Over the course of the last year, my three-year-old son has befriended an imaginary person. You may think that doesn’t seem too unusual; I mean, many preschool-aged children go through periods of having an imaginary friend. This, however, is no run-of-the-mill imaginary person. This is the woman my son calls “Grandma.“
“Grandma” sounds like an extraordinary woman, to hear my son talk of her—which is constantly. Initially, my husband and I chalked this up as a temporary phase, and, as most phases go, we didn’t expect this one would last too long. First, we made sure that he wasn’t referencing one of his actual grandmothers, which he assured us he was not. See, we don’t really have any “Grandmas” in our family. We have Nana and Nanny and Grammy and Gram and Mimi and Mamaw, but no Grandma. We even thought he could be talking about my aunt, who is basically another grandmother to our children. But he was adamant that she was not his pretend “Grandma”; she was his aunt, and they weren’t the same person.
We finally relented on our interrogation of “Grandma’s” identity and accepted that she must be imaginary. And in the weeks and months to follow, our temporary-phase theory was disproven as we continued to hear of “Grandma’s” exceeding greatness. She would quickly become a topic of daily conversation, and pretty soon, even extended family members knew all about her.
One day, my aunt (the one who is like a grandmother to them) came to watch the kids while I slept after a night shift. She and the kids played downstairs together until I woke later that afternoon. When I did, she told me that our imaginative little man had identified “Grandma” as her mother—my grandmother.
While flipping through photos on her phone with our oldest son, they came across a snapshot of a photograph of her mother, and she had asked him, “Do you know who that is?” My oldest shrugged and said he didn’t. But our three-year-old excitedly popped over to see who they were talking about and exclaimed, “That’s my Grandma!”
“No, your ‘Grandma’ is pretend. She isn’t real,” our oldest retorted.
“That is my ‘Grandma’—my pretend ‘Grandma’! That’s her!” Our persistent toddler insisted.
Knowing our two sons and how brothers feel they need to argue (about everything!), I’m sure this argument progressed to the point where my aunt had to put the photo away and divert their attention to Legos or Play-Doh.
Well, that may seem like coincidence; I mean, technically, she is his grandma—his great-grandma. And, I would agree with you, except for a few key details. Remember how I said we have no “Grandmas”? Well, we don’t, but she was “Grandma.” Also, prior to this day, my children had never seen a photo of my grandmother. I can say this with absolute certainty because the only photos I have of her are stored in boxes from before having met my husband. Boxes that haven’t been opened in over eight years and have been buried deeper and deeper with multiple moves and relocations.
I haven’t dug the photos out or spoken of her with the kids because, to be honest, until recently, it was too painful.
As we arrived back in America after our honeymoon, my husband and I began responding to texts and listening to the voicemails that we’d accumulated during our week in paradise. The first message I listened to was one from my uncle, informing me of my grandmother’s passing. As the plane taxied to the terminal, I sat quietly in my window seat crying tears of sadness, pain, shame, and regret.
We had not seen one another in many, many years and the reasons for our separation were in an instant nullified, void of any excusable justification. In the matter of a 60-second voicemail, I had no more defenses of our estrangement , just incredibly painful and crushing regret.
Have you ever felt that pain? The pain of knowing you could have or should have changed the outcome of what is now a most regrettable and unchangeable consequence? Or maybe you are walking through a situation right now that you know in your heart you will grow to regret. Can I tell you something? There were no excusable justifications. Absolutely none. Whether we say we don’t have enough time, we live too far away, that person hurt us, we hurt that person, or any other reason we rationalize in our minds, they don’t hold up once it’s too late. Because once that person leaves this world behind, that’s all you will be left with—no more excuses, just pain and regret.
Until recently, this was my memory of her. When I would think of her, I would immediately have those horribly painful feelings, so you can see why my kids would have no idea that the smiling, beautiful woman in the picture that day was, in fact, “Grandma.”
My aunt and I laughed about it and kind of joked that maybe our little man’s imaginary “Grandma” wasn’t quite so imaginary. But, we excused it away as a kids-will-be-kids moment.
A few weeks later, I was home with my wild pint-sized trio and feeling intensely overstimulated. The kids were yelling, giggling, singing, fighting, and being anything but quiet. The sounds of Disney Junior in the background seemed deafening, and I had finally had all I could take.
“Okay, no more TV today,” I declared as I started surfing the channel guide for the music stations. “Something calm,” I thought; “We need something calm.” I settled on Channel 801, “Big Band.” I wasn’t sure it would be calming, but it would be one less voice to listen to, and at that moment, I would take it.
Funny thing happened after that; my kids calmed down. They didn’t just kind of calm down—all three climbed up on the couch with a bunch of books and started reading together. Let me just say, this does not happen in our home; our kids go full speed, all day long and only stop when they’ve run out of gas. At that moment, I decided Channel 801 would stay on for the rest of the day, and maybe longer, if it would buy me some peace & quiet.
Later in the afternoon, the kids had gone to the other room to play, and I found myself at the kitchen sink washing dishes—big band music still playing in the background. And that’s when a song came on that struck me like an arrow. It was one of her songs, a song I had heard coming from my grandmother’s kitchen many years ago. It hadn’t even resonated with me when I’d chosen the station that morning, but that was her music. I stood there at the sink, washing dishes and sobbing tears into the soapy water. Only this time, they weren’t tears of shame or regret. They were tears of healing. Tears of relief. Tears of grace.
Since that day, I’ve discovered that I love big band music—it calms me during the craziness of life, defends my brain against stimulation overload, and occasionally still works to calm the three pedal-to-the-metal wild ones. In the days since, I’ve also continued to be reminded of her often—a random late night watching “Meet Me in Saint Louis” on TCM, making homemade bread and the aroma that fills my home smelling just like her kitchen used to, and, of course, talking to my little man about his “Grandma” and knowing how they would have adored one another.
Sometimes the wounds that take the longest to heal are the ones we’ve inflicted upon ourselves. Why is it that we are often more willing to readily forgive others but continue nursing the wounds we created by refusing to extend ourselves the same grace God affords us every day? My son’s “Grandma,” however real or imaginary, has helped to heal a part of my heart I thought would always be broken. Maybe it is coincidence that my son identified her as “Grandma,” or maybe it was a sign from God that it was time for me to recover. I choose to believe the latter.
As I continue to see reflections of her in my life, memories that I had lost—or subconsciously severed in an attempt at self-preservation—have begun to surface. Only now, I welcome them. Because of grace, those memories no longer pierce my wounds making them deeper and more painful; now, they are the only soothing remedy for my continued healing. Even as I am writing this, I can feel her warm hug, I can smell the bar of soap in her bathroom (she always had bar soap), I can taste the world’s best sugar cookies, I can see her leaned over the large dining table carefully cutting out a McCall’s pattern, and I can hear big band music coming from the kitchen.
Friend, if I can offer you one bit of encouragement, I’d tell you that if you are suffering from self-inflicted wounds—as I was—to start the healing process, turn to the only One with the power to heal all wounds, as we are told in Psalm 147:3 NIV
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
Only by grace,