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Brandon and Shanelle, come down and pick up the phone! It’s your grandmother, go and say hello!
For most of my life, this is how I would come to know my grandmother. Divided by oceans and continents, she was always someone I placed at a distance.
Wasn’t a person’s grandmother supposed to be close to them? You know, the kind you see on TV and in the movies, an elderly woman with wiry grey hair who’d spoil you with baked goods and toys.
What did it mean that I had a grandmother that I spoke to predominantly on the phone, but could not see, touch, or hear first-hand?
Was I a bad grandchild for feeling no connection to a person who was supposed to mean so much to me?
These were questions that I carried with me until I met grandma for the second time when I was 16.
While I had met grandma once before, my memory of her that first time was and remains faint.
I was in third grade when her and Uncle Pat, my dad’s brother, visited Toronto in 2000.
Two memories stand out to me from this first visit:
1. She encouraged my parents to give me tea. “Kids can’t drink tea, Shanelle.” “But mom, grandma said it was okay!”
2. I painted her toenails burgundy to match the colour of her saree.
When my parents took my brother and I to visit Australia for the first time in 2007, the feelings of longing I had for a relationship with my dad’s mother slowly began to fade.
One memory that stands out is being in the kitchen of Uncle Pat’s house with Brandon and my mom. Grandma was in the middle of making tea for us, when she turned to the refrigerator and pointed to two drawings that had been obviously done by children.
I squinted my eyes and could see that at the bottom of the drawings were signatures by Brandon and I, in our child-like crayon scribbles.
I kept these from when I visited you in Toronto when you were both small.
I remember looking into her eyes and feeling the distance between us slowly close.
In that moment, yes, she was my grandmother, and yes, I was her grandchild.
My Dad would visit grandma in Australia a few more times after 2007 — once with my brother in 2010, once alone in 2014, once with my mom in 2018, and once more with me in 2020 right before the pandemic broke.
When I saw grandma again for the first time in years, she was different.
Of course, we all know that people age, but when you’re removed from a person’s day-to-day and re-introduced to them several years later, time becomes felt and seen.
So much had happened since I last saw her. She had become so much smaller than I remembered — more frail, more fragile.
Hi, Grandma! It’s me, Shanelle! How are you?
She had just woken up from an afternoon nap. Apparently, sleeping in and taking long naps had become a part of her routine.
Grandma looked quizzically above my head and then looked away, murmuring something in Tamil.
Amma, it’s me, Vijayan. This is Shanelle, your granddaughter. You remember her!
The confusion on her face from the moment before seemed to evaporate. She looked directly into my dad’s eyes and smiled. He gave her a hug.
She then turned to me and gave me a smile too — I wrapped my arms around her tiny frame.
Throughout the rest of this trip to Australia, I had a sense that I would probably have to re-introduce myself to grandma with each visit.
I would walk into Uncle Pat’s house, find grandma and say the same familiar lines:
Hi, Grandma! It’s me, Shanelle! How are you?
Her reaction was always the same, and we fell into a bit of a pattern the two weeks that I was there.
She would give me the same confused look, and then either my Dad, or Uncle Pat would have to remind her who I was.
We’d then have something for lunch and gather around the TV before deciding where the rest of the day would take us.
I would often peer over to grandma in her solo sofa seat, and sometimes catch her falling asleep.
When she’d wake up, she would ask me if I’d eaten, not remembering that we had just eaten lunch moments before.
Sometimes, she would ask about dinner. Whether it was intentional or not, she would often suggest pizza.
“Pizza would be good, no?”
I can’t really remember the final moment that I would see grandma, but I can imagine that it went a lot like the above.
In writing this, I’ve realized that there are so many things I don’t know about grandma and that I will never have the chance to ask her.
Any new information I will learn about her now will come second-hand. And while I’ll continue to appreciate developing my knowledge of who grandma was, it’s simply not the same compared to when it comes straight from the source.
I wish I could have been around her more, to know her more intimately — her favourite song, her favourite subject in school, her favourite childhood memory, how she felt on her wedding day, what she liked about grandpa, and how she managed to raise 10 children during the civil war.
I take comfort in knowing that I am fortunate to have had a handful of sweet memories with her where I could live out my longing of being her grandchild.
I will miss her raspy voice and bugs bunny smile.
Thank you for everything, grandma.