Losing a Generation, Evolving as a Family

The death of my last grandparent saw a generational shift in the structure of my family
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On Tuesday, around 3 a.m., my grandfather died. Papa Phil was 97-years-old and led a pretty good life. He wasn't rich, wasn't well-known outside of his neighborhood, but he had a good life. He came to the U.S. from Italy with his parents when he was a child, grew up to become a small-business owner—from butcher shops to laundromats—and had a family. He died in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens that he shared with my aunt and uncle, his caretakers in the last years of this life.

Papa Phil was my last remaining grandparent. Now that he’s gone, a whole generation of my family is too. It’s an odd thing to get older, and to watch your family structure shift.

The truth is that I didn't know my grandfather very well. He and my grandmother divorced when my father was a teenager, and he moved down south with a new wife before I was born. The only vivid memory I have of him from childhood was picking oranges in his backyard. But still, I was lucky—I had him, two grandmothers and much-loved step-grandparents.

But I find myself bereft today that my daughter, Layla, won’t know my grandparents. She’ll know their names and the stories we tell her, but not the glorious minutiae. Like my maternal grandmother, a devoutly Catholic woman raised in an orphanage who told dirty jokes and threatened (credibly) to stab a man who was abusing her daughter.

Or my step-grandpa, Willy, a former bookie who never had his own kids but spoiled my sister and I rotten with candy and practical jokes like boogers wiped on rocks placed carefully on the dinner table. (Nothing is funnier to a 7 and 9 year old, I assure you.) I’ll never be able to relay their hilarious idiosyncrasies in a way that does them real justice. They’re a part of me, but will they be a part of her?

I watch my father and mother with Layla and realize that they are the grandparents now. I am the adult. The mom, even! And as obvious and well-worn as those simple identifiers should be, they scare me. I miss being the kid, being taken care of. It’s like watching the adults slowly leave the room and realizing that you’re the one in charge. Come back! I don’t know what I’m doing!

I know I’m fortunate to have my parents with me, lucky that Layla knows her grandparents both here in New York and my husband’s parents in California. We have family and love in our lives and that is wonderful.

My grandfather was an ordinary person. He was funny and enjoyed his glass of wine well into his 90s. He fought with his kids, could be difficult, loving, and distant all at the same time. He wasn't exceptional. At least, not to you. There’s nothing special about my family’s loss—this has been done before in a million different iterations. But to my family, and to me, his death is sort of amazing. It means a fundamental change in who we are to each other, and a recognition of more shifts—happy and sad—to come. It means watching a family changing and moving on in the absence of one ordinary person, and finding that extraordinary.

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Jessica Valenti is a columnist for The Guardian US, the founder of Feministing.com, and the author of Full Frontal Feminism; He's a Stud, She's a Slut; The Purity Myth; and Why Have Kids? She has written for Salon, The Washington Post, and The Nation.

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