I Moved Halfway Across the World to Live with my Granny
For one writer whose routine became suffocating, a big move was just what she needed
When I told my friends that I was moving halfway across the world to live with my recently widowed, 84-year-old granny, most reacted with a “good for you” that was as sincere as their strained smiles. A glazed distance seems to overcome the eyes of someone when you tell them you’re doing something out of the norm. They’ll sip their pint and nod with fervent support but, of course, they’re silently panicking for you. You can feel it. Especially when you’re 30 years old and you break up with your partner of almost seven years around the same time. No screaming argument. No one reason why. No tangible explanation. There’s bound to be some skepticism.
Of course, we like to think we encourage each other to chase our dreams. At 15, my friends and I would think of the future with the kind of fervent teenage optimism that seems to only stem from downing a bottle of cider at the local park. Yes, we would get into the university of our dreams! Yes, we would get that job! Yes, we would leave this crappy East Midlands town in the dust! Yes, we would see the world! Then, suddenly, you’re attending at least four weddings a year, buying yet another baby shower gift and wondering when life became this weird, Groundhog Day existence marked by a never-ending diary of ceremonial events and conversations about the housing market. Somehow, we became stuck. And it made me want to scream.
Bound to a routine, a safety that most would crave, everything suddenly seemed so suffocating. The sofa where we would watch some half-decent Marvel series, our favourite take-away, the streets I would wander on the way home from work blended into this mesh of years, the rest of my life, that I could see planned out before me. I thought of my 15-year-old self, the girl who had wanted everything in this world, and knew I owed it to her to try and step outside of what people expected. I left the good guy, the guy that my parents adored – that I adored – and packed up my life in two days, leaving the city I had stayed in since I graduated university eleven years earlier. On that drive back to my hometown, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to have simply left it all behind. I could no longer feel the grip on my shoulders.
Three weeks later, I found myself sitting on an aeroplane, snotty-nosed and sore-eyed. An air hostess filled my plastic cup with cheap red wine for a third time. I was watching Eighth Grade, and while it’s been proven that altitude levels can affect our emotional states, as a 13-year-old Elsie Fisher confidently asserts, “you can’t be brave without being scared,” I couldn’t help but sob. It’s the clarification I needed that this journey, although brave to outsiders, was terrifying as hell. The air hostess brought more wine.
My granny lives in a small town in the south of Georgia, where Trump stickers are proudly displayed on cars, vegetarian cuisine consists of green beans swimming in pork juices, and the entertainment ranges from Sunday school before church to reruns of The Price is Right. My granny has outlived three husbands. It’s been almost three months since the passing of her most recent spouse and the house still hangs onto his final few weeks. His clothes sit in the closet, his walking stick leans against the kitchen cabinets and my granny replays the answer phone message every morning just to hear his voice.
We have both found ourselves suddenly untethered from our partners, the men whom we had envisioned years with. Now, we’re not just bound by blood, but by this jarring circumstance of solitude. I watch my granny’s eyes drift to her husband’s portrait above the television, I console her as she cries in the car on the way back from his favourite restaurant, and hold her hand as we sit in silence, collectively mourning the parts of ourselves that our partners will forever keep. We gorge ourselves on popcorn and watch Hallmark movies every night, no one there to tell us that two bags each is too much, or that every plot in these movies is the same. When I find her half-watching the local news about shootings and traffic accidents, I remind her that we can flip the channel to watch something more uplifting. “I forgot I can watch whatever I want, now there’s no man around holding the remote,” she replies.
My granny has always been an extremely proud Southern woman, who sticks to what she knows. There’s a schedule for every little thing during every little moment in every day. She gets her hair done every Friday morning at 8am sharp. She watches the weather religiously, updating me if there’s one-degree difference from the previous hour. She wears Gucci sunglasses and the gas meter on the car never goes below half a tank. It’s a strict regimen that offers me distraction from the echoing abyss in my chest, the nagging feeling, as I listen to the train roll through that little town at 4am each night, that I have, in fact, made the biggest mistake of my life.
I can’t sleep. The nightly popcorn soon turns into the only thing I eat all day. Two weeks in, I find that the isolation of moving 4,000 miles away from the support unit of my friends may have been a very bad decision. Their strained smiles echo in my reflection as I watch myself cry in the mirror, urging there to be a witness to my sorrow. In the mornings, I search for spots on my skin to pop so I can exorcise some part of my past self. The bags under my eyes become bluer, bulging their way through my glasses so that my granny pulls at my cheeks, urging my light to come back.
