Whatever Happened to Grandparents' Day?

When I was around six, my school used to host an annual Grandparents’ Day. I would stroll into school beaming, grandparents in tow. Along with my classmates, I would get on stage and perform in a showcase – usually an awkward combination of an uncoordinated dance, chaotic group song, and a clumsy, stuttered-through narration. After this song-and-dance, my grandparents would scoop me up in their arms and gush over me with compliments I absolutely didn’t deserve. And the best part: they would get me out of school early, carting me off to get ice cream or a fancy lunch, because I – the untalented progeny of their progeny – had made them that damn proud.

Now, almost two decades later, I wish Grandparents’ Day was still a thing. And that’s only partially because I still adore the attention, the excuse to waste a day that could otherwise be spent productively, and the treats showered upon me. Mostly, it’s because – cheesy as it sounds – I’d appreciate a day devoted to celebrating grandparents for the gems that they are.

When I left the States last year, pretty much everything that lay in front of me was a question mark: where I’d live, where I’d work, and how far away from my family I’d land up. Of course, things ultimately fell into place, and this last piece worked out in perhaps the most unexpected way. I’d always associated living in India with living with my parents. Yet around the time I decided to stay here and accept the offer for my current job, my parents were packed up and ready to push off to sunny Maldives. And so it was decided that I’d stay on in our home, the one my parents had lived in with my dad’s parents. I didn’t mind. I loved our house, its location, and the prospect of not having to pay rent, worry about my safety, or have to do any actual cooking or housework.

I thought I was even helping out my family. In the 53 years that my grandparents have been parents, they have always had at least one kid living with them. In fact, for several years, they lived with four generations – and various dogs – all under the same roof. If everything had gone according to plan with my visa in the States, I wouldn’t have come back home. And my parents’ move would have meant it would be just the two of them – something they had always been very vocally apprehensive about. But fate is a strange game of Tetris, and now here I was to fill the role of the young person in the house. I was here to do some of the running around, most of the medication-administering, and all of the technological troubleshooting (I’m basically their Apple Genius Bar, which should tell you something about how smart they erroneously perceive me to be). But I was also here to be spoiled and fed and praised unconditionally in the way only grandparents know how. And along with the two grandparents I was to live with, I had another doting grandfather in the next town over, in case I hadn’t gotten my fill of the pampering on a particular day.

It was a pretty sweet deal. I genuinely like all my grandparents. My mom’s dad is charming, funny, and youthful beyond his years. Not one to dwell on the negative, he could teach a master class on finding silver linings and making lemonade. He rattles off jokes with the same ease with which he holds conversations in his non-native French, Arabic, or Tamil. He’s always a willing partner-in-crime when it comes to gorging on desserts or joining in for a “small drink, very small.” If he’s not abroad visiting kids and grandkids flung all across the globe, he’s binge-watching travel videos on YouTube. He also just happened to name me. That’s right, I have him to thank for the delightful, albeit too common in my generation, label of “Saumya” (or “Sumaya,” or “Saunia,” or “Samera,” depending on how you choose to butcher it).

I always remember my mom’s mom, who’s no longer with us, for her sleek short bob, her badass sewing and knitting skills, and her magical ability to make people feel special. One time when I was really young and really sick, she noticed me staring wistfully at everyone around me chomping down on samosas, which were and are my absolute favourite snack. Without a pause, she whipped out a packet of Marie biscuits and we had our own little feast. Fun fact: that incident – not its dry, mealy texture – is why Marie is my absolute favourite biscuit.

My dad’s dad is patient, intelligent, and not easily fazed. He loves long walks in the park, predictable daily routines, visits to the bank, and going through Sudoku books at lightning speed. He’s pretty silent in group conversations, but is remarkably tuned in to what his wife says, smiling as he adds his piece or completes the idiom or song she’s started off. He's well-read, and constantly upgrades his knowledge with current events and cricket scores from his most frequently-used app, the NDTV Cricket app. While all my grandparents are valuable, he is exceptionally so. I say this because if he didn’t gave me a detailed weather summary and forecast every time we made eye contact, I would never know that it was hot in the room I was currently in, or that I should’ve carried an umbrella to work the previous day.

