Though I was born into a large family, I didn’t really grow up around them. Those who hadn’t died by the time I was born had left, and relationships with those who remained were either non-existent or tumultuous. For the majority of her final years, my grandmother lived with us. It’s no secret that our relationship was nothing short of volatile. The ins and outs of our twenty-six years together aren’t relevant here, but it’s important for me to say that a great deal of hurt had built up in that time. That hurt settled into my lungs, my stomach, my heart… and, now she’s gone, there it will remain. Unresolved. I know there’s a possibility it will never heal, at least not completely. That kind of hurt scars and old wounds reopen. But one of the promises I made to myself when this shiny, new decade began, was to forgive and leave the past where it belongs – behind me.
Earlier this week, my mum asked me to burn some old paperwork for her. I knew it was more than what our small little shredder could handle, but never did I think it would be giant black bags filled to the brim. Zip done up to the chin, I sat in the garden after the sun had set and began. It didn’t take me long to realise the bag I had chosen to begin with belonged to my grandmother. Plans for a renovation on a house long since sold. Invoices from my uncle’s business. Letters to and from various people regarding the death of my grandfather. I read each and every word. Dates. Times. Addresses.
I love hearing stories about those who lived before me, though they’re not often spoken about in my family. My parents are the exception. Because of them, I know my grandfather built the railroad between Uganda and Kenya and was an electrician for Scotland Yard in England. I know my uncle used to sit on the roof of their family home during the war, watching bombs strike in the distance. And while I grew up with the bad – the arguments, the distance, the lost years – I had stories to keep a connection to my family very much alive.
Reading everything fed that connection but burning them allowed me to say goodbye. Goodbye to the child in me that is angry at the world for not being given the same close-knit family everyone else had; goodbye to the pain and heartache this family has suffered that I have had to, often unknowingly, deal with; and, most of all, say goodbye to her. To the grandmother I wished I had, the grandmother I never knew, and the grandmother I was left with. And, with every piece of ash that floated out of the burn-bin, with every slice of grief and hurt and anger that I chipped away from the face she wore with me, I could finally forgive her enough to breathe.
Now, in 2020, I can put it all in the past, where it’s meant to be, and step into a new decade with an open heart filled with love. Yes, that hurt is likely to resurface one day – to bubble up when I least expect it – but for the most part, I can begin to form new relationships with my family. Unsullied by the actions of others. Untainted by the past.
And that is the most important thing of all.