I don’t think that my grandmother liked me very much. Although her namesake, I was always the forgotten grandchild; and if there was ever such a thing as an unwanted grandchild, I probably was one. The second youngest of six cousins, and the only child of her only son, I was the grandchild least involved in her life, and seemingly the least important.

When my grandfather died shortly after my birth, my grandmother moved from her farm and vineyard in rural New Jersey to Minnesota to be near her two daughters and their four children. Throughout my life, my interactions with my grandmother (other than the appropriate holiday and birthday cards) had been minimal. She used to visit us in Oregon every spring, although not to see me so much as the state itself, which she had always been fond of. When I was ten, she started getting sick and stopped coming to visit us. It was too much for her to handle, explained my aunts and father, although traveling around the country with her other five grandchildren never seemed out of the question.

My grandmother is loved and revered in my family. She is not only praised and respected by my aunts and cousins, but very nearly idolized. To this day I am told how much they adored my grandmother, and how much she taught them and shaped them as people. I understand that she was shaped early on by an extremely hard childhood. Her father abandoned his wife and two young daughters shortly after they immigrated to the United States from Hungary, and left the family destitute during the Great Depression. My grandmother helped support the family and worked as farmhand on a farm in Brewster, New York, where she and her mother and sister lived in poverty. The taciturn farm owner would later become her stepfather. At age fifteen she left and attended Cornell, working to put herself through school. She never reconciled with her father (and the rest of our family has never forgiven him), and her shame and tough times formed her in a way she could not recover from, even in later years. She maintained neurosis from her childhood all through her life.

I am told she was a hard worker, vastly intelligent, ahead of her time in her interest in education and women’s rights, and a great supporter of the arts. These are traits she passed on to the other women in our family. I, however, remember her most prominently as a cold and rigid woman, who valued above all else manners and grammar, and despised those who did not employ them properly. The only things she taught me were to respect authority unquestioningly, that “yeah” was absolutely never an acceptable reply, and that fingers were not an acceptable eating utensil, even for pizza.

Every time my parents would call my grandmother to let her know of some accomplishment of mine in school, she would counter it with one made by my younger cousin, as if we were in competition and I was not allowed to succeed. My dad suggested to me in later years this might have been because of a jealous rivalry my grandmother maintained with her own prettier, and more popular sister; but I certainly never felt like the prettier or popular child.

My most vivid memory of my grandmother is of a time she visited us in Oregon. I was showing her my seashell collection, which my ten-year-old self was very proud of. My grandmother insisted that I throw them away (they were “filthy” and “hazardous” with their sharp edges, she said), as I sobbed and pleaded with her desperately. “I’ll bring you beautiful seashells from my trip to Florida next month,” she promised. My father made me empty my seashells into a large black trash bag, which he hid until his mother was gone and then later returned to me. Weeks later, the promised Floridian seashells never came, but the photograph of her and my other cousins on the beach did. Thank you, Grandma.

Five years ago we traveled to New Jersey to attend her funeral. I felt guilty for being mildly excited to visit the East Coast (where I planned to move for college) for the first time. My cousins, aunts, father, and I gathered on the farm my grandparents had owned to spread my grandmother’s ashes. Everyone spoke fondly of their memories of the family farm, though the only time I had been there previously (for my grandfather’s funeral) I was merely months’ old, and therefore could not remember. We all looked hesitantly at the urn that held my grandmother’s remains, then slowly dipped our hands in. We let the ashes scatter on the ground, and my aunts and cousins sobbed fervently in a closed circle together. My father and I stood on the perimeter watching, glancing at each other uncomfortably with our dry eyes. My father walked over to his sisters. He lifted an arm to put around their shoulders, and then let it drop silently, as if he had thought better of it.

I looked down at my hands, covered in all that remained of this woman I would never really know as everyone else had. My aunt handed us wet-naps to wipe the last traces of my grandmother off our hands. I was struck by what an undignified and uncouth way that was to end your days—on a wet-nap in a trashcan in rural New Jersey. I don’t think she would have approved; but I don’t think she would have approved of having human remains on our hands, either.

At her funeral, my cousins wept and told their favorite memories of my grandmother, while I stood in silence; I still could not cry. I racked my brain for something to contribute, some story or sweet moment between us, though ultimately I could not find one. There, at her funeral, surrounded by her beloved children and grandchildren, I could think only of the seashells, and felt nothing.

Elizabeth Fennelly is a senior majoring in Photography. Originally from Portland, Oregon, she works primarily in analog and alternative process photography, as well as mixed media and text-based work.