Tyrrell: An ode to grandparents

Columnist Eileen Tyrrell appreciates the value of grandparents, especially her dear grandmother. Pictured are Eileen Tyrrell’s grandma (left) and grandpa (right).

Eileen Tyrrell

A peculiar thing happened when I left for college four years ago. I became less close with most of my extended family, as I expected, as the frequency I saw my cousins, aunts and uncles dropped from once or twice a month to once or twice a year. 

Unexpectedly, I became much, much closer with my grandmother. 

I have two surviving grandparents (both my mother’s parents), and they have always been a big part of my life. Some of my earliest memories are from sleepovers at their house. I remember my grandfather, eyes to the sky, pointing out the constellations and showing us Jupiter in his telescope; I remember my grandmother helping my sister and I make chunky beaded necklaces to give to our mom after she gave birth to our baby brother. I am so grateful that I grew up half an hour away from their house and that I have grandparents who are so supportive and involved in their grandchildren’s lives. I know not everyone is so lucky. 

But, ironically, it wasn’t until I moved five hours away and began corresponding with my grandmother over email that our relationship really deepened. 

It turns out that, like me, my grandmother is a writer. (Or, I suppose, the more accurate statement is that I am a writer, like her.) Personally, I have always felt that it is much easier to express myself on paper rather than in conversation — something about writing just makes the words come easier. When I began emailing with my grandmother, it was like a lightbulb in my head.

“So that’s where I get it from,” I thought. She would pepper her emails with stories about her life and flashes of personal insight, perhaps feeling they were more easily shared in the body of an email than face-to-face. I understood that sentiment because I shared it. I felt like I was getting to meet her as a person, outside of her role as my grandmother, for the first time. A whole new dimension to our relationship opened up.

In a culture that prizes youth above all other metrics of value, older generations are often overlooked, particularly older women. Film critic Manohla Dargis has written that wrinkles “have a way of making women disappear, one crease at a time.” For evidence of this, just look to the beauty industry, where the market for anti-aging products is projected to reach over $60 billion by 2026. But what is it that we are so afraid of? Is aging with grace really so insurmountable, so scary, that we must do everything we can to avoid it? 

No, I don’t think so. It’s a mistake to overlook the aging segment of our population or count them out, and quite the contrary, aging with grace is one of the most profound acts of the human experience. I know this, despite being 21 years old, because I’ve witnessed it in my grandparents. 

At 82 and 79 years old, they have been around the block. They dispense generosity and compassion and joy with a freedom I don’t see in middle-aged or young adults, only people of their generation or young children. They remember events that I learned about in my history textbooks. My relationship with my grandparents adds incalculable value to my life, not in spite of their age, but precisely because of it.

It’s true that not everyone is lucky enough to be so close with their grandparents, but — here’s the beautiful thing — the wisdom that comes with age isn’t solely allotted to grandparents. We attend school on a college campus where many of the professors and faculty are aging adults and — I’d hazard a guess — have a lot to share about their lives. Google “volunteer with older adults,” and a dozen organizations will pop up providing the opportunity to spend time with local seniors. In a country with a growing aging population, it is both a blessing and a challenge that the intrinsic value of older people is not limited by blood relation. 

I could honestly wax eloquent about the value of grandparents all day long, but time is ticking, and I have other things to do today. Go call your grandparents, if you can, or consider volunteering with a senior organization. You can thank me after it changes your life. In the meantime, I need to write my grandma back.