The closing of our “bright college years” is a time of thank yous. We write letters to professors who have helped us think better. We cook dinner with our closest friends and remember how we laughed and learned and loved, trying to hold onto each other into the future. We lounge in our colleges, thanking the people who have made them feel like home.
In trying to find the words to thank my parents and my grandmother, I find myself suddenly mute. I am not alone in this quandary, as none of us know how to thank the people who love us so much that our accomplishments feel like their own. They are our parents and grandparents, our siblings and mentors, and they have loved us better than we know.
In part, our “thank yous” must be practical ones. Thank you for our educations. Thank you for feeding us, for flying us home, for talking through our frustrations. Thank you for letting us study what we wanted. Thank you for raising an eyebrow at pictures you wish you hadn’t seen, and thank you for knowing that we would turn out alright. Thank you for trusting us with autonomy, for letting us grow.
This thanks must also extend to the future, as we will continue to rely on the people we love. We have been necessarily independent at Yale as we develop the parts of ourselves that can only grow away from home. But even though we are no longer in school, we still need to be parented, and we still need advice. Some of our questions will be practical. How does one buy a car? How should I quit my first job — and how should I find another? When should I get my first mammogram? Some of our questions will be much harder. How do we navigate differences — religious, financial, emotional — within a marriage? How do we think about how to name our first child? How do we help our guardians age, hurt and mourn as the people they love start aging, too? These future questions are the things we do not even know we will one day need to ask. And so we thank them all the same, knowing that we will always be their children even if we one day have children of our own.
But this ineffable thanks is still rooted in the present. It is the gratitude of a lifetime. For how do we thank the people who have loved and will love us, unequivocally and unconditionally, for the whole of our lives? For the big things — life, sustenance, education — but for the small things, too. For willingly changing their entire lives to bring us into the world, and for continuing to push us further and further out into its embrace. For literacy, for thoughtfulness. For teaching us to keep talking even when a man interrupts. For sitting down to family dinner whenever we could. For teaching us how to apologize and for also teaching us that love forgives.
I do not know how to say thank you for that which was unquestioningly given, other than to acknowledge that I do not know the immensity of the sacrifice. Is it possible to thank our guardians for spending every day with us as the first thing in their thoughts in the morning, and the last thing in their thoughts at night? How do you thank the people who you love so much that you’ve never questioned that you’ll probably be buried next to them, that you’ll go through the hardest parts of life with them? That when you lose each other, you’ll always have broken off a part of yourself?
There is one obvious way, which is by making something of the love that we have received and to make use of all the ways we have developed. It is to make our lives meaningful and full of love. That is, to have a career that fulfills us, to have friends who we love, to have our own families one day — whatever that may be. Our future happiness is, itself, the thanks.
But, as with all things, my mother has already shown me the right thing to do. Four years ago, as a “going away present,” she gave me a mug. “Call your mother” the mug said — nagged, really — so that every time I made myself tea in the mornings, I’d be reminded to pick up the phone.This is a silly example, but perhaps also the most essential. There is nothing superficial, I’ve recently been told, about the small things, and the best way to thank someone you love is to make them smile in surprise. So call your mom. Call your dad. Call your grandma. Call whomever is that person, the person who parented you, loved you, guided you and challenged you. I don’t know how to say “thank you” better than to do so often and to do so simply. That’s the best way to thank the people we love most in the world for giving us everything that we are.
Amelia Nierenberg is a former News opinion editor.