The Grandma I Hardly Knew, And Why My Daughter Will Do Better


I’ve always been jealous of women who have strong relationships with their grandma. I know several friends who confide everything in theirs, and who turn to her for counsel on life decisions big and small. But I can’t remember having one meaningful conversation with mine.

Unfortunately, it’s too late to fix that. My maternal grandmother, Judy, died on Mother’s Day 10 years ago. She would have been 77 this February.

I’ve been thinking about her ever since I saw the movie “Hidden Figures,” about black women working at NASA in the ‘60s. I’d forgotten something special about Grandma Judy until I watched: she worked for NASA in Florida! I don’t recall exactly what she did there, and even if I could, I’d give anything to sit down and ask her about it now.

I’d also like to ask her about her life in France and her training as a classical French chef. Also, I’d like to know how she fell in love with my mom’s dad, who died more than a decade before I was born. I’d ask her about raising five kids while moving around the country and world as an army wife — before the Internet could keep her connected to far-flung friends and family. What was her favorite place? What was her favorite meal to make and eat? Did she struggle with the distance from family like I do?

My husband is in the process of archiving and digitizing old family photos. Of all my family photos in our possession, I own just one with her and I together. It’s of us at my sister’s wedding, when I was 16 and too busy to stop and have a proper chat. I wish I could go back and cash in that conversation now.

My grandparents (she remarried) never lived near my family. The closest I remember was a four hour drive across state lines, a trip my mom made at least a few times a year. Often, these visits were to see my grandma in the hospital for one health scare or another.

Each time my family visited, I spent more time playing with my siblings or cousins, whom my grandma cared for, than talking with her.

I know she was proud of me and my siblings, of our intelligence, athleticism and artistic skills. I remember snippets of these visits, and even fine details, like the smell of her signature perfume, Jontue. But I don’t remember ever asking her about herself or seeking advice about my life. I regret that now.

What Did I Miss?

Grandma Judy died relatively young, after decades of struggling with chronic pain, heart disease and several other ailments. I thought I had more time to get to know her as an adult.

A decade later, I still remember the exact moment I heard she wasn’t going to make it. I was 21 and working my first job as a reporter. While covering a celebratory event, my phone kept buzzing as I made the rounds interviewing people. When I called my voicemail, while standing in the middle of that huge, boisterous room, time literally stood still for me. The room went silent to me. I could see the hundreds of people in the room swirling around me, but it was through a slow-motion fog.

I realized immediately everything I had missed out on, and heartbreakingly, that there would not be time for me to go visit her when things settled down. I’d never tell her about my new job or about meeting my husband a few years later. I’d never be able to introduce her to my own children, who would have been her 13th and 14th great-grandchildren, most of whom she never met.

Granda Mo
Grandama Mo playing with her youngest grandkids, including Callie on her lap.

Precisely because I missed out on this relationship and friendship, and because I now live five hours away from my own mom, I’ve made a point to try hard to cultivate a relationship between my mom and my 1-year-old daughter, Callie.

My Daughter and My Mom

I hope my mother, who had a stroke when my daughter was 2 months old, lives to meet Callie’s first love and future children. More than that, I hope Callie realizes before it’s too late how unique and special their bond is.

Thankfully, video chat and smartphones exist today. My grandma missed the first iPhone by about a month.

Now, my mom can physically see and talk to us at least once a week. They can “chat” on the phone, even though my mom’s speech isn’t 100 percent and Callie can’t really say that much coherently yet.  I can show her recent artwork, and she can see my babies learning to dance and move.

When we traveled to my hometown last month, my daughter recognized and even called my mom “Mo,” the nickname all the grandchildren call her. Callie immediately lit up and went to play with grandma.

Each time my daughter kisses the screen of my phone while chatting with my mom, my heart melts. That’s a granddaughter-to-grandma relationship I’m happy about, not envious of.