As a child I spent every weekend with my Grandma. We played board games, feasted on perfectly spiced daals, and wasted hours sat beside each other watching far too much children’s TV. Her house in Birmingham was a sanctuary, and she felt safe. But, despite the weekly cycle of visits, and our obvious affection for one another; there was something that brought distance, a language barrier that kept us just a little too far apart.
My Grandma came to England in the 1960s. Aged 23, she left her life in Pakistan behind for a house with no bathroom or heating, in hope of gifting her three young children with the best education possible. “Knowledge is the greatest of powers”, my Grandad used to say. In trade, she gave up everything that was familiar. Her home, a sense of belonging, the ability to communicate. “I was completely unprepared”, she’d tell her children years later. She set out for a new life in Britain, with not a single word of English on her lips.
Sometimes, I think about the things I’d like to ask her if we had the luxury of free flowing speech. What was her childhood like? What makes her angry?
As the years have passed, she’s picked up words and phrases – more than enough to get by, but it’s still not completely natural. We can have some conversation, but parts are broken. Meanings, lost in translation. Too often, silence, filled with smiles and nods. I get frustrated, unable to express myself. I feel guilty that I never bothered to learn her native tongue. I speak slowly, pointing at things, in a poor attempt to offer her direction. Sighing, finally, defeated that my words are lost in the space between us.
Sometimes, I think about the things I’d like to ask her if we had the luxury of free flowing speech. What was her childhood like? What makes her angry? What are her political views? And the smaller things – the things you’re supposed to know about a person you’re close to. What her favourite book or song is, whether she prefers the summer to the winter, the things that make her laugh.
“It’s the unspoken things that have formed our bond. It is the ability to eat a meal comfortably in silence and just enjoy each other’s presence.”
A few years ago, a friend asked me about my relationship with her and I found it difficult to explain. “You’re close, but you’ve never actually had a long conversation?”, she grilled, confused. I get it – how could we have spent so much time together when so little has been shared between us? But it’s the unspoken things that have formed our bond.
It is the ability to eat a meal comfortably in silence and just enjoy each other’s presence. The places we’ve been, and people we’ve met along the way. The days, weeks and months spent side by side, smiling. It’s the acts of kindness. The way she continued to brush my hair as I kicked and screamed as a child. All of the food she cooked for me. The gifts we’ve exchanged. The attempts to talk on the phone, despite it all.
It is strange to think about what we’d be like if we were able to communicate with language, but I’m confident our feelings for each other would be the same. Even with the constant confusion, misunderstandings, and conversation gaps, I feel lucky to have a grandmother who has always been so present in my life. There are very few people I know who have had the blessing of spending as much time with their grandma as I have. She is someone, I know, who will always want to see me. Who relishes just being in my company, however quiet that company might be.
“I can think of so many ways she has shown me love over the years. I have never actually needed to hear the words come out of her mouth.”
When you remove language from a relationship, other things become important. Your actions have a much greater significance. The things you do together have more weight. Even though we’ve never spoken at length, that doesn’t mean we don’t have strong feelings or lasting memories. She was there when I said my first word. There, packing a large bag of spices as I left for university. There, every weekend without fail, with an itinerary of activities to keep me entertained. I can think of so many ways she has shown me love over the years. I have never actually needed to hear the words come out of her mouth.
There are times when I wish I could do more to be there for her verbally. I couldn’t offer her enough words of support when my grandad died. I can’t say I’m there to listen if she ever wants to talk. But I like to think she knows I’d want to be. It is easy to give up on relationships with family when things are difficult, to find reasons to avoid or overlook your loved ones. But, even with the constant barriers not sharing a language has brought, she’s never done that with me. We have a way of making light of the problems. To laugh at all the misinterpretation and mess ups, and appreciate the other person, just for trying. Our love is not shown through what we say to each other, but what we do together – and some things just don’t need to be said, anyway.
Anya is a television researcher and freelance writer from Birmingham. She is passionate about diversifying the media and is unashamedly reality tv obsessed. @anya_ryan