was extinguished in the Holocaust.
I encouraged students to find and copy old pictures and interview living grandparents or those who knew them. I asked each student to write an open letter to a grandparent or grandparents.
“Tell them what they mean to you,” I suggested.
Some complained they never knew their grandparents.
“Then this will be an opportunity for you to learn more about them,” I assured.
Each student was also asked to create a multimedia or PowerPoint presentation and for some, this would be their first attempt at such a creation. In the end, the unpolished roughness of some pieces let the great beauty of authenticity shine through.
During the course of the project, no less than three of the grandparents passed. Several students expressed they did not feel they could continue with the assignment. I encouraged them to press forward and work through emotions, assuring them it was important and possibly therapeutic. Each expressed later, as emotionally difficult as it was, they were thankful they didn’t quit and sharing the project helped them through their grief.
Emma Jaye begins an emotional presentation
In the end, the project exceeded my hopes. Several students embraced the assignment like detectives. They learned about grandparents they had never known, and many found and copied old photos and letters. During a public presentation – where students shared their projects and some of the subjects attended – tears flowed from students and grandparents alike.
Alex’s grandmother reads the letter written to her after the event.
Following are some excerpts from unedited letters:
I do not know you, and I don’t believe I ever will. This is an understanding that I have grappled with for some time now. As I watch my parents grow older, with wrinkles crinkling around their eyelids like deep-rooted scars, the memory of you expands, if not invades, my mind more and more often. There are no pictures of you to be found in the house. Your name is never even hushed across family lines. In fact, I don’t even know your name. The mystery of you is so pervading that at times I can’t help myself think of you from my bed deep into the night, trying to piece together what I do know well enough to quiet my restless thoughts till the early morning. I wonder if my father, your son, thinks about you too while driving home late from work, hands gripped around the wheel, anxious with the thought of what you were once to him. Did he love you? Did you love him? …
Where do I even begin? My love for art, my trials with patience, my strong hands, and over-sized button nose, I have you to thank for. The importance, and value, of perseverance, hard work, and most importantly, family, are all lessons you have instilled in me ever since I can remember, whether you know it or not. I know what you are going through right now is hard, and practically impossible to understand. I am in no way trying to be selfish, but it is really difficult for all of us
… Thank you for the endless afternoons spent babysitting Tyler and I (I know we weren’t always easy), and for all the fresh picked vegetables from your garden. I miss hearing your voice in the choir on Sundays and laughing at your stories of telling the new priest “just the way things are done around here.” Lastly, you and Granma were the best example of true love I have witnessed to date. Even after ten years of her being in a home twenty-five minutes away, you never missed a day of visiting her. I’m sorry I didn’t say all those things that night. I like to think, and hope, that you know just how grateful I was for you.
I am lucky enough to have known you both. I got to live around the corner from you my whole life, stopping by your place after a day at the park or having you up for dinner. I am fortunate to say that I never had to face the harsh reality that is losing a loved one until I was eighteen. Your death taught me a lot. It revealed how very weak and strong I can be at the same time, the frustration of things gone unsaid, and what it truly means to be completely and unabashedly grateful in the present moment. I miss you and love you both more than this letter could ever express.
It’s your special boy. Although I’m not really much of a boy anymore, as you can see by my grizzly beard and devilishly handsome good looks.
Just joking of course.
It’s been almost nine years since you left us. You died September 1, 2007 when I was just in 8th grade, but I still miss you. I still miss your smile.
I guess it’s true what they say, though. The ones you love never really leave. I know you didn’t. You are still with us. Not physically on Earth, but in the memories you left behind, and God are there so many.
… I remember when I would come home from school crying because of a bad grade or rough day. I would sit in your chair with you – we were both so thin we could fit in it together – and you would hold me. “Oh honey,” you would say in the sweetest voice with the sweetest intentions. “Everything’s going to be alright,” you would say. I believed you, and suddenly everything was OK.
