Unconditional Love: The Most Important Lesson My Lola Taught Me

Abby Ricarte, designer at The New York Times
Abby Ricarte is a design leader who builds products at The New York Times. Photo courtesy of A. Ricarte.

Grandmothers often teach us some of life’s most powerful lessons, but loving ourselves unconditionally might be the biggest one. Abby Ricarte, designer at The New York Times, shares her story of “unconditional love.”

I think of when the emptiness started. When the full me became a shell. When the laughs became filler for a negative void. When the smiles became a courtesy.

I’m confident it was when my Lola died. Before that, I was full of hope. Afterward, I was full only of the pursuit of why.

 
My relationship with my business was complicated; it brought me joy but so much stress.
 

It’s been almost 10 years since she passed away. I was 22, right out of college and too focused on building an “empire” to care that anything other than myself was more important. I was manic. Manic about being a success, getting it right, throwing a metaphorical slap in my parents’ face (all the while operating a business in their basement). I didn’t understand money. I still don’t understand. I didn’t know what a full night’s sleep was. I took naps every day from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. because I knew I operated my best in the middle of the night, when it was quiet, when I had no daylight distractions. My relationship with my business was complicated; it brought me joy but so much stress. I guess that’s the case with all relationships.

My grandma would call me all the time, just to check up on me. Just to tell me about an episode of Oprah she had just seen, which was most likely the same episode I had just seen. It was also to see when our next Panera date would be. She loved Panera. Just a plain turkey sandwich with the “soft bread” because she couldn’t chew the hard, crusty stuff. She would also always get the peach tea. It would take us forever to walk from my car to Panera—she was so fragile, but her mind was right. She still had the ability to go on and on about people in her life, her past life, life in the Philippines. She had a calm nature about her as do most grandmas, I suppose. Whoever you were, she welcomed you into her life with open arms and wanted to know everything about you. The patience and understanding—the way she made me feel—loved and cared for, came across in every single softly-treaded encounter.

 
I knew she had gone through some serious things throughout her life—rape, ridicule, pain. And yet, she was full of love.
 

I don’t remember ever getting any birthday presents in my childhood from family, except from my grandma. And they weren’t even presents. They were cards. Always Hallmark cards because, as she used to say, “the commercial says they are the best.” Never anything written in addition to the stock passage inside the card. Just her name, signed “Love, Grandma New York.” But with that tiny bit, was her ability to recognize my humanity and existence.

Grandma New York is what we called her because I had grown up in California and it was too hard for me to say her real name, “Grandma Zanita,” as a child. New York is big, full of life, intricate and escapist—the greatest city in the world, the city that still consumes me in wonder; it’s only fitting that she had the same name.

I knew she had gone through some serious things throughout her life—rape, ridicule, pain. And yet, she was full of love.

The grandma/granddaughter relationship is a precious one—full of unconditional love. A love that is removed just enough to not get clouded with the realities of our character and life, of disciplining and molding. My parents raised me at a time when they had so much unresolved pain, particularly pain that transferred to me. This is probably why our love is so conditional. My grandma just loved me, open arms, no questions asked because she had no other job but that. And in the loving and acceptance, she inadvertently molded me. It was completely the antithesis of my parents’ love; the clashing of the types of love I would receive shaped me to become a woman who is still unsure how to accept or give love as if I only am wired to love wholeheartedly or with suspicion, no in-between.

Growing up, I was constantly told that I was lucky, that I was spoiled. As an adult, my grandma would tell me that I’m going to be rich. It was the sort of statement that made me take a closer look at the notion of deserving. I’m still grappling with that. I was raised to believe that my sheer existence was undeserving of anything. And my grandma always thought I was deserving of love, and of riches.

 
I regret so much during the last year of her life. I wish I’d spent more time with her.
 

She often called me to see how business was going and I frequently told her that I was busy. She asked when she could see me next and I told her that it would be tough.

Fast forward, I was in the hospital room where my grandma lay with tubes pumping oxygen into her. All I could hear was the beeping sound of the machine. Beep beep, beep beep. Her bed was surrounded by my uncle, my aunt and maybe some other folks, but my focus was on her. She didn’t look the same.

My aunt told me that they’d be ceasing to resuscitate. Beep beep, beep beep. And that I should say bye. Beep beep, beep beep.

I ran to the bathroom and cried. I cried during the eulogy, and I cried as I wrote this. I haven’t stopped mourning.

I regret so much during the last year of her life. I wish I’d spent more time with her. I wish I hadn’t been “too busy.” I didn’t deserve any bit of success that happened to that business after that. It just felt empty and not worth it at all.

I wonder what she’d think of me now. I just wish I had her guidance or for her to tell me a story.

Every time I see my partner’s 94-year-old grandma, I’m reminded of her. I try not to break down in tears every time Grandma Esta asks, “Abby, I don’t think I asked you this, but do you have a grandma?” To which I always reply, “No, no, both have passed.” She then always says, “So I’m your only grandma.”

There are people, places, things in my life that call for and bring forth the love that my Grandma New York used to bring. But on days when I am lost, which is too many as of late, I just want her here with me.