(I originally wrote this essay in 2016 for my old newsletter here, and made it public in 2019 after she passed away so some people may have seen it before. I’m including it here to keep it all in one place. The pandemic, tragically, had a lot of “debate” about the value of elderly life. My grandmother was very sober about aging—”when it’s my time, it’s my time”, she always said. But her last decade into her nineties was full of love and life, and I’m grateful for having the chance to share it with her.)
In Memory of my Grandmother: "Educate Your Girls, Cherish Your Good Memories"
My beloved grandmother passed away last night, peacefully in her sleep. She had a stroke a few years ago and spent the last three years happy, but without being able to form significant new memories. … She was a remarkable woman, and changed so many lives besides mine. I will always hold her memory in my heart, and her example as one to live up to. -zeynep 5/5/2019
Lessons from my Grandmother: Educate Your Girls; Cherish Your Good Memories.
By Zeynep Tufekci written on 11/17/2016
I started writing this, my first newsletter, by my grandmother’s bedside, when I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey last week to visit her after she suffered from a stroke. She’s now 94, and she was born the very month the Republic of Turkey was declared, in 1923. Republic day (October 29th) is a national holiday in Turkey, as well as the day we celebrate my grandmother’s birthday since we don’t know the exact date.
This year feels like a turning point for both.
Turkey’s been in the news a lot lately. A bloody coup, barely averted. The state of journalism. Arrests. Internet shutdowns. Explosions. It’s also very difficult for me to truly follow and understand the news from Turkey in detail anymore—neither mass media nor social media seem reliable in conveying what’s truly going on.
I also cannot speak to my grandmother about her life stories anymore. The stroke in left temporal lobe has deeply affected her memory, and much is lost. She recognized me though, and immediately wanted to feed me—her deepest instinct, probably.
I told her that my forthcoming book—which includes parts of the story of her miraculous journey to get an education that I’m about to tell—was dedicated to her, and she was thrilled and emotional. She forgot about it in about five minutes. So I told her again, and she was just as thrilled and emotional. Then she forgot about it again, and I told her again. You got it: she was thrilled.
So we had a few days together last week, her asking me if I had enough to eat every five minutes, and me telling her that I dedicated my book to her every five minutes. It was difficult, and it was full of grief for me. But it was also joyful. She was not sad at all.
My grandmother repeatedly prayed in gratitude to three people in her life: Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, her elementary school teacher who made her education possible, and Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. I recounted her semi-miraculous story in my (forthcoming) book on networked social movements:
When my grandmother was about 13 years old and living in a small town near Mediterranean coast in Turkey, she won a scholarship to the most prestigious boarding school in Istanbul. Just two years earlier she had been told her formal education was over, after completing fifth grade. As far as her family was concerned, that was more than enough education for a girl. It was time for marriage, not geometry or history.
My grandmother didn’t know her exact birth date. Her mother had said she was born just as the grapes were being harvested and pressed into molasses in preparation for the upcoming winter, and just as word of the proclamation of the new Republic of Turkey reached her town. That would put her birthday in the fall of 1923, as the world struggled to emerge from the ruins of World War I. It was also a time of transition and change for Turkey, for her family, and for her. The new central government, born from the ashes of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, was intent on modernizing the country and emulating European systems. They made a push for spreading schools and standardized education. Teachers were appointed around the country, even to remote provinces. One of those teachers remembered a bright female pupil who had been yanked from school, and secretly entered her into a nation-wide scholarship exam to find and educate gifted girls.“And then, my name appeared in a newspaper,” my grandmother said. She told me the story often, tearing up each time.In a small miracle and a testament to the unsettled nature of the era, my grandmother’s teacher prevailed over her family, and she boarded a train to the faraway city of Istanbul to attend an elite school. [The teacher had also signed her documents, promising to pay all her educational costs were she to fail. In effect, the teacher had stepped up in lieu of a parent, at great financial risk to himself. My grandma’s family tried to prevent her from leaving, and her older brother almost blocked her path—an act he later apologized for many times. But the teacher persevered and succeeded—a dramatic act, changing someone’s life forever.]
My grandmother was joined by dozens of bright girls from around the country who had made similar, miraculous for the time, journeys. They all got a superb education. After she got her high school degree, my grandmother became a teacher: marrying a little too quickly as my grandfather pursued her aggressively, and she relented. She sometimes wondered what else she could have done. But she loved being an elementary school teacher.
My grandmother wasn’t just a great teacher in the formal classroom—her students always showed remarkable improvement in the years they had her—but she also basically became everyone’s teacher. She was the first person in her family to graduate from high school, let alone college. Practically every child, grandchild, nephew and niece after her ended up going to college and beyond, to a large degree because of her. She insisted that everyone go to school. She taught them how to navigate exams, how to pick majors, how to study, how to apply to schools and scholarships. When parents were reluctant to support their children in their education, my grandmother stepped in, using her authority as the elder of the family to overrule them. It was a delicious subversion of hierarchy—the youngest teaming up with the oldest to overrule the reluctant middle. If the parents wouldn’t pay for the children’s school, she would. If they needed a place to stay, she’d take them in.
