Week 42: Goodbye to Grandma
My grandmother, in the auditorium of a high school in Santa Anita, points to my father and looks at me. “This is my son,” she almost shouts. She repeats herself and smiles at me, a semi-toothless grin.
I’m a little confused. I already know that.
We are gathered here in this auditorium on a weekend in late October. It’s the time of the year when an Indian festival, one that is particularly celebrated among Bengalis, is celebrated. It’s called Durga Puja, and in this auditorium a medley of dance performances and plays (in Bengali) has just been enacted on the stage. I arrived 30 minutes before the end, but my relatives have been here for hours.
This is the first time I’m seeing my grandmother since 2012. Six years ago, I stayed at her house in Calcutta on my way to Mayapur, a spiritual center in West Bengal.
She’s now come to California for my cousin’s late September wedding. My cousin is also her grandchild — her first, in fact.
At Sony’s wedding, my grandmother greeted me with open arms, so I thought all was fine. But we did not have a chance to speak for long, and she hardly speaks English anymore.
Now, here in the auditorium, my stepmother is tracking this interaction. She arrives at my elbow and says to me, “She has some kind of dementia.”
I had no idea. I’m taken aback.
Sometimes, my stepmother explained, my grandmother does not realize she’s in America, and keeps thinking that she is back home in India. Sometimes, she thinks she’s at her daughter’s house when she’s actually in her son’s. Sometimes, she pees on the floor of my dad’s home and says she spilled water. My stepmother goes along with it.
But some parts of her are still online. When my father tells her, “It’s Nisha,” recognition washes over her face. She exclaims with delight, but I don’t know if it’s because she actually recognizes me, or because she recognizes that name from somewhere significant and is happy to hear it.
I realize now that she may not have actually recognized me at the wedding. She seems happy to see everyone, which is new. My mom was at the wedding too, and said my grandmother was the nicest she’s ever been to her. My grandmother was not happy when her only son married a white lady. During their 8 year marriage, it was not hard for her to let it show.
We leave the auditorium to go outside and eat samosas and chutney. My grandmother keeps telling me to come to her house.
Her name is Anita. To me, she is Thakuma. Although I don’t speak Bengali or mesh with the social aspects of Indian culture, I’ve always called both my grandmothers by the Bengali words Didima, one’s mother’s mother, and Thakuma, one’s father’s mother.
So she is Thakuma to me, but her name is Anita, and in my bones I know this will be the last time I see her.
And here we are in Santa Anita. She is no saint. But death, and endings in general, has a way of softening the harder parts of people. Even though they may be a little crazy, the sense of their near departure pronounces their essences. When bitterness has prevailed in life, forgiveness from all sides is rather forthcoming at its end.
I, personally, have nothing to forgive her for, except for kicking my cat Kali in 1994. I remember her walking around my childhood home for a month or two, exclaiming, “Kick the Kali!” before trying to kick my cat.
I loved my cat, who came into our family three months before I did, and that memory somewhat informed my understanding of my grandmother.
So besides kicking my cat, I don’t have much to personally forgive her for…but knowing that this is our last meeting does make her edges appear softer.
She has faults. She favors her male progeny over her female progeny. She steals nail polish, among other things, from her relatives. Then she lies about it. She is a narcissist, without any capacity to think beyond her own interests. She adheres to caste and to race.
But in this state, her vulnerability is obvious. And vulnerability is something that she hid her entire life. For me, seeing her in this stage of life evokes all the struggles she went through, and a kind of understanding and empathy replaces emotional distance. Her efforts and struggles overshadow her faults, and even inform why those faults might have been born.
Struggled she has. I know about a few, and as with everyone, she’s also been through a slew of struggles no one will ever know about. She’s been through things I will never be able to relate to.
Things like being widowed in India with three children, at a time when women did not work.
My grandparents married in the 1940s. It was an arranged marriage, and my grandfather, Himangshu, was a very kind person. But he died of a heart attack when he was 42. She was 35, and had kids to care for. As a widow, she was somewhat ostracised.
My father, as the eldest and the only male in the family, stepped forward to work while still in school. He was 16. They struggled a lot, both socially and financially. A family friend stepped in to offer them a place to stay, so they moved into their house.
Somehow, they made ends meet. But her husband’s death left a grave, bitter mark on her.
One that she never forgot. She went on raising her three children, though, and they all went on to work, marry, and have children of their own.
She is no angel, but she is no devil. She is human. And one reason I bring up these faults is to say that, especially during endings, empathy finds an easier way in. One can always trace back faults and mistakes to a difficult childhood, a trauma, a feeling of not being seen, a social ostracization. Etc.
I bring also them up for another reason, one underlining the importance of ancestry.
The influence between living people and their ancestors is significant in the present. I know, it may seem like, '“…? They’re gone, times are changing, they gave us our physical and psychological traits, that’s it.”
