The Younger Versions of Our Grandparents

One of my first memories took place at my Grandma’s funeral. I remember passing a tissue to my mother because she was crying. Her open display of grief was confusing and scary to me. I was 8.

Mom, Grandma Harburn and Aunt Marily - aug 78.jpg
my mother, my grandma, my aunt in 1980 or so

We mourned the woman in the center of this picture that day. This 70-year-old version is the only Bernice Harburn I knew. You can’t see it in the way she slouches on our kitchen cabinet or in the right tilt of head, but she was a schoolteacher before she married. A strict one, apparently. With ruler in hand ready to crack the knuckles of misbehaving students. At that time, Grandma Harburn looked like this:

Bernice+Ellen+Wilson

This is my favorite picture of her, of her 19-year-old version, before Bernice Harburn existed—when people knew her as Bernice Wilson. I see my mom in her face, but mostly I see my niece, which surprises me because I’ve always thought my niece looked exactly like her mother, my sister-in-law.

Grandma’s poise is so youthful, her cheeks so plump, her hair so dark. Her head tilts that same way to the right; it makes me smile. I doubt she knew that was something she did, had done since she was young. Knowing that makes me feel closer to her.

I imagine this picture was taken just before she got into that car and carried her to a significant day in her life. Maybe she was on her way to her teaching school in Indiana. Maybe she was going to teach Sunday school. Maybe she was about to meet my grandfather for the first time. To look at her face and be reminded of my 19-year-old niece is a little shocking. I only bore witness to the last 4 years of Grandma’s life. There were so many revisions between the time this picture was taken and the person I knew. It reminds me that my grandmother had been very much like my niece is now–still figuring things out, still wide to possibilities.

These two pictures of Bernice taken 50 years apart are so similar. It reassures me that we carry who we are from year to year. We have a little at the end that we started with, you know? Our voices, our poise, our head tilts. Aging can only add to our presence, never erase. So I am still that scared little boy handing my mother a tissue at my grandmother’s funeral, even as I shave off the gray whiskers of my beard every morning.

Another reason that memory of the tissue stays with me is that it was the first time I remember making someone laugh. My mother saw a tissue float into her blurred line of vision. She looked over and saw my very concerned and eager-to-help face, and she let out the tiniest of laughs. With that reaction I knew my mother was still beside me; mourning did not cause any quick version-changing as we sat in the church pew. I knew my mother was all right, the loss of her mother would not erase her.

(The featured photo is yet another version of Bernice (top left). Her 11-year-old self. Those glasses: like if Harry Potter lent Hermione his specs.)

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One thought on “The Younger Versions of Our Grandparents

  1. I love your conclusion here, and your image of shifting from boy-you to shaving man-you. And that 19 year old in the picture reminds me so much of that youthful picture of my great aunt I once posted. So strange to see a person you knew in a form so far removed, and yet to recognize the personality.

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