This wasn’t limited to family. She informally “adopted” countless children—her own students, neighbors, distant relatives—and tutored them, guided them, paid for their tuition and school supplies. She convinced many parents to let girls continue on to high school or college.
When girls get married in Turkey, they are often gifted bracelets made of gold—to be used in emergencies or when savings are needed. My grandmother always said that education was the most important pair of “golden bracelets” that girls needed. “Get your golden bracelets” she would say all the girls she encountered, telling them that in a world dominated by men, women needed to make sure they could make a living if need be. To escape an abusive marriage. To support one’s own children. To deal with an illness. To be able to live a life on one’s own terms.
This is why educating girls is such strong leverage for social change: educated girls can grow into strong women who bring along and lead their families for generations, and can also shield and nurture their children and others as they can exercise choices. So my grandmother prayed to Ataturk and her teacher, the two people she believed made all this possible for her.
All three of her grandchildren moved abroad, something my grandmother greatly supported even as it caused her a lot of longing. She herself had worked for a telephone operator for a few years, and now the telephone became her most cherished possession, connecting her to us. She put her cellphone in a little pouch, and wore it as a necklace. In 2012, I had traveled to Kenya and visited some rural areas where I encountered elderly women with the same set-up: cell phones as necklaces. I asked one: “is this for your grandchildren?” She grinned. It was the same story: her grandchildren had migrated away searching a better life. She wanted them to go, but didn’t want to lose them. The telephone connected them.
After most phone conversations—which we had often, even as her memory failed—my grandmother would say, “May [Alexander Graham] Bell rest in peace. May he be accepted to the best corner of heaven. May his soul be blessed”, and so on. At first, she hadn’t wanted to talk on the phone much, thinking it was expensive. I finally convinced her how cheap it had become, and she took to it, chatting with me at length. She was enormously grateful, and she had a name to thank for all this: so Bell got all the blessings.
But we didn’t just talk on the phone, of course. In 2004, when I was finally graduating with my doctorate, I wanted to skip the ceremony—I had skipped every graduation ceremony before that. One friend said “this one is not for you; it’s for everyone who helped you along the way.” The phrase struck me hard it was the truest thing I had heard. I arranged for her to attend my dissertation defense as well as the graduation. I was nervous that it would be hard for her. I met her at the plane’s gate. She walked out of the jet bridge, chatting—somehow, in her broken English—with the cabin crew. She had apparently invited all of them to dinner. After educating people, she most loved feeding them.
By the time a Ph.D. student is allowed to defend, it is mostly understood that she should be able to pass, but the “oral examination” part is not just a rubber-stamp. It is a multiple- hour process in which the committee members grill the student. My defense was also scheduled right at lunch time. I didn’t really need to read the research to know that leaving your interrogators hungry was not the best idea.
My grandmother, now staying with me in the United States, had been itching to be useful. I asked her to cook some Turkish finger-food for my committee to eat during the defense. Not only would they not be hungry as they listened to my presentation of my dissertation, they would be eating afterwards. More chewing, less questioning.
So my grandmother sat through my defense which lasted maybe three hours or so, the many types of food she cooked on the table. She didn’t understand anything I was saying--she spoke only a few words of English. But she didn’t seem bored at all. A lot had happened along the way for her and for me to get here.
If it sounds like I’m drawing a picture of an ideal family—a lovely grandmother, a granddaughter who gets an education—the truth is far from it. It’s exactly because things went so wrong that my grandmother’s “golden bracelets” were so important.
My mother had been a non-functional alcoholic, and my father abandoned me and my brother to our alcoholic mother when we were young teens. Consequently, I was borderline to actual homeless throughout much of my teen years. It was a complicated crisis, and to allow my mother to have a house to live, my grandmother left hers to my mother, and moved into an assisted living facility. Hence, I could not live with my grandmother anymore, nor could I really live with my mother. It was a tough time, and grandma helped me immensely as I managed to ground myself, finding a job as a computer programmer and going on from there. Without her ability to help me and my brother through, we may never have made it out. My mother eventually died from her alcoholism. To great trauma to my grandmother, she was the one who found her daughter’s lifeless body. “I would not wish this upon the worst person in the world”, she said of her pain.
Addiction is a curse from hell, and I still have not fully grasped what happened. Neither has my grandmother. We just say she was ill with a fever we don’t understand. My mother struggled; she quit multiple times but always succumbed again. We watched her spiral down, and then we lost her. My mother saw me start my PhD, but didn’t make it to see me graduate.
