"Grandma, why do you hate Grandpa?" I was 10 years old and nestled in my grandmother's bosom. She peered down at me, a frown burrowed in her brow. "What are you talking about?" She asked. "I love your grandfather!" This was news to me. Ever since I was a little girl, my grandparents bickering had been the background music to every family gathering, holiday, and meal. Is it normal for grandparents to fight? In my household it sure was! They squabbled over who was cooking what, which chair was their domain, even the appropriate temperature at which to serve afternoon tea. As a child, It had never occurred to me that their constant back and forth could be a manifestation of their love, a product of their time spent together. To me, it was just noise.
My grandparents have been a strong and stable part of my upbringing — an extreme blessing, which I admit that I have, at times, taken for granted. When I was born, my grandparents moved to be closer to me: They crossed an entire ocean and continent lines, from London to New York City. They were my first caregivers and confidants. As the firstborn child of two working parents, it was my grandfather's proud face I'd see waiting to pick me up each day after school. He'd bring me to his apartment a couple blocks away, where my grandmother would feed me fresh watermelon and read me storybooks, all the while playing with my hair. As they waited for my mother to leave the office, they'd argue over who got to drop me off at home, who was cooking dinner, who would take me to the playground the next afternoon. Even as an adolescent, their bickering was a sweet sonnet to my ears — a sign that I was home.
But as I grew older, their banter began to sound less like bickering and more like plain ol' fighting. Although I had been raised bilingual — speaking my family's native tongue of Farsi, along with English — it was only after several years of lessons with a tutor that I was able to really pick up the contemporary nuances of the ancient language. Suddenly gibberish turned into inside jokes, and weird colloquialisms turned out to be forbidden curse words. Access to my family's vocabulary opened up an entire world to me. Suddenly, I found myself engaging heated debates at Sunday night dinners, instead of constantly playing catch up. But now, I also found that my grandparents' arguments sounded somewhat meaner and less playful. What was I missing? How could they constantly berate each other over something as completely insignificant as the temperature of the room, then split a box of macaroons and watch 60 Minutes?
When I brought this point of contention up to my grandmother, she dismissed the notion entirely. My grandparents had been together for much longer than I'd been alive, she reminded me. Perhaps there was just too much context that I was missing. And she was right — it had never occurred to me to ask, instead of accuse. So, I sat still and silent, and listened, as she told me her love story.
My grandmother was born to a Persian family living in a pre-apartheid India. When the nation split into two, her family returned to Iran and set up roots. Her father and my grandfather's father had been old family friends, and immediately reconnected upon their return. My grandfather, who is five years older than my grandmother, first found her hanging off of a tree that she was climbing in her family's backyard at the age of 12. He courted her for almost 10 years — they married when she turned 21, and he, 26.
When you've been on the other side of life and death with someone, that person becomes both your life, and your eventual death. There simply isn't time to hold back your feelings, or allow conflict to fester.
My grandparents, now 89 and 94, have been married for almost 70 years. Together, they've raised three children in two separate hemispheres. They have watched their country be torn apart; in fact, they fled they Iranian revolution of 1978 hand in hand. They restarted their lives with nothing, in London, England — a city where they knew few people, owned few possessions, and barely spoke the language. Then, decades later, they did it all over again in the United States, in order to be closer to their grandchildren. Over the past seven decades, they've survived so much — not only as partners, but as comrades. They've held each other through the unjust loss of friends, and the inexplicable loss of spectacles and pill cases.
So, what was my grandmother's reasoning for their constant quarreling? In a word: Love. According to my grandmother, when you've been on the other side of life and death with someone, that person becomes both your life, and your eventual death. There simply isn't time to hold back your feelings, or allow conflict to fester. When you're fleeing your homeland, with one hand on your heart and the other in your partner's palm, you lay it all out on the table. There's no room for tension-riddled silence. In fact, my grandmother says silence signals resentment.
So, in a sense, I was right: Bickering is just noise. But it had never occurred to me that even when my grandparents argue, they call each other, "joonie," which roughly translates to: my sweetness, my love. Their verbal jousting is an aria of affection, a reminder that above all, they remain honest and open with each other, even as they grow grumpy and old. It's pure, unequivocal love — the original love song.
About six months ago, at our regularly scheduled Sunday night dinner — a ritual I've been attending since I was a toddler — I had a conversation with my grandmother which echoed that of years prior. Now in my 20s and in the throes of my first real relationship, I am struggling to squabble, as my grandparents still do, without breaking into tears. Decades later, I had a new question in mind. "Grandma, do you love Grandpa?" I whispered quietly across the table. This time, she just laughed. "No, of course not," She looked me right in the eye, and adjusted her hearing aid. "I'm in love with your grandfather. And I have been ever since I was a girl." It was that simple. Loving him isn't a state she's in, or a way that she feels. It's who she is.
Now, when I hear my grandparents bicker over who walks faster during their daily strolls to Central Park, or who prepares a tastier khoresht, I just smile. What may sound like fighting to some sounds like music to my ears. I close my eyes tightly, and attempt to internalize my grandparents' song. I replay it over and over again, a tantalizing melody that gets stuck in my head. It's one that I hope to carry around with me long after they're gone, as a reminder that true love isn't silent: It's all the noise in the background.