There aren’t that many things I remember about my grandmother’s house on Long Island. I remember the cigarette burns in the carpet and the pervasive smell of deli meats. I remember the grains of sand that would get lodged in the sofa, and the fridge shelves littered with half-eaten Milky Way bars. I remember the way her jewelry clinked. She passed away when I was in high school.
In the past month a bunch of my friends, from Yale and from home, have lost grandparents. I’ve found out over awkward texts and phone calls, or emails forwarded by my mom. I never really know how to respond. “Sorry” or even “condolences” doesn’t feel quite right. It’s jolting, and then uncomfortable, how quickly it fades from my consciousness as I return to homework and meetings and complaining about the cold.
It’s hard, sometimes, to talk about family at Yale. It’s hard to talk about home. It falls outside the confines of our everyday vocabulary. How do you describe your anxieties and longings in the language of problem sets and interviews? It doesn’t really translate. I knew one of my friends for a year before I found out she grew up without a mother. We had weekly coffee dates and talked about majors and Woads and summer plans, but we never got around to where we spent the past eighteen years in any deep way.
I have a vague sense of what my friends’ parents do. I know which ones are bankers and which ones sell art. I know which ones have tidy houses in the suburbs and which ones have homes with lots of rules like “no candy” or “no shoes indoors.” I know which ones have multiple home phone numbers — the ones that divide up their calendars, Christmas at dad’s and Thanksgiving with mom. I’ve learned that some have winding life histories captured in neat little taglines like “I’ve moved around a lot.” In classes, we’re taught how to summarize, so we go on and make ourselves into synopses: “My family’s insane, don’t even get me started.”
I don’t think it’s our fault, really. It’s only natural that we cut ourselves off from conversations about our past lives. We’re all tiptoeing into adulthood and defining ourselves in the absence of curfews and permission slips. We show up at Yale as teenagers, still thinking about prom and senior cut day and suddenly we graduate ready for leases and relationships. It’s a leap, and it’s hard to figure out how to hold onto our nostalgia without letting it define us. I like having the space to grow up without anyone knowing I borrowed my mom’s giggle and my grandma’s stubborn streak.
It’s not always healthy, though, to let ourselves off the hook. When we stop telling stories from home we allow ourselves to ignore the family quirks and memories that shaped us. I think we owe it to our parents to pass on their histories just as they formed ours. Sometimes I feel guilty going days thinking only of papers and p-sets, forgetting the dramas unfolding at home. I try to number endnotes or units on a total cost curve, but it all adds up to missed calls. I picture my mom by the phone, counting gray hairs and words unsaid.
It’s all too easy to leave for school and pack away the stories: my dad’s jokes, my mom’s fears, my grandmother’s jewelry that clinks. But there’s no sense waiting for the moments that jolt us into talking, like a grandparent’s death. In our everyday conversations we can start to remember: our hometowns, our childhood nicknames, our imaginary friends. Our memories — messy, awkward, unabashedly unpolished — deserve to be unpacked.
Emma Goldberg is a junior in Saybrook College and a former opinion editor for the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.