My mother has raced to Bangladesh to be with her sick, potentially dying mother- my last surviving grandparent. I know her as Nani and thinking of her potential passing, if not right away at least in the near future, fills me with sadness. I hope I might see her in the flesh once more.
She has certainly lived a full life having reached her nineties, witness to the extraordinary sweep of the twentieth century, from the World Wars to Indian partition on her doorstep and the civil war that led to Bangladeshi independence.
There remain bullet holes in a tin room of my mother’s ancestral village and a now dead uncle was even named Bullet because of his birth during the independence war.
The sadness I feel is not just the expected grief from the passing of a loved one, or the great hurt I know my mother will particularly feel, but also for the grandparent relationship I never had because I lived virtually my entire life overseas, my grandparent encounters being limited to a few days every few years during return visits to Bangladesh.
This sense of something missed is further heightened by watching the beautiful warmth my children feel with their grandparents and the irreplaceable role they play in their lives, evidence that children are best raised in clans as they historically have been. Our eldest daughter even wrote a letter describing my mother as her second mother.
"The sadness I feel is...for the grandparent relationship I never had because I lived virtually my entire life overseas, my grandparent encounters being limited to a few days every few years during return visits to Bangladesh."
Their contributions range from babysitting to surrogate parenting to communicating a greater understanding of our rich family history. Interestingly, partly due to economic pressures, social studies from Pew in the US show a doubling in the number of multi-generational families in the past thirty years. Grandparents are making a big resurgence in Western families, just as rapid urbanization is perhaps diminishing their role in the developing world.
It is likely to be a typical experience for many of us growing up overseas often with relatively few relatives in the same city or country. It is inevitable that we will not have the same intensity in our relationships with our extended family. It is partially replaced by the strong ties we might build with friends within the local Bangladeshi community, who can acquire a status similar to relatives. For example, it’s common for ethnic groups to refer to close family friends of a similar age as cousins to Westerners because that is a better representation of the depth of the relationship.
Thankfully my grandmother, Nani, is not dead and, knowing her resilience, will more than likely live a little while longer. But as she is the last of my living grandparents, her imminent passing will serve to highlight a vital relationship that I experienced in quite a limited way only.