My dad’s mom is large-hearted and sharp-witted. She is one of the most sorted, self-assured people I know. She knows what she likes – being with her family; frequently FaceTiming said family; wearing lipstick at any time of the day; “chilli-chicken-boneless-dry”; organising stationery and medication; and the first half of any Bollywood romance. (They get too depressing after the interval, she says, and I concur.) She knows what she doesn’t like – long walks in the park; long flights, short flights, any flights really; elevators; escalators; and poor internet connectivity - see above point about FaceTime. She is also the definition of preparedness - she owns no less than six thermometers.

I was lucky to be home for Holi this year and practise my gujiya-making skills with the expert - my grandmother.

Of course, I knew even before moving in with my paternal grandparents that they are really great people. The cherry on top, though, has been finding that they're actually a little cooler than I thought. Sure, there are the expected “Have you eaten? Have you eaten enough? Why aren’t you eating more? You’ve become so skinny!” questions that accompany every mealtime. Beyond these, however, they have zero demands of how I spend my time, how late I stay out, how I dress, or who I hang out with. Given the way they’ve had to lead their lives and the expectations they’ve had to fulfil when it came to education, careers, and marriage, you’d think they want their family to follow in at least some of their footsteps. But somehow, that is not the case.

I think the logical explanation is that they’re done parenting and disciplining, and want to reap the benefits of having adorable grandkids milling around them (even if some of us are more overbearing than adorable, and don’t mill around as much as we pace tersely, wrapped up in our smartphones). I also have to appreciate their progressiveness and modernity, for not holding their lives as templates for everyone else’s. My main theory, though, is this. They gave up on me when they realised I was going to be born abroad and would not grow up in the same house as them anyway[1]. To them, I’m likely more of a fun houseguest who hogs all the kiwis, runs a couple of errands once in a while, and is a whiz at getting the TV to work. Any time spent telling me what to do would be wasted, because I’m too old to learn anything new, and too used to change to settle into their routine for long. Whatever the reason, they’re pretty fuss-free with me, which is just perfect.

They also just get things. Contrary to the Brown parental figure stereotype, they don’t ask me about studying further or settling down. Now that they’ve finally understood how to pronounce my employer’s name, they’re thrilled to tell people they meet for the first time where I work. Yet they never seemed particularly perturbed by my months of funemployment when I first moved in with them, either. My grandparents have managed to keep things fresh and move with the times. They patiently listen to my feminist ramblings and nod along with my loudly-proclaimed ideals, no matter how different they might be from the notions of how men and women lived in their time. They've also never seemed to subscribe to the notion that sons are royalty; I've heard them drop “bitiya rani” way more frequently than “raja beta.”

I couldn’t be more grateful that my grandparents are solid, stable, and supportive as hell. I can count on my grandmother for knowing how to make me feel better during a low moment. She’s always ready with a hug and a hilarious story about what her husband got up to that day. She doesn’t pry because she doesn’t need to know the details of why I’m upset or understand what I’m going through, to be there for me. In those moments, my grandfather seated next to her gazes at me over the top of his glasses, puts his pencil down from his Sudoku, says “Why does everyone trouble my Saumya?” and leaves it at that. Honestly, that's exactly what you need to hear sometimes.

If nothing else, living with – or near – my grandparents has opened my eyes to why I am so, so weird. From our discussions over tea, (in between finding that my Marie biscuits have disintegrated in my teacup and being gently chided by them for not keeping a spoon handy during all biscuit-eating activities), I have found that my I can blame my obsession with stationery on my dad's mom. She hoards permanent markers like they're going extinct. She labels everything she owns: which kid gifted it to her, what it is to be used for, and when it will expire. On the day I wrote this, she got dressed up to pay the local stationer a visit to replenish her not-nearly-dwindling supply of shagan ke lifaafe. If I had any doubts about our similarities before, they flew out the window when she described how happy it always made her to buy new textbooks and wrap them up in brown paper at the start of every school year. From my dad’s dad, I get my love for reading (a socially-acceptable trait) and my mild hypochondriasis (in the age of WebMD, I’ll say this is also pretty acceptable). He’s also responsible for my absolute and utter inability to ingest spice in any format (no two ways around this one; it is unequivocally embarrassing and unacceptable within and beyond the Brown community).

