Grandma, by choice

Journalist: Ramil Zamanov

Photographer: Chichek Bayramli

Edition: Journey of aging
Topic: Women Elderly

Everyone dreams of having a grandma like Gulshan—she is sweet and caring, always ready to help. 

While she is not my biological grandma, Gulshan has been my chosen grandma for as long as I can remember. From the age of three or four, until I left Azerbaijan as a young adult, I spent summers at her apartment near the Caspian Sea and used to see her frequently throughout the year.

She always tried to make me happy without spoiling me, and all my friends loved her, too, since she was forever taking us to the beach, baking sweets, and even helping our families buy school supplies every September. She was an angel for the entire neighborhood.

Over the course of 20 years, we spent a lot of time together and those visits cemented our close relationship. But after I moved abroad, we started to drift apart. Gulshan, who is 69, struggled to use the computer and digital communication, like skype, felt foreign and complicated. 

So after I left, we stopped talking every day. Instead, her neighbors helped her speak with me over the internet once a month. While we were able to stay in touch, Gulshan didn’t feel comfortable speaking over the computer. It was a poor substitute for our old relationship.

Then the pandemic struck. As Azerbaijan went into lockdown, and Gulshan went into self-isolation, I worried about her and felt guilty for not being there when she needed support. 

As a child, I had always counted on her, especially when I was sick. Once, when I was small, I had a fever when I was staying at her place near the sea. All night long, she carried me from one side of the apartment to the other, comforting me and trying to find a cooler spot where I could sleep. She stayed up all night with me, making herself sick in the process. 

That was classic Gulshan. She always cares for others more than herself. Even in the middle of a pandemic, she was more worried about how others were faring then her own health. That concern pushed her to finally embrace the computer and online calls.

Over the course of months of isolation, Gulshan, who previously only used a computer for our monthly calls, decided to reach out to those she loved virtually, to check up on them and stay connected. That was a challenge for a 69-year-old woman—but she did it, creating, in natural Gulshan-style, a wonderful silver lining to the pandemic darkness. 

Over the weeks and months, Gulshan got used to using the computer and camera and, eventually, something like our old rapport started to reemerge. In some ways it was even better: now I could speak with Gulshan as one adult to another, and learn more about her and her life before I met her.

Most of our conversations were naturally about the pandemic. But at times I got glimpses of how she lived as a young woman, the challenges she faced and how they influenced her.

Gulshan is my grandmother’s sister. She was born in Zangilan, in southwest Azerbaijan and married when she was 18. But her husband died early when she was 36. “In the 1990s, it was hard. After the fall of socialism, we did not know what to do.  I lost my husband and raised our children alone,” she told me.

“Everyone lost their jobs… The streets were not safe anymore… Bread was not available in most of the shops… This change of political systems brought many uncertainties to our lives. Before even understanding what was happening, we had the first Nagorno-Karabakh War…At that time, we did not know what war was. Our elders had experienced World War II but I and many middle-aged women did not know what to do. We did not have any solutions and we were hopeless in those days.”

Gulshan said that, in some ways, the Covid pandemic reminded her of those days of the crisis, although the virus was like an “invisible enemy.”

“I have seen worse situations in my life which I already mentioned. In comparison with them, COVID has been a warning for me,” she said, noting that there were no shortages in the shops and she received her pension on time.

Instead, the pandemic had an emotional toll.

She noted that at first, she and her family struggled to take the pandemic very seriously. But with time, it became clear it was dangerous, especially to people her age. Gulshan has spent the past year largely alone in her apartment in Taghiyev district.

“My family advised me to leave them because they were worried about me. They went to their jobs and met other relatives. Therefore, the best option for me was to leave alone,” she said.

“However, the biggest challenge was human relations… Nobody visited me during this period because they were also taking the precautions… they needed to follow the current restrictions not only for themselves but also for me,” she said.

The lack of company was a shock for Gulshan, who has spent her life surrounded by neighbors, friends and relatives. 

“Before COVID, all the neighbours were coming together… We were drinking tea, eating some sweets, talking about our problems, helping each other. Basically, we were socializing together. This is not an option for us, anymore,” she said. 

 “I talked to my relatives and friends over the phone to keep in touch… However, it was not the same… I and many others felt isolated and lonely. This isolation had a purpose but still, it is not that easy for many people like me to be isolated at this age.”

Isolation also meant she did not have anyone with her when she started to feel sick. Luckily, a neighbor was able to help her, bringing groceries and medicine to her door when she needed fresh supplies. Gulshan was loath to worry any of her family about her health—she didn’t take a test to see if she had Covid-19, but she said she experienced the classic symptoms.

“I tried to not to share this information with my family. It was better not to make them worry. However, I heard a lot of neighbours died in my neighbourhood and I was a bit panicky,” she said.

“I recovered in January and now I feel healthy again. I am so happy that I did not infect my family with this disease.”

Today Gulshan is eager to be vaccinated, and return to her old life—visits with friends, time with neighbors, life with family nearby. Personally, however, I hope one consequence of the pandemic remains with us. 

Covid pushed Gulshan to overcome her apprehension of computers and to realize that physical distance is not an obstacle to communicate with those you love. 

Once again she became a regular, loving presence in my life, offering me care and support during the difficult months.   It is impossible to know what the future will bring but I hope to stay connected with my chosen grandma, the tiny screen offering a virtual window into her life and a digital path for her love. 

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