Despite the harsh pandemic lockdown, I moved from the East Coast of the United States to the East Bay. The pull was my infant grandson, and the push was the prospect of potentially not being able to see him for years. However, I was motivated by more than a narcissistic desire to fulfill my personal yearning. My need to provide my children and grandchildren with what my young family had lacked was visceral.
I immigrated to the United States as a twenty-something, newlywed professional almost four decades ago. At the time, life had seemed like a grand adventure, with much to explore and master, and a sense of exuberant possibility. While this was the pull that made living in America an attractive proposition, the push was the social and economic situation in India, which at the time seemed drab and limiting.
And so, I willingly took on the challenge of raising children without the support of a near-at-hand extended family. I knew other young Indian families that had performed the same analysis and had arrived at the same answers. So, the choice I made was not particularly out of the ordinary. However, it was only over the ensuing years that the true implication of being a lone nuclear family became clear to me.
Each year on the first day of school, my children would come home with emergency contact notecards. Each year, I would call a neighbor or the mom of one of the children’s friends to ask if they could be that contact. Although these friends and acquaintances were, without exception, kind and understanding, the reality of my family’s vulnerability was undeniable. The annual ritual underscored the fact that my family had no one with whom we shared kinship, language, culture, or traditions. What had started out as an adventure of perpetual self-reinvention now felt less so.
Other life events continually reinforced this awareness. When we bought a house, there were no elders to share our milestone. When the children had birthdays and graduations, there was no extended family to commend and applaud them. Worse, there was no one to step in and provide backup in the case of illness, a delay at the office, or a snow day. No one with whom I shared a past shared my present or my future. No one with whom I shared the present shared my past.
A big part of my regret was what my children were missing. I felt this more than they did. After all, how could they miss something that they had never had? But I had an abundance of cherished memories of being cared for by my grandparents. It was at my grandmother’s knee that I learnt the Marathi alphabet and heard stories from the Hindu epics. She massaged my painful feet with oil when I came home at dark after playing in the courtyard all afternoon and evening. And it was to her I ran for comfort and understanding when my mother got mad at me.
As for my grandfather, his was a silent but no less present love. A retired schoolteacher, he walked me to school every day. In addition to devotional shlokas, he taught me English and math. One morning, he had dropped me early at school because my class was going on a day trip. When he got home, my grandmother told him that I had forgotten to drink my daily glass of milk. So he turned right back around with a jar of warm milk in his hand. Handing it to me through the window of the school bus, he waited while I gulped it down.
It pained me to know that my children would never know such a constant nurturing presence. Even if I tried my hardest, I was not sure I would be able to conjure up the deep roots that hold a person close and keep her from feeling lost.
And so I silently and repeatedly reassured myself that, when the time came, I would be a hands-on grandmother. I wanted to do this for my grandchildren as well as for my children. And for the yearning mother I had once been.
Most importantly, I was aware that my family’s roots in this country are shallow and that, being transplanted in foreign soil, they need extra care and tending. By carrying forward the rich legacy of grandparenting and moving from the East Coast to the West Coast, I hoped to do just that.
Amazingly, during the early weeks after the move, I came across content that validated my decision. Among these was an interview of Dr. Leonard Sax, author of The Collapse of Parenting. He asserted that while cultures vary enormously from one to the next, there is one thing that all enduring cultures share: they all have strong bonds across generations.
I also came across an interesting podcast conversation between J. D. Vance (author of Hillbilly Elegy) and Eric Weinstein (a heterodox thinker and associate of Peter Thiel). Both men’s wives happen to be Indian-American. Both shared that when their children were born, both mothers-in-laws showed up in a huge way. Eric’s mother-in-law moved in because, as she put it, “you need to learn how to do this.” J. D.’s mother-in-law, a professor of biology, took a sabbatical, moved in, and took care of his child for a whole year.
Like those two grandmothers, I have become the nurturer I had promised myself I would be. My daughter and son-in-law always have a backup babysitter. They go out on date nights and if one of them must work late, we are there to help the other. Each time I hold my grandson, I feel that I am blessing him with the very hands (mine) that were once held by my grandmother. Knowing that I am carrying forward my grandparents’ ethos, values, and traditions is priceless.
The words of J.W. Freiberg, author of Surrounded by Others and Yet So Alone, have become my new touchstone: “While parents and children make a family, it takes grandparents to create a lineage.”
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Beautifully expressed! Your description of your grandparents could be mine.
My wife and I have a 2-1/2 year old granddaughter who we adore. She is local - we didn't have to move - but we would have. For Christmas, my wife made her an album with pictures of "her people" with some notes about them., back to great grandparents, We expected she would treasure it later in life. But she loves it now - leafing through it when in her car seat, pointing to pictures and repeating things in the cute way only a two-year-old can.
Most Americans don't think of their lineage as an asset anymore, unless it allows them to claim some disadvantage. Some of them are outraged to discover what their great-great-grandparents did. It seems so unnatural to me. Your informed views are so refreshing! I hope you find a following worthy of your work...
How fortunate your offspring are because of your loving, helpful care!
Thank you for sharing.