My other grandfather? He loves learning languages, has a fierce sweet tooth, and makes sure every day is jam-packed with activity – from tutoring French to working towards his daily steps goal, to planning his next exotic travel destination. He’s also the most social media-adept octogenarian I know. He has multiple Facebook accounts, is active on Instagram, and fires off WhatsApp forwards like there’s no tomorrow. And I like to scroll through my Instagram Discover feed at a brain-numbing speed till I fall asleep with my phone on my face. The similarities are crazy. And yes, I am the only woman on my mom’s side who hasn’t inherited her mother’s slender, petite figure. But that won’t stop me from pretending I got her timeless sense of style and expertise at night-time skincare regimes. (I mean, the lady diligently made a rosewater-glycerine-lemon juice mixture to put on her skin every single night!)

Even when I’m not validating my own quirks by comparing myself to my grandparents, just being around them is fun. They’re hilarious whether they intend to be or not. My grandmother once FaceTimed me from the next room to ask me if I wanted to order in chilli chicken (i.e. to subtly express her own interest in ordering chilli chicken). My grandfather still hasn’t quite gotten down the tune to the birthday song – he starts at too high a pitch and then has nowhere to go but down – ensuring a constant stream of entertainment for my cousins and me during family birthdays. My other grandfather has tracked down and actively participates in a Facebook group of all people with the same last name. I love asking him to read out their awkward, hilarious introductory posts when we meet. There’s never a dull moment with these guys.

Grandparents are notorious for telling the same stories over and over again. Mine are no exception. I can rote-recite the day my paternal grandparents met, which is incidentally also the day they got married. But predictable as their anecdotes might be, they sometimes casually sprinkle little surprises into conversations. Like once, when my grandmother was letting her hair dry on a Sunday morning, listening to her transistor radio[2]. In the midst of nodding along with the most subtle of movements to the music, she murmured the Hindi equivalent of “I remember when I met him.” I listened closer as an artist belted out an upbeat, fast-paced Punjabi pop song. It was Daler Freaking Mehndi! As in, the man who launched a thousand memes and parody videos. As in, the man responsible for the majority of the cheer and spiritedness at a Punjabi wedding. My grandmother had met Daler Mehndi and I didn't know it for all these years.

She also surprised me by breaking from tradition on my birthday this past year. The letters she writes my family on our birthdays and anniversaries are always heartfelt and always follow the exact same wording. By now I’ve memorised the letter. I’m used to reciting it from memory when she presents it to me during the family gathering, rather than actually trying to sound out the Hindi letters (because dinner usually awaits, and no one has an hour on their hands). Imagine my surprise this time around when I saw an additional set of verses where usually lies a blank space on the page. Imagine my horror when I realised I’d have to attempt to read it out in front of everyone. After a lot of struggling and a little assistance from my younger cousins, I found she’d written me a beautiful poem. Clearly, she is still full of surprises.

I love my grandparents for their big hearts, unique personalities, unconditional affection, and willingness to go to almost any length to see their children smile. (My grandmother draws at the line at letting me French braid her hair, which I hope is the only thing she thinks I’m terrible at.) While I try every day to show them I appreciate them, one dedicated day would be nice. It would give me an excuse to sit with them, whether through story or silence, to watch terrible soaps with them, and to be there for all the random, unexpectedly wonderful moments that emerge from spending time with people that rich in life experience. I think Grandparents’ Day should be a thing again. Not because I need to be reminded of how incredible my grandparents are, but because they deserve to be.

[1] One of her favourite stories is about how, after I was born in Egypt, she wondered how she would ever love me, given that she hadn’t seen me as soon as I was born, and I was after all, a "foreigner". She assures me she eventually grew a deep affection for me, and I try to believe her.

[2] Don’t be fooled by the transistor, friends. This is a very recent anecdote, and my grandmother takes great pride in her still-functioning radio, which she affectionately calls her “baaja.”

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