I remember going to lunch at the local Hardy’s with you and mom. It’s not there anymore, but I remember it. While mom would get the food, you and I would find a table. I would always swing my little feet back and forth and accidentally kick you under the table with my light-up Batman shoes. You would grimace in pain and say ouch, but you hid it well from my mom. You made a game out of just so I wouldn’t get yelled at or in trouble. You were my protector.
I remember when you would make spaghetti for dinner some nights after a long day of school. Mom made it well, but you made it best.
I remember all the things you did for me, and I want to thank for your kind gestures and acts of love. I loved you a bushel and a peck, as you would always tell me. You were too good to me. And I deserved it.
It’s been just shy of five years and four months since you’ve left. Almost involuntarily and unconsciously I seem to have kept track of the days, months and years.
You were such an integral part of my – and everyone else’s – life, that I didn’t truly understand just how much you were worth until it was too late. I don’t know why it came as a shock to me at how much I missed your presence; after all, you did warn me.
“Just you wait til I’m gone,” you told me. I always shrugged off your words.
When you moved in, I resented the change. And because of that, I took my anger out on the person whom I perceived to be held responsible; you. And for that, I am sorry.
You had no control over what happened. No one asks to be diagnosed with cancer; they just are. Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason for who gets it and who doesn’t; they just do.
Sometimes I wish I could go back and change things. The way I acted, the way you acted in response and the nearly six years you lived with us.
I remember how you were always so sure that no one would miss you when you were gone. How wrong you were.
Did you forget the role you played in my young life? The days you spent with me while Mom and Dad were at work?
You taught me how to be a “ young lady.” How to tell the difference between the salad and dinner fork, to lay a napkin in my lap before eating, keep my elbows off the table and legs crossed at the ankle.
I remember afternoons full of cuddles and naps, when my eyes would droop – despite my resistance – and your arms would envelop me in the warmest of hugs. Rocking in the rocking chair, the gentle rhythm put me to sleep until the sound of the school bus going past and Sean coming home from school would wake me up.
But do you know what I miss the most? Your laugh.
Your head thrown back, full-body shaking, cackling laughter that made anyone and everyone near you join in. It was infectious, your laughter. It enhanced your natural light and aura. It made me smile.
You were the sunshine of our family. No one has quite shined today like they did when you were with us. We miss you more than you could ever know. Or maybe you do know, now.
See you soon, but not too soon.
When I first began making this project, I was overwhelmed in the best way possible. My professor asked us to showcase and highlight a couple of things that out grandparents do, and all I could think was, “How am I going to successfully capture 81 years of pure selflessness?” You might laugh that off, but ask anyone else, and they will say the same. Your life has exhibited a true reflection of God’s character, and I would be humbled if His picture for my life looked quite a bit like yours. My admiration for you over the years has truly escalated. I loved watching Full House upstairs with you when I was nine, but man, how much.
… Grandma, thank you for being an example to me in that way – your heart for forgiveness is incomparable. You have been a source of consistent belief that He will move mountains for our family, and it is because of your grip on these promises that I have a firm grip too. I know that your entire life hasn’t been smooth sailing, but you are truly an example of what it means to know that the Lord is steering the skip and we are merely passengers on the life float, hanging on through uncharted waters. There is something so beautiful about that!
I think you can tell a lot about a person by what they choose to bring up in conversation – things that bother them, things that have happened to them, things that they thought about in the course of their day. You can define my grandmother almost entirely by the things she chose to or chose not to mention.
She mentioned to her kids that no, she was not afraid to pull out a wooden spoon and indeed, she followed up on her promises of an old-fashioned whooping. She mentioned to her kids that her husband was a hardworking man and that sometimes, he got a little angry. She did not mention to her children a reason for a late-night egress from their Cleveland home when her husband shot a hole in the ceiling with a shotgun. Years later, she refused to mention that it even happened at all.