My grandmother sat through my defense with an intense look on her face, beaming when anyone ate any of their food. I got asked fairly few questions, which I credit to her food.
After a defense, the standard procedure is to invite the doctoral candidate to step out and for the committee members to confer among each other whether she passed or not. The candidate is then invited back in, and the decision is announced. So I concluded my defense, the questioning ended, and we all stepped out.
The chair of my committee called us back, smiling, nodding approvingly. I smiled, too, and braced myself to accept the congratulations. He indeed said “congratulations”, but not to me. The whole committee turned to my grandmother, first congratulating her, and then standing up and applauding her. I was stunned: I had not set this up. I wish I could have been so smart and thoughtful to set it up. I had mentioned her story to a few people. To their credit, my committee had recognized the hero in the room. My grandmother, too, was stunned but she grasped that she was being recognized. Everyone went and hugged her as she wept.
For the rest of her life, my grandmother told this story to pretty much everyone she met. When I visited her at the assisted living facility for the next decade—where she loved living as it gave her independence—even the janitors would greet me as the granddaughter who had gone to the United States to get a doctorate, and whose committee had applauded my grandmother. She told this story to people she sat next to in the ferry; she told this to anyone who asked her about her life. I never tired of it; it was the only context in which being called a “doctor” meant something personal. I never use the title otherwise, except to joke in planes when they ask if there is a doctor on board. (“Not unless you need a literature review in aisle three.”)
I didn’t know what I would find last week, after her stroke. It was not as bad as I had feared, but she had clearly lost a lot of her stories. She appeared to have forgotten my grandfather’s death. She’d ask where he was, and we’d say “oh, soccer match”—as my grandfather would often go to soccer matches—and she’d say “oh, okay.” It was sad, but it felt merciful.
I wasn’t as ready, though, when she asked where my mother was, apparently also forgotten her death. “She’s out shopping”, I stuttered. “Oh, okay”, my grandmother said, unperturbed.
She had forgotten the worst event of her life.
We chatted mostly about lighthearted topics, since her past was mostly gone. We chatted about her room, and how she liked her pillows. She wanted one more to be able to sit upright better, so I got her one. True to form, she worried when I left to fetch a pillow. She was always fine with me globetrotting, but if I were visiting her, she didn’t want me out of her sight. It was her quirk. We chatted about my brother, even arranged a video call with him, to my grandmother’s delight.
I brought up the story of my doctoral dissertation defense. I expected she would have forgotten it, too—if my mother’s death was forgotten, I assumed everything else must be gone, too.
Do you remember, I said, how you traveled to my defense, and how you cooked food, and how everyone loved eating it, and how everyone stood up and applauded you.
“And how I cried”, she responded, mimicking tears falling down her face with her fingers. She smiled at me, and said it had been wonderful. There was no mistaking it, somehow, that memory had survived.
Her room at the assisted living facility was just as I had seen it for the past few decades: pictures of Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, adorned the walls. There were also lots of pictures of her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. I saw her cell phone in its necklace pouch, hanging on the wall.
I also found lots of notebooks in her room, and realized that she had been writing a lot notes to herself as her memory had gradually failed, long before the stroke. There would be a date and an entry “My son went on a trip to Italy; he will be back on Wednesday” it would say. I knew she wrote that so she wouldn’t worry if he didn’t call. She noted when my brother or I called or visited her. She also collected clippings of my articles or interviews with me.
I flipped through the pages of her notebooks and saw an entry that was repeated, again and again, with some variation. “Zeynep became a professor” one said. “Zeynep was promoted to a professor.” “Zeynep is in the United States and she is a professor.” So it went. It was on many pages. It was on loose pieces of paper. It seemed to infuse the room.
I looked at dates and pieced together what must have happened. I called her quite often, and it seemed like she often wrote this down to herself every time after we chatted on the phone. She had gotten an education—against all odds—and had leveraged it to make a life as best she could for everyone she loved, and that was her achievement in life. She wasn’t just proud of me; she was proud of herself. She had deserved that applause, and she knew she deserved it.
Her notes to herself made sense in of what had happened: she didn’t dwell on the tragedies, and she hadn’t reinforced the painful memories. Instead, she had focused on the positives: her own education, her grandchildren. After phone conversations, she wrote reminders to herself: things had turned out okay.
I left Istanbul, relieved she was not unhappy or in pain, but also with a deep sense of loss. For the past decade, she had been preparing me: telling me that she was content, and ready for whatever came next.
The republic that her life was so intertwined with, too, is now undergoing a transformation, and one that I am increasingly disconnected from. It’s not possible to avoid the sense of loss, both personal and political.
But there are lessons, too, also for both.
Educate the girls. Call your elderly loved ones. And write down your good memories.