In Georgia, the way to get your light back is to “visit” with folks. Noticing my nagging despondency, my granny rounds her troops. The neighbour who takes out the trash for her every Tuesday night begins to stay until 10pm. The man who runs the pharmacy around the corner invites me to his store for coffee, pressing candy into my hand as if I’m still a little girl. The music minister from my granny’s church brings us lunch from the local Mexican restaurant, telling tales of his own grandchildren. Once the small talk dies down, they question me with a meridional diligence. Why don’t I like Trump? Why don’t I eat meat? Why ain’t I married yet? At first exhausting, these questions allow me to break down these fragments of my identity and piece them back together in a way that feels like the resurgence of the self. A self without a partner, without a missing piece, without the prying eyes of a ticking clock.
I immerse myself in the albums of Jenny Lewis, Julia Jacklin and Lomelda. Albums that are able to articulate what I have lost, what I have given up, what I am allowed to grieve despite it being my foot on the tarmac at the airport. I reread The Bell Jar and devour the work of Elena Ferrante. I get drunk on tequila shots at the local bar, where guns are displayed on belts like trophies and people still smoke indoors. Inhaling that smoke as I sing the songs of Alanis Morrisette and Avril Lavigne on the bar’s half broken karaoke machine, it creates a baptismal blanket that enables me to shed the skin of my old self, leaving it on the sticky floor along with dozens of discarded cigarette butts.
I go to a local yoga class, where – upon hearing my British accent – the middle-aged women making up most of the students stare at me like I’m a shiny new penny they stumbled upon on the street outside the gym. I take part in my first – and last – CrossFit class on an early Saturday morning, desperate to not puke in front of the teacher who’s egging me on to attempt just one more burpee. Despite the nausea and the stinging pain in my legs, I stumble back to my granny’s car, sweating out the remains of my grief. It’s only when I can’t sit down on a toilet seat the next day without wincing that I figure I maybe went a little too hard on the squatting.
Despite the strain, my newfound bravery soon rubs off on my granny. She begins to wear brighter colours and sing as she makes her morning coffee. The watertight schedule loosens, and we spend the afternoon hours on her front porch, basking in the sun a little too long and giggling at tales from her teenage years. Once a woman so obsessed with her weight, she starts eating ice cream at least twice a day, revelling at its sugary haven with wide-eyed wonder, like a child tasting birthday cake for the first time. We organise a DIY spa day at home, where she coos at the colour of her nails and insists we take a selfie with our dollar store face masks on. Noticing our flourishing new lease on life, gentlemen at the grocery store lower their hats to us as we walk by, with one insisting he buy us lunch. We politely decline, but that doesn’t stop my granny boasting about it to her church friends for several weeks.
Our relationship has moved from small talk and trying to regain blurred childhood memories to best friends. We have softened our generational stubbornness and separate routines to become whole. At this time, I discovered how pleasing it could be to search for a great deal in the coupon pull-out from the local paper. She discovered the joy in staying up a little later and splurging on a new pair of shoes now and again. We ate dinner at the same time every night, watching the new series of American Idol. We compiled weekly shopping lists and debated what to have for dinner each night. We napped during the golden hour and read in silence, occasionally squeezing each other’s hands. There was no need for strained conversation now.
Soon I was waving to neighbours like old friends. The restaurant around the corner knew my order before I even opened my mouth. I had coffee with the pharmacist every morning and after my final class, the local yoga teacher added me on Facebook just so we could keep in touch. I was invited to gaming nights at the library and found my favourite spot to sit and read at the park. Despite the alien surroundings, I felt more like myself than ever before. I was reminded that I could adapt and seek out the positive, even when I felt like I had stumbled several steps back to square one.
Living with my granny during such a tumultuous time for both of us taught me that it’s okay to want human connection. That striking it out alone doesn’t mean you have to be alone. That getting over a break-up doesn’t mean you have to wallow in your room until the early hours of the morning (but a little bit of that is necessary, in my opinion). That if you don’t want to go out and party, that’s okay too. It’s about the journey of rediscovering yourself and eating ice cream twice a day. It’s about watching whatever the hell you want on TV and striking up conversations with people you’d never normally talk to. It’s about taking risks, whether that means regretfully embarking on your first ever CrossFit class or ordering that vegetarian special.
When we said goodbye and I moved onto my second square – in this case, 800 miles north – there were no tears. Thankful for our time together, we silently acknowledged the leverage we had given each other to breathe in new life and new experiences. As I pulled out of her driveway, she sat down on her favourite rocking chair on the front porch to witness my departure. Inhaling this new life with apprehension, I rolled down my windows and watched my wing mirror reflect a waving cheerleader.