Around the time my grandfather died, about 7 years before I was born, she mentioned to my mother that she did not know how to drive. She mentioned her gratitude for the help my mother offered her – my grandmother had to reinvent her entire life and learn vital skills that had never before been necessary for her to know with a man in the house. She mentioned again and again that she was just fine and that she would always be there to help with raising my then toddler-aged sister. She did not mention the agonizing, resonating emptiness that was left to fill the space that my grandfather used to occupy.
- When my parents got divorced, she did not mention frustration that accompanied having two children in her household again. She did not mention the agitation or the endless frustration that came with teaching me how to read and tie my shoes. She did not mention how difficult it was to help raise two children while my mom was off at work, just trying to rake in enough money to get back on her feet after a failed marriage and years of physical and emotional abuse. She did not mention that my sister was sneaking out through my bedroom window while I slept soundly, and she did not mention to my mother how she would have to wake up very early in the mornings and drive around the neighborhood while she searched for my sister. She did, however, mention how my sister had neglected to inform her of a volleyball practice and the need for a ride and how she, in her agitation, didn’t notice that she was getting dangerously close to the side of the garage. She mentioned, half laughing and half angry, that she managed to take her driver’s side mirror off. She never missed and opportunity, however, to tell us how proud of us she was; our little nuclear family minus one.
- As the end of her life drew near, she did not mention the loneliness she felt. She did not mention how painful it was to live in a house so empty that it was draining the contents of her heart and soul to compensate a difference in pressure: her heart, bursting at the seams with love and wisdom, and her home, a polar opposite in its void-like nature. She did not mention how painful it was to look at the photo albums that chronicled the life she had made and the lives she had built, and there was immeasurable agony that accompanied her decision to unpack the contents of the past she left behind and dump them into a garbage bag to be left on the curb, ripped away from her home and her consciousness. It was only one day in June, while I spent my summer at her house so that I could help her pack up her things for a planned move to Nevada, that she finally mentioned her pain to my mom: she called her daughter on the phone one day, and she said, “Gerri, I’m dying.” While she died a week from the day she was admitted to the hospital, her final days weren’t filled with any sort of life-altering meaning. I think this largely lends itself from the fact that every day of her life she managed to pack with immeasurable meaning and love. Actions speak louder than words, and I think while she never missed an opportunity to tell us, she never needed to mention how much she loved us. It was immeasurable.
You leaving me has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. I used to dream about circumstances like this and now the problem is, is that I don’t get to wake up anymore. Your absence in something I feel everyday and I keep expecting it to hurt less every time it hits me, but it never lessens. It’s still so hard to believe. It’s strange. It’s very strange. How can it be that you’re just not existing in the same world as me anymore? I can’t understand it most of the time, but in the moments that I do, it hurts.
I think about the last time I saw you at home, everyday. It’s always, always on my mind. It’s always replaying and I always try to remember the details just right. I was home from school and you were wearing a red flannel. Mimi ordered pizza from the Pizza Joe’s in Portersville because we all know that they make it the best. Pizza in Kent just isn’t the same so it was a pleasant change. We all had dinner and you fell asleep in your chair afterwards. Mom and Dad were on the couch and McKenna and I looked through old photographs. When you woke up we started teasing one another. You poked my chair with your foot and I looked over and you were smiling with your eyes closed. You loved me so much. That’s something I never have to understand. It’s not strange. I never have to understand the way you loved me unconditionally, its just something that was. When we left that night, I hugged you and Mimi and said goodbye. I didn’t know it then, but that moment had within it, a lot of lasts. It was the last time I saw you at home. It was the last time I saw you standing. When we drove away that night, I was crying in the back seat, but I didn’t know why.
Mimi’s birthday was the following week. I surprised her with a call to wish her happy birthday. She excused herself a moment because she was helping you shave your face. It was the last time I heard your voice over the phone.
The next time I heard about how you were doing, it was Mom telling me that you were back in the hospital. She told me that the family was looking for a nursing home because at that point, it was the safest option for you. That was the first time I broke. I spent a half hour in the bathroom at school hyperventilating. When I came back to my friend’s room, there was no way to explain what had happened to me.