Friends, no. The traumas and struggles of our lineages are carried into our lives, as are their blessings. What is left unresolved passes down — and no, not in a woo-woo way — in a biological way. It may be more subtle than our understanding of ‘normal’ DNA, but science does show that trauma and emotional states do affect beings on a cellular and genetic level.
It’s called hereditary trauma or transgenerational trauma. Exercises like family constellations can help shine a light on how they are at work. The body holds so much more intelligence than we think — not only is are our physicality inherited, but our tissues hold biological remembrance on an emotional level.
Even neglecting the biological thread of emotional well-being and instead taking it from an intuitive perspective, it’s evident. Imagine a narcissistic mother. Her child develops coping strategies stemming from the mother’s narcissism. Those issues come up in that child’s own parenting strategies, and on and on and on, until someone in the lineage does enough inner work to weaken or break the cycle.
So even though they may be physically gone, we have relationships with our ancestors in the burdens we carry and the characteristics we embody. On an implicit level, one way we tend to honor our heritage is by taking up the struggles they left unraveled.
My grandmother is the oldest living person in my lineage. With all her faults, she is important to me, and I want to remember her, and all who proceeded her, for who they are in their deepest hearts. I want to honor them, and myself, by breaking the chains of imprints that shackle us to our past limitations, and instead be able to face the world as the person I am.
I can do that by honoring them in a different way — by learning to differentiate between what is mine and what is theirs, and then, instead of implicitly living out their struggle, remember them in a more intentional way.
When I was little, I stole two bottles of nail polish from a friend. Then I lied about it when she found them in my bag. Why did I do that? And where did the need to lie about it come from? I am responsible for it, but where lies the birth of that inclination? Was it just a childish strategy, or was it a familial tendency I was tapping into?
I have a tendency to struggle. Sometimes, everything feels like a struggle. But who’s struggle? Is that struggle mine? Somewhere down the line, someone struggled. That doesn’t have to be me; I can leave it in the past if I learn to differentiate.
Instead of living it out, I can learn to resolve the tendency to struggle and remember my ancestors in another way, a way that is not implicit and patterned. I can put up a picture of my grandmother and say, “Hi grandma, I see you!” Her struggle doesn’t have to be mine.
What is mine, the hard things I did go through, I can also learn to address, so that no one in the future has to deal with them.
I am learning to do that — with a lot of bodywork, transgenerational trauma resolution, birth imprint resolution, secure co-regulation, and most of all, support. It takes time and practice and support and willingness.
But beyond all the imprints, ancestors give something else, something very important, something vital. They carry blessings, and we must root the blessings of the lineage in our bodies. This allows for physiological integration.
No matter how damaged a super-great-grandmother may have been, how covered our grandfather's ‘healthy self’ was, how much our parents demanded our attention with their narcissism, the ‘whole’ aspect of every person in our lineage does want us to go forth into the world and be who we were meant to be, leaving their issues with them alone. Even if they never said it, or realized it, during their time on earth.
And that part of them is very important.
All of this is to say that although ancestors are separate, individual people, they are, in some way, still alive in us.
A few years ago, this would all have been totally lost on me, and I’m grateful that I still have the chance to see my grandmother in the flesh while beginning to grasp all of this.
Now, she’s half gone, as her mind is no longer referenced in reality. But I wonder if I ever really met the real person, rather than what she has been carrying. What about my own parents?
How much of my personality and habits are imprints, and which aspects are mine to bring forth? My deepest intention for my own life is to let my own self come forth, and then to help others tap into their own selves…leaving all else behind. In this world, there is so much stuff to wade through! So much work just to be fully here, fully embodied, fully able to be with ourselves. The best part, though, is that it is possible. It is possible!!!
After we eat the samosas and tea, we all get ready to leave. I say goodbye to them all, and my Thakuma is happy in her own world.
I’ve parked a little further away, and while I’m walking to my car, my dad drives up,
He says he thinks it will be the last time I see her, and he wants to take a picture. So we stand on the grass in front of the high school and take some pictures.
Then, they get back in the car. I watch them drive away. Goodbye, Thakuma.
She may stay in this world for some time — years, even. She certainly will not come to the US again after this visit. I know I will not see her in person again, but even if I did, her internal stability is already gone.
It’s a strange feeling that I encounter as I watch them drive away. Although I have been in grief for much of this year, this is not grief that washes over me.
Maybe it’s due to the lack of overt emotional intimacy between us, but more than an emotion, I have this sense of vastness, of life in perspective, of backing up, and of being very grateful to my lineage for their gifts, including the imprints that I have a chance to work on. In time, hopefully my own gift can be in breaking those cycles.
Goodbye, Thakuma, but you’ll always be here too.