Unconditional love

Off the Beat

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For as long as I can remember, I admired my great-grandmother, GG, to no end. As the matriarch of my family, she seemed to think none of us could do any wrong, and, for a long time, I thought she could do no wrong either. 

I don’t know if it was because GG grew up during the Great Depression or because she was a classic embodiment of Jewish maternal instinct — probably a mix of both — but it had always seemed to me that her sole desire in life was making sure others had their needs met first. 

As a kid, I was mesmerized by her stories, from the Spanish flu all the way to COVID-19. And, not only would she listen to my stories in return, but she seemed to genuinely care about whatever I was saying. When my brother would torment me and I’d lash out at him, she’d let each of us tell our sides of the story instead of just making us be quiet. Whenever I felt dismissed, she made sure I felt validated. 

Nearly every day in the summer, I would go to her quaint condo and watch her prepare her freshly cooked matzo ball soup she’d make especially for me. I’d devour bowl after bowl as she offered to teach me how to make it myself — an offer I scarcely took her up on. She’d also take me to get my nails done with her because, even well into her 90s, she just had to look her best.

But as I — and she — grew older, my pristine perception of GG began to shatter. When I visited her, I began to see imperfections that had previously gone unnoticed, such as sly remarks and manipulative commentary. Whenever it was time for me to depart after a visit with her, her insecurities would permeate the room as she not-so-subtly tried to trap me in conversation. And even though I knew she was merely searching for company and validation in her old age, she would somehow find a way to make me feel overwhelmingly guilty about leaving.

As I began to notice — and increasingly resent — GG’s flaws, I soon began to resent all of her. I found it difficult to distinguish between the great-grandmother who had given me endless validation and the great-grandmother who would beg for the same reassurance in return. 

In September 2020, I received that dreaded call from my mom letting me know that GG might not be around much longer, which, at first, didn’t seem real to me. Even though I was away at college, I could still feel GG’s overwhelming presence and influence in my life, and all of it going away didn’t seem possible.

A few days after that initial call, she passed away. Away from home and unable to make the trip down to say my goodbyes in person amid the pandemic, I had to grieve from a distance, forced to video call into the funeral service before my afternoon classes.

After GG did pass, I felt regret for having let my inflexible mindset dictate our relationship. Caught up in this black-and-white mindset, I had failed to see past her flaws. I started to resent myself for my own shortcomings, for letting my rigid views take precedence over getting to know and spend time with all of GG, even the parts that weren’t perfect. When it became hard for me to confront her defects, I sacrificed the last few years I had with her.

But, as much as I hate to admit it, part of me also wished I’d only ever met the half of GG who would take me along on her grocery runs to ensure I could pick out exactly what I wanted, the half that always let me look through her closet because she wanted to share the memories behind her clothes with me. Getting to know the other half of her meant I couldn’t remain ignorant about her flaws. Even though I knew I couldn’t — and shouldn’t — continue to view her as this perfect deity, I thought that if I stayed in the dark, her imperfections would go away. 

My grief and the reflective period that followed made me realize that, despite GG having lived to the age of 102, I had only been a part of her life for the final 17 years. And for the majority of those 17 years, I wasn’t sure I had really given myself the chance to know her at all. She was my great-grandmother. But she was also a complex person like anyone else, with her own thoughts and feelings, both good and bad. 

It took me a long time to understand that GG’s faults didn’t negate her virtues. While I’m still trying to understand my feelings, I’m beginning to learn that caring about someone and acknowledging their faults don’t have to be mutually exclusive. 

Most importantly, GG taught me that it’s possible to love somebody unconditionally, flaws and all.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.