In the month of February, I did a lot of things. To other people, they might seem like small things, but I can assure you they were big moments from me. I was published in the Kent Stater for the first time and then for a couple times after that. I went to Washington D.C. with my photography class. In February, I started imagining my future after college. I was instilled with this new confidence, a feeling that to me, might mean professional success someday. I was so caught up in the possibility of new opportunities and in just trying to find myself as a young adult. I thought I had more time. I thought you were going to be okay because it wasn’t supposed to happen as fast as it did. When I sent Dad pictures of me in front of the Washington Monument, he showed them to you and you told him that I was so brave. I think about you saying that every single day.
When I was finally able to come see you, there were copies of the papers I’d been published in in a chair next to your hospital bed. You were unable to talk much that day, but my heart gave a sigh of relief when you recognized my face as it came through the door. Even when you had forgot the faces you had known for decades, you always found a way to remember me, and that will always make me smile. I don’t understand how you always remembered me, but I guess you don’t always have to understand things in order to love them.
I didn’t see you again until early March, when you had been settled into the nursing home. You were there less than two weeks, but that’s alright because you weren’t happy there. That’s not where you belonged. That afternoon in early March was the last time I saw you and during the visit, you talked a lot about being at work and a red Chevy you’d seen at work that day. You told me and Dad that you had just got done putting away your tools and we listened because we understood. Before we left, I gave you a delicate, little hug and told you that I loved you. Nothing makes me happier than knowing I got the opportunity to tell you one last time. My only regret is that I didn’t get to keep you longer.
I had a lot of trouble sleeping on the night you passed. There was nothing in my dorm room that should have kept me awake, but I woke every few hours anyway. Even if I shouldn’t apologize, I’m still sorry that I couldn’t be there with you when you left. When Mom told me that everyone had been there with you, I instantly wished I had been there too. I know you’re not mad at me over it, I just wanted to tell you anyway.
You’re with me always. Did you know that? When Mimi asked me what I wanted to help remember you by, she looked at me like I was crazy when I told her I wanted rocks. I’m sorry, but I stole back the rocks from your driveway that I gave you all those years ago. Remember how the limestone was stained blue from the fireworks every Fourth of July? I used to come to you because I thought they were rare minerals from the mine and until we started going through things, I never knew that you’d kept the same ones for all these years. Now, I keep them in by backpack. You go everywhere with me.
I can’t look at birds without thinking of you. This makes me love them even more. The amount of money you’ve invested in birdseed over the decades would pay my college tuition several times over, I’m sure of it. You will be with me every time I see a mockingbird, or hear the call of a Red-Winged blackbird. Every time I take a picture of a hummingbird, I’ll think of waiting patiently for their wings while I’d show what pictures I’ve already taken. The first time we all visited your grave, as we finished The Lord’s Prayer, a lone goose honked in the distance. Was it you? Even if it wasn’t, I won’t be able to hear one without thinking of you, which is very flattering I must say. Who wouldn’t want to be compared to a Canadian Goose? Oh, and did I tell you that some chickadees finally moved into the birdhouse that you and McKenna built several years ago? I think I’ll call them both Harry.
I guess what I’m trying to say through all of this is that I miss you- terribly. There is a great void in my life now and I’ve been trying desperately to fill that with anything I can. Grief is one of the strangest things I’ve ever experienced. It always hits me in the most unexpected ways. It has a mean way of sneaking up on you that makes you pause and reflect.
More than anything, I’m glad that I knew you. I’m glad that I was able to call you my grandfather and I’m glad I was lucky enough to be loved by you. I got to make you proud in school musicals. You got to see me go to prom and graduate. I gave you the most emotional hug of my life the night before I left for college and here I am, seven months later, pouring my heart out to you. The funny thing is, is that I think we had Pizza Joe’s that night too. We’ve seen a lot together and now I’ll have to see a lot without you, but I know that if I ever need you, you’re just a rock away.
Until I see you again,
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