I jumped out of the car and slammed my feet down onto the dirt road. After spending 22 hours traveling between Dallas and India, I was finally at my “naniji’s”—my grandmother’s—home. It was my first time back in four years.
I rushed into her room and focused my eyes on the exact spot on the bed I knew she would be. Two, 10 or 20 years old, it didn’t matter; I still announced my presence by screaming “Naniji main aagayi!”—“Grandmother, I’m coming!”—in Hindi at the top of my lungs. But when I turned, I saw that she was sleeping, huddled under a quilt to protect herself from the winter. So I turned my stomps into tiptoes, my smile still growing wider and wider. I sat down gently next to her and removed the blanket to reveal her face. Her closed eyes were slightly more cratered into the hollows of her face, and her skin more draped with wrinkles. Even though she wouldn’t agree, I found her age beautiful.
She got me into a habit of eating barely-boiled spinach, allowed me to make messes with flour in our kitchen, dressed me up for school in the mornings and told me stories about “rajas” and “ranis”—kings and queens—at night. Many of my friends don’t understand my attachment to the elderly or why my heart yearns to do more for them than people my own age. But the concept of ageism, or prejudice against the elderly, is an almost absurd concept to me because I see my “naniji” in every elder person I see.
It had been four years since I’d last seen my “naniji” and almost 10 years since she last lived with me. But my attachment to her only grew stronger in her absence.
Finally her eyes opened, and I waited eagerly for the smile to jump to her face. As I looked into her graying eyes, she stared back with confusion and hesitation. She wasn’t wearing her traditional sari, her hair wasn’t carefully plaited into a braid, and she didn’t immediately jump to cover her head because my uncles were in the room, all of which were very uncharacteristic of her. She simply sat up, looked at me and asked me for my name.
It’s a fear most of us have, the fear of being forgotten. It’s that sinking feeling you get when you’re a kid sitting in class and the substitute teacher passes over your name when she takes attendance. Those few seconds of panic, wondering how or why your name could have been left off the list, hit you in an instant.
Except, this time, I wasn’t in a second grade classroom. I was at my home away from home in India with my own grandmother. I kept searching her eyes and forcing myself to smile while I repeated over and over again that I was Nandita, her granddaughter. But instead of looking at me, she asked my nearby relatives who I was. Each time, their answers brought her a little more distress. There was no way she could have forgotten that she had daughters that live in America, much less that she herself lived in America and helped raise her own granddaughters.
I worked hard to fight back tears. My mom and relatives had tried to prepare me, to caution me that my “naniji” most likely wouldn’t remember me—that she had experienced quite a bit of blood loss and it had affected her memory. But by the end of the day, my “naniji” had reasoned me to be her niece from her maternal village of Madhva Nagar and became comfortable with my presence. It took me a while, but I eventually stopped fighting her working memory like my relatives. It occurred to me that whoever it was she reasoned me to be, she still found a reason to love me. Something in her reminded her to address me as her “beti,” or daughter, to still pester me to eat food, to cover me at night with blankets, to ask about my education, to still love me. And at the end of the day, she was just happiest when we would share in her astonishment that potatoes cost ten rupees and not two paisa now, sit in the garden to enjoy the warmth of the sun and listen to her stories of life and lives past.
While my “naniji” never quite understood who I was to her, she did understand that I was young and shouldn’t be spending so much time around someone as old as her. She didn’t like taking photos together because she said other people wouldn’t find her as easy to look at as I did. She valued my youth, and I valued her age. Ageism, the concept of prejudice and lack of concern for the elderly, is a growing concern in a country where beauty is synonymous with youth. With over 77 million baby boomers now reaching well into their sixties, America is aging. While we all may not have a reason to see the effects of memory loss or dedicate our lives to a career in medicine, we do have the power to lend our time to a group of people who benefit from just having someone to talk to. The next time you’re looking for a service opportunity or thinking about volunteering, try looking into events with Adopt a Grandparent, Duke Homecare and Hospice or the local Durham nursing homes to lend some time to having a conversation with the wise.
Nandita Singh is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Tuesday.