Staying close to relatives who are far away

Yesterday was Canadian Thanksgiving so we had a holiday! I’m glad we have a day that we can reflect on what we’re thankful for, and also spend time with family. In these last four years our family has experienced some big changes: five of the six of us have moved out of the family home, leaving my mom on her own for the first time in—she has never lived alone! So being able to spend this Thanksgiving together as a family is a gift I don’t take for granted at all.

Even as we enjoyed being together, the weekend was tinged by memories of my grandmother (my father’s mom) who died earlier in the week, on October 8. She was such a lady: she looked delicate as a bird and cared about her appearance—she was still wearing nail polish on her toes the last time I checked, which was three years ago. Despite being so slender and frail looking, she still managed to climb the steep flight of stairs in her home well into her 90s. She hasn’t had an easy life, losing her two youngest children, two of her grandchildren, and two stepsons, yet to me she had incredible amounts of inner strength that allowed her to bear this sorrow. Despite dealing with the things that come with old age such as loss of hearing, she was quite aware of what was going on, even when people had discounted her as old and unaware. She was a wise woman.

She lived an incredibly long life, so I’m not so sad that she passed away; but I so feel for my parents who were close to her—as mother and as mother-in-law. I’m glad my sister’s wedding earlier this year meant our family but most especially my dad got to see his mom less than six months ago. He knew he may not have another opportunity so he made it a priority to spend time with her…he hadn’t seen her in six and a half years!

I didn’t know my grandmother very well—this is one of the huge downfalls of living so far away. When we lived in Nigeria when I was between the ages of three and six, our family would visit her and my grandfather every other weekend. In these last 28(!) years I’ve seen her on four visits to Nigeria which I’m thankful for, but there was never a chance to really get to know her as an adult or ask her about her life—we were always rushing around trying to visit various family members, and as I mentioned her hearing wasn’t the best and my accent was too strong for any of my Yoruba to make sense to her I think. What I did do on several occasions was sit with her in a comfortable silence, nodding occasionally if she would say something; this will be my memory of her.

We first visited Nigeria after living in Canada for nine years. I was 14 years old and I was looking forward reuniting with family and meeting cousins that I used to play with at my grandparents’ house. Instead those cousins on my father’s side in particular seemed more interested in us for what we had brought for them; otherwise they had no use for us. My vision of what it would be like to reunite with my cousins didn’t turn out as I hoped. The memories I had held on to during my nine years of cousin-free existence was something only my siblings shared; our cousins had had each other all those years so they didn’t feel our absence as much as we felt theirs.

This is the hardest part of being raised abroad—missing the opportunities to connect with your extended family. In a perfect world every family who leaves their home country would have the opportunity to go home and visit family annually, which would make those familial bonds much tighter. But the reality of life in diaspora (for our family anyway) was finding money for much more than rent, supporting family back home, taking care of your immediate family and all that entails meant that visits back home were not as frequent as we would have liked. I started visiting Nigeria more frequently once I found the means to pay for the plane ticket.

But so much has changed in the last five or so years due to advances in technology. Now thanks to the internet I can build relationships with cousins on Viber, Whatsapp, and Facebook. I can have face-to-face conversations (via Skype) with cousins I may not have seen in years. I can send text messages to cousins just to say hello. It’s wonderful.

Thanks to my parents’ sacrifices I know that even if I end up living in Canada for the rest of my life, my children and my siblings’ children will have the opportunity to know their Nigeria-based cousins in a way my siblings and I couldn’t when we were younger, and God-willing, my siblings and I will have the means to not only visit Nigeria more often than we were able to when we were younger, but also support our parents so they can one day choose to live there part-time, and enjoy once again that closeness they had with their siblings because that’s the other side of the coin: they gave up regular interactions with the families they were born into in order to build this new family far from home.

It’s not easy.

Do you have a story similar to mine or does your extended family live close to each other?

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8 thoughts on “Staying close to relatives who are far away

  1. I have some extended family in North America – mostly on my dad’s side – so of course, see them much more. At the same time, however, we tend not to see my maternal relatives much when we go to Asia. I’m wondering if it’s the whole closeness factor – the maternal relatives I have in Hong Kong are my grandmother’s half-siblings, their children and grandchildren. The half siblings’ mom is a “sister wife” of my biological great-grandmother (men were allowed to have several wives back then) and my grandmother is a daughter of the FIRST WIFE. They are also several years younger than my grandmother, so age probably played a role in the closeness factor as well.

    To tell you the truth, I’m pretty neutral about keeping in touch with them. I’m close-ish, but not too close to my paternal cousins anyway (as in we email each other once in a while and have each other on Facebook (of those who ARE on FB).

    • It’s possible that it’s the fact that I live so far from my extended family is what makes me want to be close to them.

      Certainly a situation like on your mom’s side with polygamy would lead to you being closer one branch of the family than the other—many Nigerian families, including mine, have polygamy as an added element to the family tree.

  2. Awww, may your grandma RIP. I’m really sorry for your loss.

    We’re closer to my mum’s family. When I was still in Atlanta, we were close to her siblings and their kids (my cousins) that also live in the States. I wasn’t close to the extended family in Nigeria, save for my grandparents and one uncle and his wife. Even after I moved back, I was still (and have been) close to my grandparents and that uncle only, and haven’t really felt the need to build a relationship with the other family members. That makes me feel bad, typing it…

    My dad’s family is just my dad’s family. Not even he is close to his siblings, so…

    • Thank you, Berry. I appreciate that.

      You bring up a great point, Berry: it’s hard to get close to family members if your parents aren’t so close to them because they’re the ones who are responsible for bringing you in contact with them in the first place. Are you still in contact with your US-based cousins?

  3. May your Grandma rest in peace.
    It’s quite difficult to keep in touch with extende family and broad and requires a LOT of effort.. Just like Berry, I am closer to my mum’s family. Having recently moved back to Nigeria, I am getting reacquainted with the extended family especially from my Dad’s side.

    Sometimes though, you unfortunately discover that it is not actually always a good thing ‘reacquainting’ as they add no real value to you, rather you find some with ‘undesirable’ traits or who are out to see what they can get from you (sad) so the image of a ‘happy large family’ is not quite what it is..

    • Thank you Ayo!

      You’re right, and that’s a real challenge too: reuniting with family, thinking everything’s going to be great since you have the same blood flowing through your veins, only to realize that maybe it’s better to keep a bit of a distance.

      (Also, remember when I said I didn’t realize you were back in Nigeria? That’s because I hadn’t seen this comment when you originally posted it!)

  4. I have extended family both in the states and Nigeria. My family in the states we only become close when there a special event, other than that we still are distant bc we live on opposite ends. It took a trip to Naija to connect with my family there. But thanks to social media and such, I was already familiar with some of them. I current keep in contact with an older cousin, the rest we speak every now and then. Unfortunately, I have to keep my distance from some bc they consistently asking me to send them something.

    • Hi Ere! Your comment is a reminder that you can live in the same country as your family members but still be far enough away from one another that you don’t see each other too often.

      And I can definitely relate to family asking for things: as long as I feel like there’s more to our relationship than this desire for things, then it’s ok, but then again the bible does say “ask and it shall be given unto you” so maybe they have the right idea!

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