Lessons from my grandparents

My grandfather is one tall dude. My first memory of him was when he and my nana came to visit us in that yellow apartment on Main Street. They drove all the way from Florida in this big RV that took up the majority of the driveway we shared with our landlord and his family. They drove that RV to every state in the U.S., even took it through parts of Canada and Mexico, too. These were places I could not comprehend as anything close to tangible in my elementary brain, whose sense of adventure had thus far only meant riding my bike further than my mom wanted me to down the broken up sidewalks of our small town, with the knee scrapes to prove it. I think the only time I’ve ever been alone with my grandfather was during this visit, when he walked with me down our seemingly endless backyard, lined with trees and small creeks I would cross on sunny afternoons and reach down my soft, wanting hands into, hoping to scoop up a salamander or any other live thing. When we walked, trudging through the thick grass, I remember needing to half-jog just to keep up with his casual walk, having to make three strides to match just one of his. I had a habit of forcing myself to keep up with the men in my life, no matter how small or how girl I was. Sometimes I think I was born with something to prove. I don’t remember at all what we talked about but I know we wound up in that monstrous RV where in one moment the world came alive for me for the first time.

My grandpa loves to play around with radios, cameras, anything regarding technology. He had this old radio he wired up right there between the seats on the shabby carpet of this vehicle that had seen so much. As we sat there, he began to send signals out, told me he does this to talk to other people who loved radios like him all around the world. We tried and tried to catch someone through the static, and I was motionless, mouth agape in the way a child is when they know they do not understand the gravity of something but yet are not bored. Finally, we connected to someone, an older man all the way in Australia, his voice rough and rustic and full of a character I had never heard before. We just lounged there and talked to him that day, talked about who knows what, told him who we were and tried, fleetingly, to picture his life far away from us. At the time, I was entranced by the simple spectacle of a connection to what seemed to me to be a whole different world. But just because you do not understand something doesn’t mean it is not, too, as important and real as your world.

My grandparents are the most experienced travelers I know and will ever know. They’ve been to 68 countries and counting. I could not comprehend them in their worldliness when I was in the driveway, tucked away and fumbling through the static, at 8 years old. They are not the type of grandparents who call. They never came to any of my performances, I did not grow up with them around the corner, or babysitting my brother and I, or involved in my life in any way besides a once a year visit to their place in Florida and only silence in between. I used to be jealous of all the other kids who knew their grandma’s cooking like the smell of home, who kissed their soft, wrinkly cheeks on Sundays, counted on their after-school pick ups, and wanted or unwanted life wisdom. I resented the fact that I did not have this for myself. There were so many things I felt I did not have like the others. Even then, I knew I was very alone in this world. Perhaps I have never not been alone.

When I was a teenager on Christmas breaks, I saw a sampling of some of the treasures they’d brought home from their many journeys, which decorated every corner of their home — pottery from Kenya, knives from Indonesia, a hookah from Saudi Arabia, textiles from Chile. It was endless. Each thing telling a story of its own, their house is the longest encyclopedia there is and I wanted to read every page of it. My grandparents do not boast about a single bit of it. I have not heard any of the tales that live inside them. This used to drive me crazy. I craved all the life they had lived, all the world and humanity they had bore witness to, I wanted it all, desperately, to myself. I dreamt about devouring every bit of knowledge and universe that sat, gaining dust between their walls, between their skulls. I wanted everything. But I was no more special than any of the cross-stitchings that hung on their walls, the statues that sat atop their kitchen cabinets, I was just one of the thousands of photographs shoved in an album among a hundred in their armoire. And I scraped up against this for years. I wanted them to impart something on to me. I wanted to know that I was important, that I was special. I thought this a thing that came from them, from anyone, from the outside. That it was not something I must find in myself.

When you meet enough people and see enough places, you know a humbleness most will never discover. Sometimes the most remarkable people are the ones you never even hear about. My grandparents embody this more than anyone I know. They are their own and they don’t owe anybody, even our family, their attention or devotion. I used to believe this to be a reflection of my worth to them. And now, through my own travels, I have begun to understand what they could never tell me. That I am so insignificant. That despite this, I still matter, like everyone else does. That there are billions of whole worlds that exist apart from and a part of my own and I will never know them all or be important in them or deserve to hold them in my hands. I don’t talk so much, anymore. I do not know how to explain my experiences, what I have seen, what I have felt. I used to think that’s all I would be able to do, relish in the telling of it all to anyone and everyone, the way I wanted my grandparents to tell me everything, but I have found myself to be more solitary than ever before. My own photos and trinkets sit untold of and unadorned in my apartment. I am no different than the kid who sat mouth-dropped and fixated on everything I did not yet understand about the world. I have come back to that place, on the other end of silence, hoping for a brief connection through the static.

The last time I saw my grandparents I felt a panic come over me in how much older they became in such a short amount of time. Until that point, I had never seen them as old, and it scared me how mortal their bodies had become to me, how imminent an end they had grown close to. For a moment I thought I was anxious because I knew I would never hear all their stories, learn all their wisdom, get some sort of answers from them. I realize now that that’s not what it was at all.  I was afraid of not living all the life they have. Of seeing my own death down the road and feeling I had not made enough stops, that I would live a life that was not completely for myself, that I would not be rare and marvelous and inexplicable like they are. My grandparents are still quiet but live a life out loud. I treasure every time our wires cross, that our signals connect. But they are on one station among billions and they’ve taught me to not listen to just one, to know they are not playing for me, only to marvel at what I can hear in the moment, and keep searching for more. I don’t know what my own life will sound like or who will listen in, only that it will keep playing, unabashed and full-bodied, anyway. 

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