Over the last three-and-a-half years of college, I’ve tried to pick out patterns, experiences that somehow link us together in our time at Yale — regardless of our major, sport, race, artistic abilities or socioeconomic status. At the beginning, it was easy: Freshman year, most of us gained a few extra pounds. Sophomore year, people were all dumping and being dumped. But by junior year, I began to notice a subtler thread throughout many of our undergrad experiences — we had lost a grandparent or were in the midst of losing one.
People I know rarely talk about it, but it’s there, an unshakable moment that lingers in different forms. A grandparent can symbolize something different to every individual, whether that’s stability, kindness, humor, sexism, heritage, wool socks, heroism or simply history. They seem so distant and removed from our campus cradle, rocking to the steady rhythm of study-drink-sleep, study-drink-sleep. We tend to leave it that way — separate, so as not to impinge on bright, uninhibited feelings of youth, discovery and invincibility.
I’ve had only one living grandparent who I can remember. She lived 6,759 miles away, spoke another language and always told me I could lose a little chub. The last time I saw her, in China two summers ago, I ended up crying because I couldn’t understand what she was saying — words of advice woven into ancient Chinese aphorisms that I’d yet to learn in class. I felt helpless and ashamed, but I consoled myself with knowing that in the next few years I would become fluent, return to China, and listen to and record the stories of refusing to have her feet bound and of relatives killed by the Japanese, of dancing with Chairman Mao and of the Communist Revolution.
Last fall, my grandmother passed away. She was nearly 90 but healthy enough to live another 10 years. Unfortunately, she was not healthy enough to overcome a severe case of restaurant food poisoning. The whole incident felt tainted by its seeming preventability.
I struggled a lot with the loss. Not because I was close to her but because I never would be. I’d lost my opportunity to actually understand her, and I’d lost the decades of personal history that had disappeared with her. A heavy sense of failure weighed me down for the entire rest of my junior year.
My friends, when I ask them, tell me brief anecdotes about their own grandparents. One mentioned how her grandfather would send her a package a week throughout all of high school. Another told me how he can still recall the exact cadence of his grandparents’ speech and the intonations of their voices when they used to answer the phone. The best story I’ve heard is from a close friend who came out his freshman year at Yale. On her deathbed, his grandmother had just one question for him: How does gay sex work?
But more often, our dialogue stays pivoted on 40-hour CompSci p-sets, NYC job interviews and the latest BuzzFeed articles. One of my suitemates’ grandmothers passed away just two months ago, and none of us heard about it. I only know because I asked him today whether any of his grandparents were still living.
All of our grandparents have — or had — extraordinary histories to share, experiences to recount, and advice to offer, by virtue of having lived three, four, or even five times as long as we have. Some of my peers were wise or lucky enough to sit down with their grandparents and a notepad, or tape recorder, or even just their ears, and ask the questions that only their grandparents could ever answer, to capture the stories that only their grandparents could ever tell. Now that we’re in college, they can regale us with previously withheld tales of drunken pranks and wild romances, of World War II and Brown v. Board of Education. I tend not to be a jealous person, but I’m jealous of my friends who had the perspicacity to do this, and I’m jealous of my friends who will go home this Thanksgiving to a grandparent who speaks the same language and is still fully present.
For something that binds so many of us together, this faraway notion of grandparents flits only on the periphery of our friendships. Despite its pervasiveness during our years at college, we let it remain separate. At Yale, we feel like we’re making ourselves into the people we’re meant to become. But during the few moments I’ve listened to a friend mention the story of his or her grandparents, I’ve felt most strongly the magnitude of the various fortuitous moments in history that brought us all here — and the privilege we’ve been given, sitting in neo-gothic towers, wondering if we’ll ever have stories as memorable as theirs to tell.