A woman wearing a shirt with a college emblem and her grandfather with Alzehimer’s smile at each other. His thought bubble shows the same emblem as her shirt.

How Jobs, Hobbies, and Schools Became Identities

It was always extremely important to me to spend time with my grandparents. At a young age, my mom instilled that this was important and modeled that behavior. I can’t tell you how many times we kids were loaded up to go to Grams for a cup of tea. But, I couldn’t foresee that I would be in college during a crucial time in my Poppop’s life, and thus, without the ability to reinforce who I was on a regular basis.

Labels can become an identity

As a result, the fact that I went to Penn State became a distinguishing factor for Poppop with me. When he got on the phone with me he would ask me about college and “How’s JoePa doing?” It became a cornerstone of our relationship.

I noticed he did this quite a bit, developing ways to remember us based on crucial parts of our identities at the time. My cousin, Tommy, has had a number of jobs in his life, but the one that stuck with Pop was as an operator. So, until he lost his speech, Tommy was “the operator” even after he wasn’t. My brother, Joey, I joke, could wrestle before he could read, he was always “the wrestler.”

Remembering grandchildren

It feels both endearing, to know that a part of you stuck with him somewhere in his brain or that he worked hard to keep/protect certain things, like identifying characteristics of his grandchildren, for as long as possible. Anyone who knows me well would tell you that I had no problem being known as the Penn State girl — in fact, I have a bumper sticker that labels me as such. But, to my Poppop, the man who nestled me when I was a baby, the man who would pretend to smash my fingers when I splayed them out before him, the man who filmed every minute of my 6-year-old self cheerleading alongside a football game, the man who taught me how to carve and sand and stain and woodwork, for his embodiment of me to be dwindled down to a phrase in that man’s mind can hurt a little bit.

One more for the road

For my part, I indulged him. I told him about my shenanigans and the football team whenever he asked. I referred to Tommy, Joey, and others by their labels. I got over to see him as often as a distance of 300 miles and a priority on my education could allow. I was rewarded for this consistency with brief moments of awesomeness I wouldn’t trade for the world.

One day, when Pop was totally out of it, not speaking much or engaging with those around him, I belted out a laugh that, I’m told, inspires laughter in others and rings through even noise-canceling headphones. As I did, he looked up, we locked eyes and I knew that he knew exactly who I was at that moment. I’ll take the “loud laugher” label any day.

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