My brothers and I didn't grow up with the blessing of a loving grandparent in our lives. It wasn't until I had kids of my own that I began to wonder what it might have been like to hug a grandparent who returned the affection with shining, loving eyes.
My children have that blessing. They have two sets of grandparents who care for them and let them know in so many ways that they are loved.
Three of my four grandparents were “hardly there" for various reasons. But my maternal grandmother was another story. We called her “Baka"—the Croatian word for “grandma." She was, by any standards, a difficult person to be around. Anxious, paranoid, and self-absorbed, she almost certainly suffered from a mental illness that was never addressed. She spent much of her time and mental energy worrying—about the neighbors, about money, about the house, and about when her lottery tickets might finally pay off—and unloading much of her worry upon the younger of her two children—my mother.
When mom took my brothers and I to visit Baka at her home—which she did regularly—an invisible blanket of stress and negativity was always there. Baka would cook for us but eat very little herself. She would eat stale bread and use one tea bag to flavor a gallon of “tea." As someone who experienced poverty and hardship in her youth—including living through a World War—extreme thriftiness and a scarcity mentality were habits that lasted decades beyond when they were needed.
I remember Baka's stack of Publisher's Sweepstakes notices, which she demanded that mom read to her in the hopes that one of those white envelopes would contain the golden ticket. I remember her harshly criticizing mom's attempts to encourage her to eat a decent meal, to wear respectable clothes, or to spend some of her hard-earned money on something nice for herself. I remember Baka openly, shamelessly favoring mom's older sister over her. I remember the glares, the scowls, the yelling, and the lack of any thanks—ever—for the help mom offered and insisted on giving.
There came a time when Baka couldn't live independently anymore, and my parents made room for her in their home. When that situation became untenable, mom transferred her into a nursing home just minutes away, and she made sure it was a nice, expensive one, knowing full well that an extended stay at that facility would use up the remainder of Baka's modest savings, leaving her without an inheritance.
Mom was one of the few who visited the nursing home every week. She would greet and chat with the sweet but lonely elderly men and women who smiled at her, hungry for attention that rarely came from their own children, and then go spend time with her mother—who never welcomed her with a smile or a loving glance of acceptance.
Mom got to know the nursing home staff personally and was in close, friendly contact with them to make sure Baka was being well taken care of and that she was signed up for extracurricular activities. She took her out often for lunch dates or shopping. I never heard, or heard of, a “thank you" in reply. I never saw a gesture of appreciation or thanks in return. It was a one-sided relationship if there ever was one.
As Baka was dying, mom sat by her bedside and told her she forgave her for her callousness, abuse, and indifference. She told her she was there with her and that it was okay for her to die in peace.
I didn't shed tears at Baka's funeral, but I did later. Not for my grandma, but for the loss of what might have been a relationship that held some love. I mourned over the loveless emptiness of a life that was lived in difficulty and bitterness and anguish.
But most of all I cried because of the beauty of the example of selfless love that my mother showed. The nursing home Baka had been in was full of mothers and fathers who were surely far better parents and grandparents than she had ever been. Elderly mothers and fathers who were far more deserving of their children's love. And yet most of them sat alone and lonely as they crept towards death.
Mom chose to offer the radical sacrifice of one-sided love. For years, she poured out a love she knew would not be returned. Her love was one that pierced a void. That stirred up ashes in the dustbin of negativity and bitterness, and refused to let them settle for good.
Thanks mom, for not counting the cost. For giving, not only to your own mother, but to all of us who were privileged to witness your love. Thanks for the best example of love I could ever hope to have. And for leaving me with an impression on my heart that will remember it forever.