I look at the picture in front of me. There is a beaming girl with pigtails and bright pink hairbands in them. Her nose is scrunched, like it always is when she laughs. Holding her is an older woman with wrinkles, some of them laugh lines, etched deep into her cheeks and forehead. She’s wearing a pair of small glasses, and she gazes with admiration at the girl in front of her. What a strangely picturesque moment. I continue staring, hoping that maybe the scene in front of me will seem more concrete, more realistic, if I focus on it more. That woman holding me is my grandmother on my father’s side, and I barely know her.
Months later, I stare at the phone screen in front of me. On the screen are joyous, loud, and energetic people, wishing me a happy birthday. They sing a birthday song in their own language, “La Multi Ani”—essentially meaning “The Many Years”—and it sounds beautiful, sung with a comparable passion to people celebrating at a European folk festival. My mom looks over at me, tears welling in her eyes, as she recalls the many years of her childhood spent singing that song to her sisters and parents on their birthdays. I try to muster a smile; their joy does seem rather infectious. But I can’t help but feel a disconnect. I barely know how to hold a basic conversation in their language, and I haven’t seen the people on the screen in person since I was in middle school. The family on my mother’s phone are her parents, my grandparents, and I barely know them.
Growing up, I had many friends that had grandparents that lived within thirty minutes of them. I’d listen to my friends make plans to sleep over at their grandparents’, and the friends often brought to school homemade goods like cookies and brownies from their grandma’s kitchen. I wasn’t necessarily jealous, but more so confounded. I couldn’t understand how such a crucial part of their life was such a distant part of mine. Even now my boyfriend has what he calls a “granny pod” in the backyard of his family’s home. His grandma lives just a short twenty steps away from his back porch, and she’ll often come over for family dinners and puzzle nights. He can’t remember a time in his life where his grandparents weren’t involved in his childhood, and I can’t remember a time I had grandparents living in the same state as my family.
I tried at different points in my adolescence to meaningfully connect, but not with the same intentionality or depth I’d go about it now. Like in 2014 when my Grammy Jean on my dad’s side passed away. For years leading up to 2014, I had heard about her pressing health concerns, about this foreign cancer that continued attacking her body despite the chemo and despite the prayers. I could see the physical and mental effect this battle had on my dad and on his sister, my Auntie Darrean. Even though I knew I felt sad, I never felt sad enough. Eventually, my Grammy Jean was put on hospice in my aunt’s apartment, and my family traveled to see her. Confined to a gray bed with high sidebars, I saw my Polish grandma withering away in front of my eyes. I smiled and held her hand and tried to tell her I was thankful for her, but I still felt so distant. By the end of our visit to my aunt’s apartment, I was sitting in the corner of the living room, playing a game on my family’s tablet and eating half a box of chunky double-chocolate Chips Ahoy! cookies. I vividly remember my dad looking at me, saying, “You’re going to regret playing that while your grandma is still here. Talk to her.” I just blankly stared back, saying “I tried” as much as my thirteen-year-old self could. He was right. I would love to go back to that day and ask my grandmother to talk about everything, anything, on her Polish culture and how she grew up.
On my mother’s side, I knew my grandparents a little better, mainly through the time my Romanian grandmother visited us when my youngest sibling, Abbie, was born. She was so supportive, visiting America every time my mother had a child and insisting on caring for the child for the first six months of its life so my mother could rest. Whenever Abbie napped, my bunica would try and use her free time to teach me how to knit and crochet. Oh, what a fiend she was at the needles; it was almost like she breathed, slept, and laughed knitted doilies. But all I wanted to do at that age was watch TV with my grandmother. My favorite movie at that time was The Aristocats, and I remember tugging the side of her dress, telling her I was dreadfully bored trying to learn how to create order from a mass of yarn. She wistfully smiled and agreed to come with me, and I couldn’t see the sadness in her eyes at that time. As I reflect, I see the sadness now.
Yet this tale holds more than just regret; it’s laced with determination to learn what I still can. Some doors have shut for me, but I don’t want to underestimate the ones that are still open. So, every holiday my family celebrates by making traditional Romanian food, sarmale and vegetable soup and rafaello. I’ve made the art of making sarmale my own, the laborious work of steaming the cabbage, mincing the meat by hand, delicately placing globs of meat into the cabbage, and rolling the cabbage roll while maintaining structural integrity. This past Thanksgiving I even made sarmale for my boyfriend’s family and taught my boyfriend how to make it himself. My buni and bunica were overjoyed.
Every day I open up Duolingo on my phone and keep my learning streak alive. I used to stall at four or seven days of habitually learning Romanian so I could communicate with my mom’s side of the family, but by the grace of God I just completed a 365-day streak just last week. My grandparents still tease me about my choppy Romanian, and I’m embarrassed to admit there are still times I open Google Translate to help me send my grandparents a grammatically correct letter .
My ties to my Polish heritage are a little weaker than I’d prefer, but I’m investing in that as well. I make sure to listen when my dad describes the unique beauty of the heavy Polish his grandmother would speak, and I listen when he describes how real pierogis are made. I even went to a friend’s Polish-themed birthday party last semester, and her Polish parents made homemade pierogis, kielbasa, and traditional Polish ice cream cake. I sent my dad a couple pictures of our Polish outfits for the night as well as the food on everyone’s plates. After seeing those photos, he said the nostalgia of it all made his night.
I’ve always felt as if I could never truly grow into who God made me to be until I grew familiar with my heritage and fully embraced it. So much of who we are is part of who came before us. Thus, I see it not only as a privilege to learn of my history, but my duty, my responsibility to the past . I don’t believe I’ll ever reach a point of completion in my life where I can state I’ve learned all I can of my roots, and that’s one of the most exciting parts of Heaven. Yes, there’s grief here and now over my ancestral separation, but in Heaven I have the wonderful promise of encountering all my family who trusted in Christ. I’ll have an eternity to practice my Romanian and, Lord willing, learn from my Grammy Jean herself how to make good pierogis. The promise of hope and renewal is imminent.