What I Learned When I Put My Grandma in Front of the Camera

It must be the timing of life, but documenting our family stories and elders seem to be in more need than ever. Or maybe we, in this generation, are just older now so it’s more relevant.

I’ve lost all the elders in my life that I didn’t realize I’d have to say goodbye to one day, and all I have left is my grandmother. My love for her, is one that has especially grown with the lost of every loved one out of pain for the things I didn’t do for them.

For my grandma’s 77th, I wanted to change that. I wanted to finally start everything I always wanted to do, everything I said I would do “later” when I had “time.”

Well, time is not coming. And it is not staying.

So I did my best to have her time and attention for the day, pampering her up and setting up the camera to store these moments with her.

I had a list of questions I was ready to ask because I don’t know when she will lose interest or when I will have the time again. So I gathered the things I wanted to ask most, and saved the rest of another day to come.

What I thought I could do, was have my grandmother share with me the little girl I didn’t know of, the little girl who’d become a woman–the woman before becoming my grandfather’s wife and the mother of my 10 uncles and aunts. What I thought I could do, was empower my grandmother to speak of herself, as a person, an individual, someone who was proud of themselves. What I thought I could do, was allow her to reminisce of all the happy memories in her life. What I thought I could truly do, was be the vessel for my grandmother to share the story of who she is; a woman beyond just the grandmother we know.

What started with a smile as appreciation for the love of her granddaughter asking, quickly dimmed into the almost look of terror and tears.


My parents attempted to redirect the interview, but I already knew. I stopped them. I set my list of questions down. And I let her go on.

Because I soon realized what was happening.

I had put a woman who has no idea of the modern concept of an interview in front of a camera, when such a thing is what she associated as an elder’s last words before death. I had uncovered a woman whose eyes never looked so deep and afraid before. I had unarmed a woman overflowing with her last wishes because she knew this would be a video for us to look back on just like the one of grandpa she said. I had unsilenced a woman whose tears were speaking loudly to the world of all the pain she’s never once spoken about because she’s never known how.

This was a woman who only knew obedience to her parents who were the judges of whether she could be wanted out of her 15 siblings. This was a woman who was sold to a man who never loved her, but loved her younger sister, which in turn, robbed them both of happiness. This was a little girl who was forced to become a woman before she ever wanted to or knew how. This was a woman who had 13 children, already outliving 4 of them, including her husband. And with the passing of that husband, this was a woman whose life purpose died with him.

This was a woman whose life was never once hers. And here I was, for the first time in her life, making her speak of it, when she’s only known how to make it through by never looking back. Here I was, asking her to speak of herself, when she has never known a self.

And when you ask someone to reflect who has never known to question life, to question self, to have a choice, you will be given a reflection of their pain and sorrow.

With it, came my pain and sorrow for the shame of my naivety, in thinking of what I could do. But with that, humility for the growth my grandma instilled with me. The preciousness of that moment only she could share with me.

It was an incredible experience, that had I not found the courage to just do, I would’ve never known what could happen when you put an elder in front of a camera. I would’ve never known how unpredictable it can be. And I would’ve never known the beauty of just letting them be and not needing to be more, but simply being there, is all they could ask for. I would’ve never known how my grandmother felt about her life, her children, her grandchildren, me specifically, and most of all, I would’ve never known how much my grandmother needed this moment as much as I.

I believe elders are some of the strongest warriors in our lives. The generations of pain they embody, the tragic memories only they know, the wisdom, dedication, and hard work that knows you just have to pull through. I believe they are the carriers of our history, but that we the youth are the gatekeepers between our past and future.

There are things I wish for my grandma, but I know she cannot reach in this lifetime. For I would have to undo all the experiences of her life.

But the best thing I can do, is remember her. Remember her now, and remember her after. Because that’s one of the things that hurts her most: is being forgotten.

And I encourage all the loved ones out there to do so. Because I know what it feels like to live a life of regret for all the things you couldn’t do.

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