Family. Mom, dad, siblings. That's usually where my brain stops. When people ask about my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins I start feeling a little odd. I don't know how to talk about them. I don't really know them. It's hard being raised on a different continent than your extended family. I love my life in America, don't get me wrong. I love my friends here. I have a family. They just aren't my relatives. I also do love my extended family, but in a different way.
I've been jealous of so many of my friends for being close to their extended family. Family that they knew; cousins who came to visit over the summers. Some had grandparents that lived close. Lived with them, even. They were distraught when family members passed. I have extended family, yes. But I don't know them well, not enough that I can honestly say that I miss them frequently or that I even think about them. It's hard to admit that, but how can you miss people you don't really know? I feel like I can't justify it sometimes. It feels cold and disconnected. Maybe it isn't cold but it is definitely disconnected. Because that's what I am, I am disconnected from my extended family.
My parents are from South Africa and moved the the US right before I was born in 1990. I've lived in the US for most of my life. There was a brief year and a half where I lived in South Africa. I was 7, so I was at least able to make some memories that I still have. Visits after that were every other year and the last time I visited was when I was 16. Any visits before I was 7 I don't count – because I can't remember those. In total I think I've had 27 months with my extended family since I was 7 years old. During my visits I saw some of the family daily and some I just saw once. Of course this didn't really give me time to get to know many of them.
I was the family member that lived in the States. Everyone asked me the same questions, which I loved and hated. I loved it because I don't like small talk; I suck at it. So being asked the same things over and over gave me a chance to rehearse it. Sometimes I could even answer questions they didn't ask (because someone else asked, so I already had thought about it... kind of cheated). I hated it because I was telling everyone the same things and it wasn't really about me. I never really knew what to follow up with either. I'm not someone that finds asking questions easy. It's not that I'm not interested in knowing things, it's more that I don't know what I can or should ask. I don't feel comfortable prying into people's lives which is what questions feel like sometimes. Or I feel like I've been put on the spot and my mind goes blank.
The point is that I really don't know my extended family well. When my maternal grandfather died I was 10. I didn't know how to feel. I didn't really know him. I had just gotten back from visiting that summer, and it wasn't too long after my year and a half living in South Africa. But still, that wasn't enough time for me to form a bond that justified crying when I found out he was gone. In fact, I ended up crying because I wasn't sad enough. I cried for my family that knew him... that had a grandfather. I cried for the family that had a connection to someone that was gone.
I don't feel like I know what it's like to have grandparents. My maternal grandfather was really all I had to try and connect with as far as grandparents went. My paternal grandfather passed before I was born, paternal grandmother passed before I can remember anything, maternal grandmother is probably the one I spent the most time with but I didn't really get to know her at all. She passed when I was 16 but was almost fully paralyzed since I was 7. That was when I can say that I remember my extended family. Unfortunately that meant she couldn't really do much. She was there mentally, I could talk to her. But I'm not good at small talk with someone who can speak to me... So I never knew what to do or say around her. I settled with being present in the same room and hoped that was enough to connect.
So the one grandparent I feel like I knew and connected with the most was my maternal grandfather. I wasn't really phased by finding out he passed. Because... it didn't really change anything in my life.
I didn't see him regularly, I didn't think about him regularly. I was sad for my family that lived with him, saw him everyday and now wouldn't. I was sad for the family that could miss him. I was jealous even, but that leads to more confusion because why would you be jealous of someone who is grieving?
But also it makes sense, I guess. I was jealous that they had something to grieve. I very rarely have that reaction when I hear about family passing. Sometimes it's the only thing that I know about my family... it's the only updates I get really.
After my grandfather passed, any time I went back to South Africa to visit, I intentionally tried to remember everyone because I knew that some of those memories would be the last ones I had with them. I knew that someone that I saw this trip wouldn't be around the next time I came to visit. Eventually it started seeping into my thoughts and I didn't want to ask questions anymore because I was scared that someone I was going to ask about had passed. That happened a few times. It's easier to disconnect but there will always be an emptiness in me when I think about it.
It's really hard being the extended family that lives on another continent. Especially because there's 5 of us over here and at least a hundred family members that I have met and remember and their friends. It's really a lot to try and wrap your head around.
As technology has advanced its easier to connect with my family, no matter where they are. But what would I even start with? There's so much anxiety to reconnecting. I don't know what to mention, or not to mention. Sometimes I don't even remember names (I've always been bad with names.) I remember faces and how someone carried themselves. So it's harder for me to start connecting my old memories with family when I talk to them online.
It just sucks. But I've built a family of friends here. It's not the same, but it's better than nothing.
To my relatives: I remember all of my time with you. I might not remember everyone's names, but I remember your faces. I remember interactions. I cherish my memories because I don't know if I will ever get more. I don't know if I will see some of you again. I've had to come to terms with how grief works for me, I don't get to be there... but I do think of you. I always enjoyed my times when I visited, I'd like to be able to visit again but I'm not sure if I ever will. But I'll never forget the time that I have been able to spend with you, even if it was brief.