Most of us love our grandparents. But not all of us live under the same roof as them.
My maternal grandparents raised me like parents. The story of how this happened is long and deeply personal, but put simply, I had a single mother who worked long shifts during my childhood as a registered nurse and often needed extra help in taking care of me. Eventually, my grandparents began taking care of me full-time and became my legal guardians. My mother was and is still present in my life, and she greatly influenced me as I grew up as well. But my grandparents are largely the reason I’m where I am today.
Without them, I might not have been in college right now, away from home in a cozy dorm room and writing pieces for Her Campus UFL just like this one. In both logistical and emotional ways they’ve been my rocks. They supported me throughout my studies by encouraging my academic diligence, driving me to and from my high school (despite it being over a half hour away from where we lived), and paying for my undergraduate tuition. They provided me with a loving home filled with warmth and security. There aren’t the words in the world to do my grandparents justice, but with this piece I’m going to try my best to give a glimpse into what it was like to be raised by them. It wasn’t all cookies and kisses, but it’s been worth everything.
1. I learned a lot more about my family’s history than many kids probably do.
Being older, my grandparents have a stronger memory of my great and great-great grandparents than my mother and aunt do. Although I never met my namesake Vella —– my grandmother’s grandmother — I feel as if I’ve gotten to know her through my grandma’s stories. She was a small woman with a larger-than-life personality, just like me! And while my great grandparents passed away when I was a young child, I’ve gotten to know more about their world travels and fabulous taste over the past few years. Just recently, my grandma found their passports in a drawer, along with love letters and a certificate of American citizenship (my great grandmother was born in Canada). I hope to pass all of these stories and keepsakes on to my own kids someday, too!
Additionally, I’ve heard lots of stories from my mother’s childhood, from the life my grandparents once lived with their two daughters in a Long Island suburb. Grandma once drove me by their old house and pointed out the still-growing cherry tree she had set in the front yard. I’ve watched plenty of home videos and pored over photo albums — many of my late nights were spent living vicariously through the 70s and 80s. Through these kinds of memories, I’ve gone to glamorous parties in posh Manhattan nightclubs, bought gorgeous dresses on Fifth Avenue, sat in classes next to my mother’s high school sweetheart and cried at weddings and my cousins’ bar mitzvah ceremonies. Time travel might not literally exist, but my grandmother’s tales are for sure the next best thing. And although I’m sure the past wasn’t always as rosy as the faded Polaroid pictures makes it appear, it definitely serves as inspiration to someday “restore” my family’s glory days for myself, through my own future.
(Oftentimes, the thoughts of sending my children to sleepaway camp and treating ourselves to dinner parties are what get me through my schoolwork. I’d be lying if I said our family’s legends aren’t my truest muse!)
2. I’ve gone through more than my fair share of hospital scares.
Between my grandmother and grandfather, we’ve dealt with the effects of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and even cancer. I actually rarely opened up about much of it to friends, because I didn’t feel that most of them would understand (although my best friends have always been supportive). Of course, many families have handled at least one or two major crises. But when your “parents” are much older than average — especially when they’ve had to handle the stresses of parenthood at what’s normally a retirement age — the health outcomes will keep building up. We’ve thankfully made it through everything so far, even though these experiences could probably fill up a doctor’s entire book of medical records. But virtually no one understands the anxiety I’ve faced because of it all.
To this day, I freak out if my grandma gets quiet for more than a few minutes (because this happened just before her stroke in 2013) or when my grandpa starts breathing really heavily (because this happened just before he was hospitalized for a heart condition during my bat mitzvah in 2008, when he had to miss my entire party and I had to keep smiling in front of all of our guests anyway). Sometimes, I’ll literally wake up crying due to nightmares. I’m pretty sure I wrote the draft for my college application essay in an emergency room. But all of this is essentially my “normal.” It’s something that virtually no one else I know can inherently understand, because most college students don’t live with their childhood caregivers… I don’t even want to finish this sentence, but we all know where this is going.
I try to appreciate every single little second.
3. I’ve often had to enjoy my time at a slower pace than my peers.
At this point, my grandparents don’t have the stamina to stand around for long hours or take big vacations in faraway places. While a lot of my friends seem to keep taking trips with their families to other countries, theme parks and busy cities, for me those are either relics of the past or things I’ve had to do on my own. My grandparents have plenty of tales from the global travels they’ve done before I was born, and we once went to Disney World together when I was 6. But between inadequate funds for these kinds of outings in their retirement years, and the toll of lengthy plane and car rides, the “grand adventures” we have as a family today are few and far in-between. They visited campus during orientation, but my oldest cousins were the ones to help me out on move-in day. They occasionally fly to New York or California to visit relatives and old friends, but most of their time there is spent sitting around apartments and playing with their great grandkids. (Yes — they’re actually great grandparents now!)
Honestly, I can get pretty restless during extended school breaks. But although I sometimes pine for lives like my peers seem to have, because I’d love nothing more than to experience the whole world with these two, I make the most of my circumstances by enjoying my grandfather’s tales from the year he spent with my grandmother as an American soldier in post-WWII Germany when he was around my current age. It was stories like those that inspired me to travel to Israel two summers ago, then to go back a year later with my own boyfriend — despite my fears.
This winter break, I’m looking forward to savoring my grandmother’s cooking (she makes the best matzah ball soup, and you’re not allowed to argue me on this) while hearing more family stories, taking the occasional shopping trip at our favorite mall (but not for too long at a time), and playing Scrabble (and always losing!). It might not be Europe or Orlando, but my grandparents’ apartment has a place in my heart that no other place on this earth ever will.
My grandparents are the best.
Hello, understatement of the year!
They’ve made unbelievable sacrifices for me, and I’m extremely lucky to have them. My only wish is that they can be around as long as I will. They already booked a hotel room for my college graduation this spring, but they have yet to receive a formal invitation to my wedding (someone has to propose to me first) or meet my first child, their first great grandkid through my mother and I (someone has to marry me first!). I will keep wishing, hoping and praying with every fiber of my being until it happens.
I actually wasn’t born with the last name Berman. I legally changed my name the summer after my freshman year of college. It’s not just my mother’s maiden name — it’s my family name. I’ve always been a Berman at heart, and knew I needed to make it official! The day I stood in that courtroom and declared myself as Valerie Berman was the day my name finally reflected who I truly am. And I am this person that I am today because of my amazing, incredible, out-of-this-world grandparents, Lynn and Erwin Berman. I can never thank them enough, but I hope that the life I build for myself will do their efforts justice. This, as well as my cousins’ lives, shall be the start of their forever-enduring legacy.
Grandma and Grandpa, I love you more than you or anyone else will ever know.