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I had a biological and an adopted grandma. Both gave me the courage to live life fully

This First Person piece is by Vaidehee Lanke, a University of Saskatchewan graduate studying at McGill University. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ 

It was a chilly winter morning in Montreal when I got the text.

“Betty is dying.”

Instantly, tears gathered in my eyes and, without regard for the fact that I was in a library, spilled over uncontrollably. I was about to lose another grandmother. 

My grandmothers, Betty and Shobha, were one of my life’s greatest gifts. I like to think they would have been good friends if they had a chance to meet.

Shoba was one of the very first people to hold me. Betty and I met when I was 13.

Betty lived on a farm outside of North Battleford, Sask., and Shobha lived an entire ocean away in India. I had the honour of calling both women grandmother, and both have taught me a lot about love and grief. 

My aaji, a pillar of strength 

Nine years ago before Betty died, I learned my beloved aaji (the Marathi word for grandmother) had passed away. It was the opposite weather: a pleasantly warm afternoon in Saskatoon. 

Friends circled in and out of our home in the days to come, offering their condolences. There were many phone calls from India with words meant to reassure. But, as if we were on a timer, my parents, sister and I felt an unexplainable pressure to move forward.

Three children sit on and beside a white-haired woman in a green sari.
Lanke, far right, sits with her grandmother, her sister and her cousin. Her grandmother was a pillar of strength for the family. (Submitted by Vaidehee Lanke)

Even several weeks later, my dad would choke up recalling his mother. My mother’s eyes would fill in Aaji‘s memory. I spent countless nights with the grief spilling onto my pillow cover.

For years, as we came to terms with the fact Aaji was gone, my family did this dance of quiet mourning. We tried with all our might to move forward, but in the mundane and extraordinary moments in life, we would feel her presence.

And it’s unsurprising, because simply put, Aaji was incredible. She was a fiercely independent woman who was determined to live on her own terms. 

After the passing of my grandfather when my dad was only 17, Aaji refused to listen to all those who told her she would now have to be dependent on extended family. 

Instead, she took her husband’s modest pension, bought a small piece of land, and rebuilt her life brick by brick and that of her kids from nothing to everything. It was Aaji’s unparalleled ability to financially plan, through seemingly endless hurdles and stifling gender norms, that endlessly inspired me. She encouraged my dad to pursue higher education — a dream that was thought to be unreachable because of their family’s financial situation at the time. 

That very gift of education would eventually bring my family to Canada and connect me with the other matriarch I would come to call grandma.

A second grandmother to me

Shortly after Aaji passed away, a close friend invited my family to Betty’s farm in North Battleford. 

Despite having never met us before, Betty embraced my sister and me as if we were her grandchildren, and immediately launched into a discussion with my mother about her garden.

With unmatched hospitality, Betty opened her home and hearts to us. Over the years, she took us Saskatoon berry picking and always insisting we take plenty of bags back home. She cooked with love for us, and her chicken and potatoes is one of my favourite dishes. 

Two East Indian sisters link arms with each other and a seated white-haired woman.
Lanke, centre, puts her arm around Betty, left, and her sister, Darshana. (Submitted by Vaidehee Lanke)

With an enthusiasm I will forever miss, Betty would always ask my sister and I about our lives, cataloging all the details away for our next conversation.

Now, despite both my grandmothers having passed on, I still feel their presence around me.

When I bite into a sweet besan ladoo, I see Aaji sitting for hours on the kitchen floor, labouring over the flour to get it to a perfect texture that melts instantly in my mouth. When I feel my patience running thin, I remember Betty’s never-ending optimism and the power of her warm smile. When I feel insecure about my height or broad shoulders, I remember how much pride with which Aaji carried her five feet eight inches.

In all these moments, I remember my grandmothers with grief, but also with joy and immense respect. Aaji and Betty’s deaths taught me that remembering someone is not a sign of denying the truth, but a path to move forward. 

A white-haired woman sits at a table with a pink flower in front of her.
Betty welcomed strangers into her home and made them feel like family, writes Lanke. (Submitted by Vaidehee Lanke)

My grandmothers were some of my greatest teachers. Perhaps in their deaths, they taught me this one last important lesson — to accept grief. I think this is their way of telling me that grief is an important part of life, a process that we must embrace and work through, individually and collectively. 

Together, their memory and lessons, give my heart the much needed courage to live the life they so dearly loved.

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