Updated: Mar 12, 2021
My childhood wasn’t easy. I was raised by a single parent and my immediate family was far from traditional; however, the family dynamic I was born into gave me an invaluable gift: the opportunity to know my great-grandmother.
Her name was Frances Guterbock, but I called her GG-Mami ("GG" for great and grand, and "Mami" meaning "mom" in German), and she was the most extraordinary human being.
For most of my life, I’ve resented the difficult familial situation I was born into. My mom got pregnant at 22 by a married man who didn’t want to be a part of the picture –– even in a small way.
From the moment I was born, I was denied the privilege of a traditional family dynamic.
My mom didn’t have a “normal” childhood either. She was an only child until she was 10-and-a-half, when my aunt Rose was born. My grandparents had an extremely unhappy marriage and, three years after Rose came into the world, they went through an ugly divorce. My grandmother battled severe mental illness her entire life, and the result was a real-life “Parent Trap” scenario. My mom, the much older of the two, stayed with my grandfather and my aunt went to live with my grandmother.
When my mom was 16, my grandfather met another woman, Bernice. Two years later, they were married. Since the relationship between my mom, her dad, and her soon-to-be step-mom was strained, my grandpa thought it would be best for everybody if my mom moved out at 17.
My mom was on her own from this point, working in the restaurant industry to pay her way through college, and she became pregnant with me at 22.
At the same time, Bernice also became pregnant with my aunt Alex. When I say at the same time, I mean AT THE SAME TIME. My aunt Alex was born just three weeks before me, and, a few years later, my aunt Halina was born.
Alex and I as kids
There’s no other way to say it: having two young children AND a grandchild of the same age was embarrassing for my grandparents.
**Note: Bernice, who I call Bunny, and my grandfather, who I call Pop-pop, are the only real grandparents I have known. They are both incredibly intelligent, interesting, and wonderful people. Despite the difficult circumstances of my mother’s and my own childhood, they did the best they could at the time. I truly believe that.**
Due to the shame and discomfort surrounding this family dynamic, my half-aunts and I were taught to call each other cousins in public. At the time, it was justified by being “easier to explain,” but the truth is that my grandpa wanted to enjoy being a better father to his second family without having to be a grandfather publicly just yet. Being a grandparent to me was a painful reminder of his damaged relationship with his daughter. Her mistakes were partly his own.
This was painful to me growing up and remains painful to me now. It wasn’t until my aunt Rose had kids that my grandpa started to accept his role. Again, this isn’t to say he’s a bad person. I love my grandpa very much, and he’s one of my favorite people. I can’t imagine growing up without him.
Within the past year or so, I’ve had a few major #realizations (hence the theme of this blog) and I’ve learned to appreciate what makes my family different. Although my family isn’t “normal,” in hindsight, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The infamous lie of Alex and Halina being my cousins has some truth to it. Yes, my aunt Halina is a sophomore in college and I’m about to graduate. But, they were the only other family members I had growing up who were my age. I would see them at holidays, birthdays, and graduations. So, what's the difference? I feel lucky to have grown up WITH my aunts and to have had the opportunity to spend time with my grandpa before he has to walk with a cane or forgets my name ... Wait, he just forgets everyone’s name every once in a while. It’s not personal.
“Alex? No, Rose? No, Halina? Maia!” – real quote from my Pop-pop at some point or another ...
I wouldn’t trade those memories for the world. I’ll never forget going to see the White Sox play the Nationals in D.C. with my Pop-pop and watching Stephen Strasburg pitch, forcing at least one bite of his famous herring salad at Christmas, watching him sing barbershop, or attempt to swim butterfly at the neighborhood pool. That’s my Pop-pop.
My aunt Rose’s kids may have a more traditional family and may never experience the secondhand embarrassment or shame that was thrust upon me, but they also won’t get to know our grandfather as I know him.
On Halloween in 1949, my great-grandparents, grandfather, and great-uncle emigrated to Chicago, IL, and this is where my Pop-pop grew up.
My great-grandparents were German Jews and Holocaust survivors. Hans Gustav Guterbock, my great-grandfather, was a world-famous Hittitologist and archaeologist. Born and trained in Germany, his career was ended with the rise of the Nazis because of his Jewish heritage, and he was forced to resettle in Turkey. (He decoded and translated the ancient Hittite language. Seriously –– look this man up! He was so cool!).
My great-grandfather died in 2000, but my GG-Mami stayed in Chicago until just before she passed. She finished her life in Crozet, VA, to be close to my grandpa and the family.
My GG-Mami was the most incredible woman. She was musically inclined and loved to sing and play the piano. She was also an academic, and in a time where women didn’t have the same freedoms or respect, she raised children and helped my great-grandfather continue his work after an illness left him blind for the last years of his life.
While she was in Chicago, my mom and I would visit her at least once a year. She was one of the only people who supported my mom when she became pregnant with me and they shared a special bond.
She was an old-fashioned German woman who radiated elegance and old-world class. My mom and I would do the typical touristy things while in Chicago, but we mainly spent time with GG-Mami. Sometimes, I would just sit around and ask her random questions such as “What’s your favorite color?" and "What’s your favorite animal?” Other times I would read her stories, like James and The Giant Peach and the family favorite, Amanda.
One day, while reading to her, she got up and walked to her bedroom. When she came back, she handed me her engagement ring –– a round setting of blue lapis lazuli surrounded by hand-cut diamonds. I was 11 years old and utterly shocked. My aunts, Alex and Halina, as well as Pop-pop and Bunny, were on this trip too … But GG-Mami chose me to pass down her most prized possession to.
It’s an honor I’m unsure I’ll ever feel worthy of. The matriarch of our family blessed me that day, but it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gotten to know her. The privilege was all mine.
I’ll never forget the way she would say “how charming” in an oddly German and British accent as she looked at the pictures in the books I read, her love for cats (especially black ones), or that her favorite color was pink. Because I was blessed to know her, I feel blessed to see some of her in me.
Growing up, I focused on the family relationships I didn’t have – the ones that most people do. Now I see and cherish the ones I do have (and had), the ones that most people don’t.